The Jewish festival of Purim
To explore the festival's themes and to think about what it means to speak out against something that is wrong.
by Caroline Donne
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
Date varies from year to year - please check the REonline Festivals Calendar.
- To explore the festival's themes.
- To think about what it means to speak out against something that is wrong.
The book of Esther in the Old Testament of the Bible tells the story of how Queen Esther saved Jewish people in Persia from annihilation on a day chosen by purim (drawing lots). She risked her life by pleading to the king (King Ahasuerus, who reigned from 486 to 465 BCE) after she discovered a plot by Haman, his chief minister, to kill the Jewish people. The story is remembered every year at the Jewish festival of Purim. Each time Haman is mentioned, special rattles called greggers (like football rattles) are whirled around, or home-made rattles are shaken, to drown out the sound of his name. Three-cornered poppy-seed cakes called hamantaschen (Haman’s ears) are made and eaten.
Preparation and materials
- If possible, contact your local RE Resource Centre and borrow a gregger. Or you can make your own (younger students may like to make theirs in advance and rattle them during the story). To make the gregger, take a piece of paper and draw two identical triangles with sides approximately 10 cm long. Cut them out and glue along the three edges of one of the triangles. Put approximately a teaspoonful of dried rice or lentils in the middle of the glued paper. Put the other triangle of paper on top and seal the glued edges. When dry, this will make a good rattle which can be shaken every time that Haman’s name is mentioned in the story. (The rattle is triangular in shape to resemble the shape of the traditional poppy-seed cakes which are eaten at Purim.) You will probably need to establish a clear stopping signal for this noisy activity and practise it a couple of times!
- You will also need a candle.
- Invite the students to imagine that a line is drawn down the middle of the room (point and show where the imaginary line might go). Now imagine that all the people on the left of the line had to leave the room and would never be seen again.
Explain that this is like the choice faced by Queen Esther in today’s story. She was Jewish, and she discovered a plan where, on a certain day, all her people would be taken away and killed. They would never be seen again. The plan was made by a man called Haman.
Every year at this time, Jewish people tell the story of Queen Esther and her bravery in trying to stop Haman carrying out the plan. Go on to say that each time the name of Haman is mentioned in the story, rattles are shaken and people boo and stamp their feet, to try and literally stamp or drown out the sound of the wicked man’s name.
Tell the following story (allowing time for a response after each mention of Haman’s name if your students are rattling!):
Esther lived a long, long time ago in Persia, which we now know as Iran. Esther was Jewish, and she was known for her beauty and her cleverness. But she was also an orphan and from a young age she had been looked after by a relative called Mordecai. He was a kind and wise man.
One day, the King of Persia went looking for a wife and Esther was chosen because of her great beauty and her cleverness. But Mordecai told her not to let the king know that she was Jewish because the Jews in Persia were refugees. They were not liked by the Persians because they kept themselves apart and followed their own customs, and would not worship the Persian gods.
Mordecai came with Esther to the king’s court and he was given an important job there. One day, he heard two people planning to kill the king. Mordecai told Esther and Esther warned the king. The two men were arrested and Mordecai’s name was written down in the great palace records to show that he had saved the king’s life.
Time went by and a chief minister was appointed in the palace. His name was Haman (shake rattles and stamp). Haman was given a very important position by the king. The king liked Haman and, before long, he commanded that people should bow down before Haman when they saw him! Most people did this...
Everyone, that is, except Mordecai. He wouldn’t bow down to Haman. This made Haman furious and he decided to get his own back on Mordecai and his people, the Jews. Haman went to the king and told him that the Jewish people would not obey the laws of the land and that they were troublemakers. ‘Therefore,’ Haman said, ‘since they disobey your majesty, they must be killed and their possessions taken from them.’
The king agreed and gave the order that on a certain day all Jewish people were to be rounded up and killed. Of course, Esther, being the queen, was at the king’s side when he gave the command. What was she to do? If she told the king that she was Jewish, then she would be killed. But, if she used her influence as queen, she could change the king’s mind and save her people. Perhaps her wise and kind guardian, Mordecai, would know what to do. So she sent a messenger to find him.
The messenger found Mordecai in the square outside the king’s gate. He was dressed in rags and with ashes on his head as a sign of sorrow at the king’s terrible order. This is the reply that he gave to Esther: ‘Who knows, but perhaps you have been given a royal position for just such a time as this?’
When Esther heard Mordecai’s message, she thought about it deeply. ‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘perhaps this is the reason why I have been made queen, so that I can save my people.’ And so she sent another message to Mordecai. It read, ‘Gather all the Jewish people together and tell them not to eat or drink for three days. I will do the same and after that I will go and speak to the king. And if I die, I die.’
Three days later, she put on her most beautiful robes and went to the king. When he saw her he welcomed her. ‘What do you want, Queen Esther?’ he asked.
‘I want you to come to a banquet tonight’, she said, ‘and I will tell you.’
That night a wonderful banquet was prepared. ‘Now tell me what it is you want,’ the king said to Esther while they were feasting.
‘If it pleases the king,’ Esther said, ‘come to another banquet tomorrow, and bring Haman with you.’
‘Indeed I will,’ said the king, who was really curious now about Esther’s request. When Haman heard about the invitation, he was delighted, thinking that he was going to be given an even more important job in the palace.
But on his way home, he saw Mordecai at the king’s gate. Mordecai showed no fear at the sight of Haman and this made Haman furious. He went home to his wife and friends. He couldn’t help boasting about his wealth, his many sons, the way that the king had favoured him and that he was the only one that Esther had invited to her special party for the king. ‘But all of this gives me no pleasure’, he said angrily, ‘when I see Mordecai sitting at the king’s gate.’
‘That’s easy,’ said Haman’s wife and friends. ‘Arrange for a tall gallows to be made and hang Mordecai on it. You can ask the king’s permission in the morning, and then you can go to Esther’s banquet.’
‘That’s a great plan,’ said Haman, with a wicked smile on his face, and he had the gallows built.
But that night the king could not sleep. He had the great palace records brought to him. There he read about the way Mordecai had saved his life long before, when Mordecai had discovered the plan to kill the king. ‘Has this man Mordecai been rewarded?’ asked the king.
‘Nothing has been done to reward him,’ said his servants.
The next morning when Haman entered the palace, the king said to him, ‘Find a royal robe that I have worn and a horse that I have ridden.’
‘Ah,’ thought Haman, ‘the king is going to reward me for my loyalty and good service.’
‘Then’, said the king, ‘go and give these rewards to Mordecai the Jew.’
‘Mordecai!’ Haman was furious, but he dared not disobey the king, so he took the robe and the horse and, with a furious look on his face, he gave them to Mordecai. Then Haman stormed back to the palace. ‘At least I have Esther’s banquet to look forward to,’ he thought.
At last it was time for the second great banquet and the king and Haman went to feast with Queen Esther. While they were eating, the king said to Esther, ‘Tell me, my love, what it is that you want from me. Whatever it is, I will give it to you, even if it is half my kingdom.’
Then Esther took a big breath and with great courage she said, ‘My lord, if I have pleased you, then give me my life and save the lives of my people, because we are going to be killed.’
‘Who is the man who has done this?’ Then Esther looked towards Haman, who had turned pale and begun to tremble. ‘My enemy, Haman,’ she said.
Then Haman got down on his knees and begged the queen for forgiveness, but it was too late. The king made another command and Haman was taken away to meet the same punishment that Haman had planned for Mordecai.
After that, there was great happiness among the Jewish people because they had been saved from death. From that time onwards, and today, Esther’s bravery is remembered at the festival of Purim.
Focus on the themes
Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, said that perhaps Queen Esther had become queen for ‘just such a time as this’ (Esther 4.14). In other words, occasionally a moment comes when we have a chance to do something important to change things.
Has anyone here ever felt that they could change things if they acted in a particular way? For example, choosing a right action when it was easier to do something wrong, or nothing at all; helping someone whom no one else would help; sticking up for someone whom no one else liked. How hard was it to make that decision? Did anyone help them to make the decision? Were they able to talk to anybody about the situation?
Time for reflection
Light the candle and invite the students to keep a time of quiet. Ask them to think about a situation when they could make a difference to the life of someone. Invite them to make this their prayer if they would like to.
God of all,
Sometimes it’s easier to stay quiet
and not speak up when we know something is wrong.
Thank you for brave people,
like Esther, who speak up to help others.
Give us courage to change the things that we know are wrong.