This week is parshas Shekolim, and our thoughts
naturally turn to Purim. The following essay is about some of
the less amusing aspects of the period, and about the
preparations we make for Purim.
In many layers of Israeli society, and many non-religious
Jewish homes throughout the world, the character of Jewish
yomim tovim has been falsified to such a degree that
they are unrecognizable by Torah-loyal Jews.
The days of Tishrei, which are properly dedicated to
reflecting on one's sins, have been transformed by the
typical working man into inter-holiday rest breaks, solemnly
"celebrated" from the depths of a beach chair on the shores
of the Kinneret. Starting a full month before Chanukah, the
typical Israeli fulfills the mitzvah of the holiday every
night lemehadrin min hamehadrin -- by gorging himself
on jelly doughnuts. The seder night, so filled with
holiness, has become a sumptuous dinner party, with its main
feature the eating of delicious kneidlach. And Purim
night has become a raucous masquerade and block party.
Purim seems to be the most "privileged" of all Jewish
yomim tovim. It is scrupulously celebrated even by
those whose lifestyle is totally secular the rest of the
year. When Purim arrives they fulfill the posuk "and
many of the people of the land become Jewish" by suddenly
remembering that they too are in fact Jewish.
Many years ago I read about a rav in Egypt
who was on the way to the beis haknesses on Tisha B'Av
night when he chanced upon a Jew eating his supper in public.
The rav asked him how he dared eat on such a sorrowful night,
when the Beis Hamikdash was destroyed. This person answered:
"The Beis Hamikdash was destroyed more than two thousand
years ago; I see no reason to continue mourning for it."
The rav waited for Purim and then sent an emissary ordering
the rebellious Jew to appear before the beis din. When
he arrived, the rav told him that he had decided to put him
under arrest for the entire day of Purim. The Jew begged the
rav to cancel his decision, arguing that he must be free to
fulfill the mitzvos of Purim: to eat the Purim meal, to wear
a disguise, and of course to put his best efforts into
drinking "until he is not aware of the difference between
`cursed be Haman' and `blessed be Mordechai.' "
The rav answered: "Just a moment; the miracle of Purim
happened five hundred years before the destruction of the
Second Temple. Just because some two thousand five hundred
years ago there lived a Jew in Persia called Mordechai and a
non-Jew called Haman, is it necessary to celebrate the fact
anew each year? The posuk teaches us: `If I should
forget Yerushalayim' -- if you have forgotten the destruction
of Yerushalayim, then -- `let my right hand [yemini]
forget' -- you must also forget Mordechai ben Yair the
Yemini, of the tribe of Binyamin."
On the Shabbos before Purim a few years ago,
a young man at the beginning of his way to teshuvah
ate at our table. During the divrei Torah in the
course of the meal, I mentioned Haman's name. The guest
politely asked exactly who Haman was. I was astonished! How
could a man who had graduated from an Israeli high school ask
such a question? Even if he did not learn about Purim in
school, he must certainly have participated in Purim parties,
either at high school or during and after his military
His embarrassed answer was that although he most certainly
did take part in many such parties -- at every opportunity,
in fact -- to his dismay those parties never held any Jewish
content. They consisted of nothing but unruly behavior;
nothing in them was even remotely connected to Jewish
tradition. His elementary school years were spent outside
Israel in a non-Jewish school, and he never learned about
Jewish history under the rule of Achashverosh. During his
high school years in Israel no one bothered themselves with
"Purim fairy-tales." In this way, although he was now
twentyfour years old, possessed an Israeli high school
graduation certificate and had finished his military service,
he was still ignorant when it came to the halochos of
Purim. Except, that is, for the all- important "halocho" of
disguising oneself during Purim.
It is hard to conceive just how unfortunate those Jewish
children are who know nothing about the special splendor that
graces Purim. The only mitzvah they are careful to do is to
disguise themselves, which is not only not a mitzvah, but
even as a custom it is opposed by some poskim, who
even suggested annulling it (see the Ramo, Shulchan Oruch
Orach Chaim 696, the Knesses HaGedolah ibid., and
Purim is elevated by Chazal (in the
Tikunei Zohar) to be compared to Yom HaKippurim [Yom
HaKippurim is "Ki" -- like -- Purim]. The commentaries
have, however, had difficulty explaining the meaning of such
R' Kalonymos Shapira zt'l (in his work Esh
Kodesh, p. 30) explains that just as teshuvah and
fasting on Yom HaKippurim are obligatory because of Hashem's
command, so also being cheerful is obligatory on Purim even
for someone who is depressed. (One should note that this was
written in the Warsaw ghetto.) Just as the day of Yom
HaKippurim itself brings atonement, even though one may not
have done teshuvah (according to Rebbe in Yoma
85), so it is with Purim. Although one may not have fully
discharged his spiritual duty of being properly merry, still
the salvation and the happiness that Purim causes can
nevertheless take place.
Others have explained that one can receive a sublime
spiritual level from HaKodosh Boruch Hu through the
avoda of happiness on Purim, just as one can through
the avoda of fasting and afflicting one's soul during
Although we are not proficient in the hidden wisdom of the
Torah, nonetheless we know that just as one needs forty days
of preparation before Yom HaKippurim [starting from the first
day of Elul] so also one must prepare himself for Purim.
Preceding Purim are forty-two days of the Shovevim (an
acronym formed of the first letters of the weekly
parshiyos from Shemos until Mishpotim,
which are days especially suited to teshuvah for
certain types of sins) -- days for reciting special
tefillos and fasting. There are also leap years when
the preparation is even longer, consisting of fifty-six days
and lasting until parshas Tetzaveh.
It is cited in the name of Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev
zt'l that just as after one toils to prepare a garment
he gets pleasure from wearing it, so during the six weeks
before Adar (suggesting aderes, which means `garment'
in Hebrew) there come the days of Shovevim. These are days of
preparation for receiving the new garment -- a garment of
holiness. Therefore when Adar (the new garment) comes our
Let us now reflect on the essence of these sacred days and
the educational significance that lies behind them.
Megillas Esther quite clearly describes the lowliness man can
reach. A king who ruled over most of the world could sit
together with his ministers, advisors and sages, and waste
both days and nights in drinking and competing with each
other in inventing abominations. Some commentaries have noted
that the word mishteh is found twenty times in the
Megilla -- the same number of times that it is found in the
rest of the entire Tanach!
We are being taught here a trick of the yetzer:
initially it entices man to do permissible and even essential
acts, such as eating and drinking, and after one partakes of
these things the yetzer will draw him from one desire
to the next.
The Megilla recounts the progress of the drinking bout of
seven days, and all the fine linen, fine cotton, and "indigo
wool, gathered with flaxen and purple sashes, upon silver
reels and marble columns" and about the "couches of gold and
silver" on the floor of "alabaster and marble, of mother-
of<196>pearl and onyx" (Esther 1:5-6, translated by
Rabbi Y. Y. Reinman, C.I.S. Publishers, 1994).
The Vilna Gaon writes concerning these pesukim: "The
yetzer hora penetrates bit by bit. First, when the
yetzer is still weak, it makes us crave food and
drink. Later we crave expensive clothes (fine linen, fine
cotton, and indigo wool), and then costly beds and
bedspreads. The next stage is that we desire gold and silver,
and then pearls and precious stones. After reaching this
state a person wants even the floor to be made of precious
stones, since a person does not attain even half of his
cravings before he dies (Megillas Esther with the
Gra's commentary, Yeshivas Tiferes BeTalmud
publishing, 5751, second edition, pp. 262- 281).
We ourselves see that this ascent of the ladder of lusts does
not only happen gradually; surprisingly, one can reach the
top rung in a very short period of time. We have often seen
families who were originally content if they had bread to
eat, but later when their livelihood improved they start
dressing up (fine linen, fine cotton, and indigo wool . . .).
Later comes the time to remodel their home (marble columns),
which in turn simply "forces" them to change their furniture
(couches of gold and silver). Naturally, after that the
floors do not match the sparkling appearance of the entire
apartment, and they too must be replaced (a terrace of
alabaster and marble, of mother-of-pearl and onyx).
This reality, that a person is never satisfied with what he
has, even if he has attained an abundance of wealth, is
highlighted in the Megilla by the behavior of Haman the
rosho. Haman reached a notable position in
Achashverosh's kingdom, where "all of the king's slaves . . .
were kneeling and bowing to Haman" (3:2). He was exceedingly
proud of his power and recounted to Zeresh, his wife, and all
his acquaintances "his glorious wealth . . . and that the
king had elevated him and raised him above all the ministers
. . ." He went on to tell them that only he was invited to a
party along with Esther and the King, "and tomorrow too I am
invited by her with the King . . ." (5:11- 12).
But how does he feel after all this honor? Is he satisfied?
Are all his desires fulfilled? No, absolutely not! He
declares to all: "And all this is worthless to me . . ."
(ibid., 13). Why is he so displeased? As long as there
is one person who does not bow to him, he is disgruntled,
Everyone knows Chazal's question: "Where is Haman mentioned
in the Torah?" (Chulin 139). The gemora
answers: Hamin ho'eitz [Did you eat from the tree
forbidden to you?] (Bereishis 3:11). Of course, the
plain meaning of the gemora's answer is difficult to
understand: what relevance does Odom and Chavah's eating from
the eitz hadaas have to Haman? It is true that the
letters used are similar [Haman -- Hamin], but what is
the lesson that Chazal wish to teach us?
Some explain that Chazal were simply amazed at Haman's
behavior. Although he had received such a great deal of honor
from people throughout the world, he still cried out in
pain, "And all this is worthless to me!" One trivial thing
was lacking to fulfill all his desires -- Mordechai HaYehudi
did not bow to him.
Chazal wondered where in the Torah we find a source for such
bewildering behavior. They answered that we find the same
behavior displayed in Odom and Chavah. The first two people
in the world had all the fruit in the world available to
them: "From all the trees in the garden you shall eat"
(ibid., 2:16), but still they only desired the single
fruit forbidden them.
We learn from them that man should not fool himself into
thinking that if his current whims are fulfilled the
yetzer will leave him alone. The yetzer will
never abstain from trying to catch him in its net; it will
constantly try afresh to tempt him with some new sort of
desire. Chazal therefore advise a person to know that he
should be satisfied with what he has right now and not aspire
to what he lacks.
If the leaders of the Zionist state ever
wanted to design a program for a holiday to commemorate our
salvation, they would most certainly appoint a sizable
"Celebration Committee" and allocate enormous funds towards
making the masses rejoice. It is to be assumed that the
committee would decide after many sessions of lengthy
deliberations to organize mass celebrations centered around
public entertainment stages. All these festivities would be
going on while noisemakers merrily sounded in the background.
By contrast, let us reflect on how much kedusha and
splendor the leaders of Mordechai's period poured into
Purim, which is Yom Kippurim.
As an introduction to our celebration, a day long fast was
decreed. This reflects the principle of, "Be joyous while
trembling (Tehillim 20:11)." At the conclusion of the
fast all Jews enter the shuls to listen to the story
of the Megilla, in order to "learn what this was and how it
had been caused" (4:5). They learn the reason for our
On Purim morning all men, women, and children go once again
to the synagogues to hear the story of the miracle that
occurred for us. But even then, the time for the Purim meal
has not yet arrived; there are still many other mitzvos to be
First we must check and assure that no poor person remains
without a Purim meal; only in that way can we have a true
Yiddishe simcha. Afterwards, to increase friendship
and brotherhood among our nation mishloach monos are
sent to all acquaintances and family. Now after each one of
us has a belly full of mitzvos and good deeds and is well
aware of the reason for all the gaiety, then and only then
can he sit down to a Purim meal and satisfy the
gashmiyusdike needs of his body.
During this meal we are commanded to drink "until we do not
know the difference between `cursed be Haman' and `blessed be
Mordechai'" (Megilla 7b). The Rambam (Megilla
2:15) writes: "One drinks wine until he is drunk and falls
asleep due to his drunkenness." The Meiri, writing more in
detail, cautions us: "Nevertheless we were not commanded to
become drunk to the point of lowering ourselves because of
the simcha. We were not commanded to make a
simcha of unruly conduct and foolish acts. It should
be a simcha of [true] enjoyment, through which we will
increase our love for Hashem and gratitude for all the
miracles He did for us."
In these times of distress we are promised that the days of
Purim will not depart from among the Jews. The Baal Shem Tov
explains: "The days of miracles will never disappear from the
Jews and will be actively remembered and done in every
May it be His will!
(An excerpt from Mereishis Hashanah VeAd Acharis
Rav Moshe Avidan is supervisor of Beis Yaakov Teachers'
Seminaries in Eretz Yisroel.