Purim: Basic Concepts And Laws
The Month of Adar
The Talmud (Ta'anis 29a) tells us that "Just as from when the month of Av
enters, we minimize our happiness, so too from when the month of Adar
enters, we increase our happiness." In Adar, the nation of Israel was saved
from annihilation. The Jewish people, who lived throughout the empire of
Achashverosh, were faced with certain death. Through a miraculous turn of
events, this threat was removed and the Jews were saved. There was
celebration everywhere. The Jews renewed their commitment to Torah. It was
a time of overwhelming happiness. Our souls experienced a redemption: the
Jews were threatened with death as a punishment for their sins, and because
they repented, they were saved. The Jews raised their commitment to G-d and
the Torah to new levels. It is for this spiritual redemption that we
celebrate throughout the entire month of Adar.
The Shabbos that precedes Purim is called Parshat Zachor. Zachor means to
remember and the maftir aliya (the last one of the seven people called to
the Torah) is read "Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, upon your
departure from Egypt... You shall erase the memory of Amalek from the
heavens, you shall not forget." The Sages tell us that "remember" means
orally and "You shall not forget" means at heart. In order to fulfill the
commandment, we read this passage from a Torah scroll, once every year, on
the Shabbos before Purim so that wiping out Amalek is adjacent to the
wiping out of Haman, a descendant of Amalek. Even though parshat Zachor is
a positive command bound to time which women are normally exempt from,
nonetheless women should try and make every effort to come to shul.
The Fast of Esther
The Fast of Esther is the day before Purim on the 13th of Adar. The fast is
observed in memory of the Fast observed by Mordechai and Esther and all of
Israel. It was on that same day that the enemies of the Jews had planned to
subjugate and destroy them. The fast is called by Esther's name because she
was the one to request the observance of a fast to Mordechai as it says,
"Go and gather all the Jews who are found in Shushan and fast over me, and
do not eat and do not drink three days, night and day; and I and my maidens
will also fast thus." (Esther 4:16). Don't worry, the fast we observe is
not for a three day period, nor is it on the same date. The original fast
was observed by Esther and the entire Jewish people on the 14th, 15th and
16th of Nissan, immediately after Mordechai was informed of Haman's decree
and of the letter of annihilation which Haman wrote on the 13th of Nissan.
We fast on the 13th of Adar in memory of the day of the mobilization for
war against the enemies.
On the 13th of Adar during Minchah (afternoon prayers), it is customary to
give three halves of the coin which is the basis of the local currency.
This money goes to the poor. The reason for the half-shekel is in memory of
the half-shekel that was given when the Temple still stood and whose
collection was announced on the first of Adar. In Israel, people generally
use three 1/2 shekel coins while in America, people generally use three
half dollars. In a place which has no coin designated as a half-shekel, it
is customary for the gabbaim (sexton) to bring three halves of silver coins
which are issued elsewhere, and to give these coins in exchange, to anyone
who makes his contribution in the coins available to him. After performing
the mitzvah, one gives the three half-shekels to the gabbaim so that others
may also be able to observe the custom properly. What does one do for other
members of the family, such as his wife and children? One gives the
half-shekel for each of the members of the household including, in the case
of a pregnant woman, for the unborn child. Others have the custom to pick
up the three coins as many times as one has children. The reason we use
three half-shekels is that the term trumah (contribution) is mentioned
three times in the Torah portion of Ki-Tissa, in the account of the mitzvah
of the half-shekel.
The Days of Purim
Purim can either fall on the 14th of Adar or the 15th of Adar, depending
upon where you live. The reason for this is because the Jews of Shushan
originally observed the festival on a different day than the Jews who lived
elsewhere. In the other provinces the Jews waged war on the 13th and
observed the 14th as a day of festivity and rejoicing. The Jews of Shushan
waged war during the 13th and 14th of the month and observed the 15th as a
day of festivity and rejoicing.
Therefore, Purim celebrated on the 14th of Adar is called Purim of the Open
Cities while Purim on the 15th of Adar is called Purim of the Walled
Cities. In our days, the only city that has the status of Shushan and
therefore celebrates Purim on the 15th is Jerusalem. In a number of other
places, the scroll of Esther is also read on the 15th of Adar because of a
doubt. In those communities, the essential observance of Purim is fixed for
the 14th of Adar (since this is when everyone reads the Megilah) and though
the reading of the Megilah is repeated on the 15th, the bracha which
precedes the Megilah reading is not recited.
The Observance of the Day
There are four mitzvot which on Purim: the reading of the Megilah,
festivity and rejoicing, the sending of gifts and gifts to the poor.
- Reading of the Megilah: One is required to read the Megilah both by day and
night. One may read the Megilah all night until dawn and from sunrise til
sunset. If one has read the megilah even before sunrise, but at least after
dawn, he has fulfilled his obligation to read the Megilah. Both men and
women are obligated to hear the Megilah.
- Feasting and Rejoicing: It is a mitzvah to have a sumptuous meal on Purim,
including meat dishes and wine. This feast must be held during the day.
When Purim is in on Erev Shabbos (the day preceding Shabbos) (as it is in
Jerusalem in 5758) one must begin his meal early in the afternoon before
Mincha (afternoon prayers) in order that one finish early enough so as to
have a good appetite for the Shabbos meal.
The miracle of Purim came through wine. Vashti's downfall and Haman's
downfall came through a wine feast! There is also a custom to drinking til
intoxication as our Sages tell us, "A person is obligated to drink on Purim
til he no longer knows the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed
is Modechai." If one fears that he may be harmed by excessive drinking of
wine or come to levity thereby or even forget the required brachot one is
required to make, drinking excessively is forbidden.
- Gifts for the Poor: One is required to give at least two gifts to two poor
people on Purim, in other words, one gift to each. Even a poor person who
subsists on charity is required to perform this mitzvah. This obligation
can be fulfilled through food or drink or even clothing. The gift should be
a sufficient gift to buy bread. The gifts to the poor are given during the
day, usually after the reading of the Megilah.
- Gifts to one another: One must give a gift which consists of two portions
to another person. Men and women are included in this mitzvah. The food
must consist of something edible or drinkable without further cooking or
preparation. One may send meat, fish. cooked pastry, wine and other
beverages. These gifts should be sent to as many people as one chooses but
they should be sufficient to convey regard for the recipient. If at all
possible, these gifts should be sent by messengers, rather than delivered
personally because the Megilah uses the word mishloach (sending).
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