What are the 4 mitzvahs of Purim? It is customary to learn and review about a holiday 30 days before it begins. Purim 2021 begins Thursday evening, February 25 and continues through Friday evening, February 26. As the miraculous holiday of Purim is fast approaching, let’s go over some details. Not only does reviewing the ins and outs of the holiday keep us knowledgeable, it also can get you in the mood for the festivities.
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Being that the world is still going through the challenges that began in 2020, Purim may be a bit different than we have enjoyed it in years past. However, the most important parts of the holiday remain the same, and that is where our focus should be. By concentrating on the aspects that are truly the most significant, we each can experience a wonderful Purim.
Kabbalah explains that when a Jewish holiday occurs, it isn’t just an auspicious date on the calendar. Nor is it just a time of remembrance of our history. Rather, the actual spiritual power that was present at that time, comes down and is again present with us today. This is, in part, why we add the special prayer, Al HaNissim (For the Miracles), to our daily prayers and grace after meals on Purim.
Let’s take a closer look inside the prayer book. It says:
Al hanissim v’al hapurkan
V’al hagvurot V’al hat’shuot
V’al hanifla’ot she’asita la’avoteinu
Bayamim hahem bizman hazeh.
And (we thank You) for the miracles, for the redemption,
for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts,
and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors
in those days, at this time.
Miracles Before & During Purim
Before we jump into the 4 mitzvahs of Purim, let’s take a quick look at what got us here in the first place. The Babylonian King Nebuchadnetzar destroyed the Beit HaMikdash, the First Temple in Jerusalem, in 3338 (423BCE). His son Meradoch took over the throne, followed by his grandson, Balshezzar (Balthazar).
In his arrogance, Balshezzar drank from the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash, plundered by his grandfather. This is when the well-known “Writing on the Wall” occurred. The Jewish Prophet Daniel interpreted the divine message, explaining Balshezzar’s reign and the Babylonian Empire would end. They were soon defeated by the Persians, led by Darius.
Daniel is Appointed Top Minister
For the Jews, King Darius was a great improvement over the previous rulers. But, his officials were jealous of Daniel’s position. He was a pious man who prayed three times a day, facing Jerusalem. They convinced King Darius to enact a law that no one could pray for one month. Daniel continued to pray and as punishment, was thrown into the lion’s den. We learn in the Book of Daniel, he miraculously emerged unharmed.
Darius’ rule was short-lived and Cyrus the Great took his place at the throne in 3390. He allowed the Jews to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple, 52 years after its destruction.
Construction is Brought to a Halt
“By whom?,” you ask. I’ll give you a hint. Every year we read about him in the Megillah of Esther. It was none other than the anti-semitic Persian king Achashverosh, who ruled during the 14-year Purim saga in the city of Shushan.
In the Megillah, it says that King Achashverosh ruled over 127 lands. After doing away with Queen Vashti for her refusal to obey his command, the king held a beauty contest to find a new wife. Against her wishes, Esther is forced to participate and becomes queen. At the counsel of her wise cousin Mordechai, Esther keeps her Judaism a secret.
Meanwhile, the king’s evil advisor, Haman became infuriated with Mordechai for not bowing to him. Haman, with the king’s approval, plots to have the Jews killed. To save her people, Esther reveals her identity to the king, but it’s too late. Once Achashverosh makes a decree, it can’t be nullified. But, the king recalls that Mordechai once saved his life and decides to allow the Jews to defend themselves.
Mordechai and Esther Make a Plan
They gather all the Jews to fast and pray for three days. Hidden miracles abound throughout the Purim saga, and the Jews are saved. Each year since, we celebrate the miraculous events with four mitzvahs.
Breakdown of the 4 Mitzvahs of Purim
- Hear the Megillah by night and by day
- Send food gifts to friends
- Give a gift to the needy
- Celebrate with a feast
1. Hear the Megillah by night and by day.
It is important to hear every word of the Megillah, and it must be in person. Listening to a recording or over the phone may be good if you are studying before the holiday, but it does not satisfy the mitzvah requirement. In these particular times during the health challenges of covid, there will be outdoor readings available. And for those who can not go outside, home visits can be arranged to listen through a window.
2. Send food gifts to friends.
The mitzvah is to give Mishloach Manot (also called Shalach Manos), a gift of two ready-to-eat foods to one friend. Sending to two friends is said to be praiseworthy. When possible, it’s best to send it through a third person. Although all Jewish holidays begin in the evening, we wait until Purim day to do this mitzvah, so that we can do it after hearing the blessing of “Shehechiyanu” on the Megillah. When we listen to this blessing, in addition to the reading of the Megillah, we also keep in mind all the other mitzvahs of the day.
Haman tried to convince King Achashverosh that he should be concerned about the Jews, because as is written in the Megillah, the Jews were “scattered and divided amongst the nations,” yet they worked hard to maintain their Jewish customs. The mitzvah of Mishloach Manot is therefore done to show the unity and friendship amongst the Jewish people.
3. Give gifts to the needy.
Now it’s easier than ever to give tzedakah (charity) through an online charitable fund. Ask your local rabbi or rebbetzin, who will have something set up specifically for the mitzvah of Matanot Levyonim, or be able to guide you otherwise. The mitzva is to give tzedakah to two people.
4. Celebrate with a feast.
In remembrance of the victory against the evil Haman, Mordechai declared Purim to be an annual celebration, marked by a feast.
Enjoy this delicious Hamantaschen recipe!
Special Things Before Purim Begins
There are some significant things we do in preparation of the holiday. They include:
- The reading of Zachor
- The Fast of Esther – Her greatness and a role model for all
- Giving of a Half Shekel (Machatzit HaShekel)
Ask your local rabbi or rebbetzin for details.
Purim is known as the most joyous Jewish holiday of the year.
And, we can always add in joy, so now is the perfect time to prepare to do just that! Do the 4 mitzvahs of Purim. Bake some delicious Hamantaschen (recipe here) for your Mishloach Manot and make your arrangements to hear both readings of the Megillah. Even if your Purim party will be more intimate this year (perhaps you will be on your own), it can still be significant. Dress up and make a special meal! Most importantly, celebrate that we were not only saved more than 2000 years ago in Shushan, but we each made it through a very tough year. And, by uniting in friendship and charity, we will continue moving forward.