The Story of Purim
On the festival of Purim, the scroll of theBook of Esther is read publicly
as a part of the holiday service. Megillat Esther, as it is known
in Hebrew, recounts the story of how Haman, the wicked Prime Minister
and close advisor to King Ahasveros of ancient Persia, hatched a plot
to destroy all the Jews of the kingdom, but was foiled by the brave efforts
of Ahasveros’ Jewish Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai.
Haman hated Mordechai because he did not bow before
him, in keeping with his Jewish faith. Haman resolved to have Mordechai
and all his people killed. He convinced the King that a foreign and disloyal
people lived within the kingdom and were a threat to the king’s
The trusting King signed the decree which Haman had
prepared, allowing the destruction of the Jews throughout the 127 provinces
of Ahasveros’ kingdom and the seizing of their wealth by whomever
wished to join with Haman in his plot. Haman cast lots—Purim
in Hebrew—to choose the day of destruction. For Mordechai he prepared
a special gallows.
As the Jews of Persia despaired and mourned their fate,
Esther learned of the evil decree from Mordechai. she approached Ahasveros,
though to do so without being sent for was to risk her life. Fortunately,
Esther so pleased the King that he offered to grant her any request. She
asked only that the King and Haman alone come to two banquets that she
would prepare for them.
When at last she exposed Haman’s plot as threatening
her own life and that of her people, the King ordered Haman hanged on
the very gallows that had been intended for Mordechai, and Mordechai was
elevated to Haman’s position. A decree was then issued which allowed
the Jews to defend themselves from their enemies. And many others, seeing
King Ahasveros’ esteem for Esther and Mordechai, came to the Jews’
The day that was to have seen their destruction resulted
instead in a great victory over those who hated the Jews. Ever since,
the fourteenth day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the day after the battle,
has been celebrated as the Festival of Purim, with parties and masquerades,
the sending of portions to neighbors and to the poor, and the retelling
of the story of Esther and Mordechai.
Legend has it that Haman was descended from Amalek,
the evil tribe that accosted the Hebrews in the desert after the Exodus
from Egypt, and which was to have been totally wiped out. So, even while
the story of Purim is retold and kept alive, we are instructed to “blot
out” the name of Haman from the earth. This task now falls chiefly
to the children, who with all kinds of noisemakers (greggers in
Yiddish, ra’ashanim in Hebrew) happily drown out the name
of Haman whenever it is spoken during the retelling of the story.
The Art of the Scroll
It is a tree of life to those who take hold of it, and happy
are those who support it. Its ways are pleasant ways, and all its paths
are peace. Long life is in its right hand, and in its left hand are riches
and honor. —Proverbs 3:16-18
We sing these words in Hebrew as the Torah is placed
back into the Ark after it has been read in the morning service. The Torah
is called a “Tree of Life;” in fact, the wood handles and
poles on which the Torah scroll is mounted are also referred to as etz
chaim (tree of life). Besides serving as a means for rolling the Torah,
these also keep people from touching the parchment.
The Hamesh Megillot (Five Scrolls) refers
to the five shortest books of Writings (Ketuvim): song of Songs,
Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther. In the Ashkenazic tradition,
the Megillot are read in the synagogue on the following days:
• Song of Songs (Shir HaShirim)
is read on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover
• Ruth is read on the festival of Shavuot
• Lamentations, a dirge on the destruction of Jerusalem and
the Temple, is read on Tisha B’Av —the Ninth of Av
• Ecclesiastes is recited on the intermediary Sabbath of Sukkot
• Esther is read as the central rite in the Purim festival
in both the evening and morning services
The Book of Esther is the only one of the five scrolls to the bear the
title Megillah as part of its traditional name, and outside of
Jerusalem, is the only one which must be written on parchment scroll and
be preceded by a special introductory blessing. In Jerusalem, the blessing
is said prior to the reading of all the scrolls (with the exception of
Lamentations), and all are read from a parchment scroll.
The calligraphy and illumination of the Book of Esther can be quite simple
or very detailed. It is not unusual to see a parchment with multiple colors
and extensive designs. The handles have been carved, painted, or done
in ivory, to give a few examples. In Sephardic tradition, the scroll is
kept in a hard case which can be carved wood, filigreed metal, etc.
There are of course many other writngs outside the
Biblical scriptures which originally were written on scrolls—the
typical form of storage of the written word in ancient times. They were
not necessarily mounted on handles nor kept in protective cases, so relatively
few have survived into modern times.
Traditional Hebrew Biblical transcription is performed by a scribe or
sofer (“so-fair”) according to strict rules governing
materials of pen, ink and parchment, calligraphic form and method. Not
only must the formation of each letter, word and paragraph follow a prescribed
form, the sofer must have the proper kavanah—intent and state-of-mind—while
working. One cannot simply copy Torah by rote—one must perceive
the meaning and the divine inspiration of the words as one works.
“The sofer (scribe) is the spiritual
ancestor of the sage. The act of writing down, of accounting and recounting
(sefirah) became the basis of religious knowledge. Tobe a scribe
requires knowing how to select, knowing what to make large and what to
reduce. A scribe who sees the lights within the letters, i.e., one who
ILLUMINATES the manuscript, must bridge the gap between the narrative
and the picture, between word and hieroglyph.” (Jewish Catalog,
1. Make a gregger or raashan (noisemaker.)
2. Make a model Purim Scroll (Megillah) and write or draw the
story of Purim.
3. Visit a museum or other display of old Purim greggers and megillot.
4. Have a Rabbi or scribe (sofer) show the group and actual Megillat
Esther or a Sefer Torah (scroll) close up. Compare a Torah
scroll with a scroll of Nevi’im (Prophets) if available.
5. Arrange for a Sofer or a Hebrew calligrapher to speak to the
group and show them his/her work.
6. Make greggers for shut-ins or nursing home residents.
7. Present a Purim shpiel (play) for other classes or nursing
8. Write a story, play or poem about “The Quietest Gregger”
or “The Noisiest Gregger” or another topic.
9. Have a group discussion or debate—see topics below.
Purim Discussion Topics:
What is the purpose of the gregger on Purim?
Why is Haman’s name to be “blotted out?” What does this
Why do we retell the story of Purim, if Haman’s name is to be erased?
Why must a story like the story of Purim be retold every year?
What makes someone a hero?
Who are the heroes in this story and why?
What qualities did Esther have that enabled her to help save her people?
What qualities did Mordechai have that enabled him to help save his people?
What do you think of what Vashti did? Was she treated fairly?
What do you think Esther would have done in her situation?
What would you have done?
What qualities must a leader of a country have?
How can he/she get all the information needed to effectively lead and
govern a country?
What qualities must an advisor to a leader have?
What important qualities did King Ahasveros have or lack?
What important qualities did Haman have or lack?
Why did Haman hate Mordechai?
Why did he hate all the Jews of Persia?
What made him an especially wicked person?
What does prejudice mean? What is discrimination?
Why is it such a harmful and dangerous trait or practice?
Can good people be prejudiced?
Are we always aware of prejudice in ourselves or others?
How can we avoid and work against prejudice?
What does Purim teach us about religious or ethnic prejudice?
Has history repeated the Purim story?
Relate the Holocaust and “ethnic cleansing” to the Purim story.
Related Topics: Scrolls
1. The story of Purim; the Book of Esther
2. The Torah Scroll
3. Accessories for “dressing” the Torah-cover, crowns, breastplate,
4. The Dead Sea Scrolls
5. The evolution of writing and books, from clay and stone tablets, to
papyrus, to parchment scrolls, to modern book form.
6. Scribal Arts; calligraphy and illumination
Study and Review Questions:
1. What is the Hebrew word for noisemaker?
2. What language is the word gregger?
3. What book tells the Purim story? In what form is it written?
4. What is the Hebrew word for scroll?
5. Where and when does the story of Purim take place? (Review various
details of the Purim story, as told in Megillat Esther.)