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Jewish communities around the world celebrate Purim as a holiday of feasting and gladness, gift-giving and tzedakah (charity), revelry and imbibing. It is one of the most popular Jewish holidays for families and children. The celebration of Purim is based on the story found in the biblical Book of Esther. A tractate of the Mishnah (and hence the Talmud) is devoted to it as well. Purim is a time when Jewish communities, like the community in the Book of Esther, become particularly aware of the fragility and even the danger of living in the Diaspora, as a people “scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples” (Esther 3:8).
The primary communal observance connected to Purim is the mitzvah (commandment) of reading the Book of Esther, called the Megillah (the scroll). It is supposed to be read in the synagogue with a minyan (quorum) present. The scroll is read twice, once in the evening after the Amidah (silent prayer) of Ma’ariv (the evening service) and once after the Torah service during Shaharit (the morning service). The Megillah is in the form of a parchment scroll, handwritten like a Torah. The Book of Esther has a special cantillation used only for that book, and the reading is preceded by three blessings.
During the reading, it is customary for the congregation to drown out the name of Haman by making noise, usually using a special noisemaker called a gragger, whenever the reader utters the villain’s name. Another custom is to read the verses listing the ten sons of Haman (found in chapter 9) in one breath. One theory regarding the significance of this practice says that it is done to symbolize how the brothers all died together, while a second theory suggests that we should not draw out the reading of the names so as not to gloat over their fate.
Traditionally, an additional Torah reading, in addition to the weekly reading, is inserted on the Sabbath preceding Purim. Called Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath of Remembrance), the additional reading is one of the four special parashiyyot (weekly Torah portions) leading up to Pesach (Passover). This excerpt from the Book of Deuteronomy (25:17-19) discusses the battle with Amalek. Jewish tradition views Amalek as the ancestor and in some ways the precursor of Haman. Both sought to annihilate the Jewish people, and both were thwarted in their plans.
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