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  • Ari Sacher

A Different Purim This Year

Israel Update – Week of March 11, 2024

On March 24, Jews around the world celebrated the holiday of Purim. Purim commemorates a story that took place in Persia about 2500 years ago. The evil Haman, second only to Achashverosh (Xerxes), King of the Persian Empire, convinces the king to exterminate all the Jews in the entire Persian empire [Esther 1:1] “From India to Ethiopia.” Through a series of coincidences, Haman’s plot is foiled, he is hung, and the Jews live another day.


Purim is the classic Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, they were unsuccessful, let’s eat.” Purim is probably the most joyous day of the year. Children – and many adults – walk around in festive costumes. People spend the morning exchanging food baskets with their neighbors. The afternoon is spent at the “Se’udat Purim” – “Purim Feast” – in which there is further fun and festivity.

This year, Purim was very different. First and foremost, the massacre of October 7 is still fresh in everyone’s mind. Most people know someone who was killed either on that day or in the ensuing war. Most people have at least one immediate family member who was called up to an open-ended stint of emergency reserve duty. One hundred and thirty-four hostages are still being held prisoner in Gaza. No one is certain how they are fairing or if they are even still alive. (The IDF currently believes that thirty-four of the hostages are dead). Not too many people are in the mood for Purim.

And so this Purim was substantially different from all other Purims. The most notable difference was evident at the communal reading of the story of Purim in the Book of Esther. One custom that is always scrupulously observed is the “blotting out” of the name of Haman. Each time his name is read, which occurs no less than fifty-four times, the congregation engages in noise-making. The practice can be traced back to the Tosafists, the leading French and German rabbis of the 13th century. Noise is made in a number of ways. The most prevalent noise-maker is the “Grogger,” a cacophonous device most commonly made of wood (but available in plastic on the cheap from Ali Express). The second most prevalent way of blotting out Haman’s name is via the ubiquitous cap gun, which causes many people to associate the name “Haman” with the odor of burning gunpowder. This year, the Israel Defense Force (IDF), requested that children not shoot off cap guns on Purim, not in the synagogue and not in the public square due to the large number of soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The sound of an explosion – any explosion – returns these soldiers to places that they do not want to return. I came to synagogue prepared to silence those children who did not obey the IDF’s request, and to my surprise, there were none. It was the quietest reading of the Book of Esther I had ever experienced.

This Purim was the first Purim celebrated in Israel while a shooting war was going on. In 1991, the first Gulf War, a war in which thirty-nine SCUD-B guided missiles, each carrying half a ton of explosives, were fired on Israeli population centers, ended one day before Purim. I remember tearing the plastic sheets off of our windows, sheets that were meant to protect us against an Iraqi chemical weapon attack that never came. As I tore down the plastic and sunlight entered the room for the first time in nearly two months, a verse from the Book of Esther came to mind [Esther 8:16]: “The Jews had light and joy, and gladness and honor.” Yesterday, someone forgot to tell the Hezbollah that the Jews were celebrating Purim, and they sent a suicide drone into the Golan Heights. The picture of young children, all wearing costumes, lying on the ground with their hands protectively covering their heads will be forever seared in my memory.

It is said that every cloud has a silver lining, and this Purim was no different. The day before Purim is called the “Fast of Esther,” in commemoration of the request Queen Esther made to the Jewish People to fast before she approached King Achashverosh to plead for her life and the lives of her people [Esther 4:16]: “Go, assemble all the Jews who are present in [the Persian Capital city of] Shushan and fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days, day and night; also I and my maidens will fast in a like manner; then I will go to the king contrary to the law, and if I perish, I perish.” This year, because Purim fell on a Sunday, the Fast of Esther was moved back to Thursday. The Fast of Esther is usually a non-issue. Only the most orthodox Jews actually fast, and most Israelis don’t even know what the Fast of Esther even commemorates or when it falls.

At 5:30 PM, as the fast was ebbing away, thousands of people came to a communal prayer at the Western Wall (Kotel) to pray for the return of the hostages and for the safety of IDF soldiers. The prayer culminated with the reading of “Shema Yisrael" – “Hear, O Israel, G-d is our L-rd, G-d is One” – accompanied by shofar blowing. The prayer took place in the presence of the families of the hostages, who, led by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Kotel, read in unison the 22nd chapter of Psalms for the return of their loved ones. The Kotel Plaza was an amalgam of people. Ultra-orthodox standing shoulder to shoulder with non-religious (who were wearing head-covering as a sign of respect), soldiers and yeshiva students, the young and the old, men and women. The event was streamed live so that those, like myself, who could not make it to Jerusalem could still participate. The merging of so many Jews from so many backgrounds for one cause was truly an emotional experience. On October 6, less than half a year ago, Israel was a country on the verge of Civil War. This Purim, Israelis showed that we can rise above our differences to become something greater than ourselves.

Each Purim, I go to the house of Rabbi Cohen, our local rabbi, to hear some words of Torah. This year, the Rabbi quoted Haman’s words to the king when he tries to convince him of the benefits of exterminating the Jews [Esther 3:8]: “There is one nation, scattered and separate among the nations throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king's laws; it is of no use for the king to let them be.” My Rabbi explained: the Jewish People may be “scattered” and “separate,” we may be divided and cantankerous, but we will always remain, at our core, “one people.”

Good things,

Ari Sacher

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