Purim is the quintessential one liner of Jewish holidays -“they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” We are commanded four things on the holiday, to read Megillat Esther (The Book of Esther), to give charity, to give Mishloach Manot (goodie bags), and to have a Purim Seudah (festive meal). Megillat Esther addresses “they tried to kill us, we won” and the rest “let’s eat.” While the latter is more obvious, the story of Megillat Esther may be less well known.
In short, Megillat Esther is the story of King Ahashverosh and his wicked advisor Haman, who devises a plot to kill all the Jews. Meanwhile, the king quests to find a new queen and Esther (the Jewish heroine) rises to the throne, a plot to kill the King is overheard by Mordechai (Esther’s cousin) and reported to palace security, the Jews upon hearing that their fate has been given over to the sword engage in severe repentance, and a chain of drinking parties rounds it out. To top it off – we are commanded to not just read it, but to do so in a communal setting and hear every word – twice!
Typically, we hear the Megillah chanted by leaders in our community. Perhaps it is our clergy, perhaps some lay leaders, either way, they have to know a special trope (way of chanting) and be able to read it fluidly which is no easy task. We, as the congregants, are then advised to boo, hiss, stamp our feet, use noisemakers, and any other method possible to drown out the name of Haman every time it is read. Some also state that you should drink alcohol until you no longer can identify the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” or in general between good and evil. The congregation traditionally joins in the recitation of four verses of the Megillah, when Mordechai is introduced, parades before the king, and is made deputy to the king at the end of the story. This all puts a large emphasis on men and good vs evil, while being quite disruptive to the flow of the reading.
Where is the joy in all of it, what happened to that Queen Esther mentioned earlier, you might ask? Well, some people are working on shifting that! Women worldwide have begun waving Esther flags or ringing bells when her name is read to draw attention to the positive female component without disrupting the entire reading (which, don’t forget, we have to hear every word of). Those who engage in these rituals indicate that it is a chance to experience the story more completely by drawing attention to experiences of the women, while lessening the focus on good and evil.
There is one woman in my community who uses the bells. I will admit, when she distributed them last year, I didn’t get it. I needed more explanation. However, after reading some interesting blog posts and articles – I will ring my bell joyfully this year and invite you to join me, wherever you are.