On Purim, some people wear costumes. Some people put on plays or shows. Almost everybody eats hamantaschen (triangle shaped cookies with filling inside). And yet, while these customs are widely observed, none of them are biblical commandments.
However, Jewish tradition today holds that there are four biblical commandments to be observed on Purim. Are they really commanded in the Bible?
It seems like a problem to say they are. The commandments of the Torah were given to Moses by God at Mount Sinai in a dramatic, miraculous way. It was obvious that these were God’s commands.
The Torah says nothing about Purim because the story of Esther did not happen until about a thousand years later. How could new commandments be given to the Jewish people so long after the revelation at Mount Sinai?
The Four Mitzvot of Purim
Here are the four mitzvot of Purim as observed in Judaism today:
1. Reading the Scroll of Esther (mikra megillah)
Similar to a Torah reading, one recites the book of Esther (called the megillah) with intonation from a parchment scroll. This is done twice: once in the evening, and then a second time on Purim morning.
2. Eating a Festive Meal (s’udat purim)
We eat a special meal on Purim afternoon, after the minchah prayers. This meal includes bread, meat, and wine—hamantaschen are completely optional.
3. Sending Gifts of Food (mishloach manot)
This entails assembling at least two different ready-to-eat foods, and then sending them (ideally through a messenger) to one or more recipients.
Unlike charity, mishloach manot it is given to everybody, rich or poor. It consists of treats and drinks, not gift cards, money, clothing or other necessities. And it is not given anonymously, because the whole point of it is to inspire friendship and warm feelings for one another.
4. Giving Charity to the Poor (matanot la’evyonim)
Matanot la’evyonim is a charitable gift of money (or food), and it must be given to needy people. This occurs on Purim morning immediately after the reading of the megillah. One should give a substantial amount of money to at least two poor people.
The Biblical Basis for the Mitzvot
Even though these commandments are beautiful and make rational sense, what elevates these customs to the level of a mitzvah?
The book of Esther narrates the enactment of this practice:
And Mordecai recorded these things and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, obliging them to keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year…that they should make them days of feasting [mishteh] and gladness, days for sending gifts of food [mishloach manot] to one another and gifts to the poor [matanot la’evyonim]. So the Jews accepted what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them. (Esther 9:20-23)
So we see that the practices themselves have a direct textual source.
Mordecai established the days as a mishteh, which is a feast; the term comes from the verbal root “to drink” and implies a meal where wine will be served.
The phrase “sending [gifts of] food to one another” suggests several points. The verb “send” rather than “give” denotes the use of a messenger. The Hebrew word for “food” here is plural, which means at least two, whereas “one another” is singular, implying as few as one recipient.
Since “gifts to the poor” is listed separately from sending food, it is clear that the two are not the same thing. “Poor” in this case is plural, meaning at least two recipients.
The reading of the megillah stands to reason, as it explains the basis for celebrating the day. After all, Mordecai recorded what happened and sent it in letters for the Jews to read. Additionally, Esther 9:28 expresses the ongoing obligation that the days be “remembered.” In Hebrew, this connotes memorializing through recitation.
This should satisfy us in terms of the validity of these mitzvot. Mordecai enacted them as a yearly practice, and the Jews accepted what Mordecai wrote. There is no way to question these mitzvot without questioning the biblical canon itself. But it still seems troubling.
You Shall Not Add
Put yourself in the sandals of a Jew in Persia at the time of Mordecai and Esther. No one would argue against doing these things. But mitzvot? Who says? After all, doesn’t the Torah say “You shall not add” (Deuteronomy 4:2, 12:32)?
And yet, the book of Esther is emphatic throughout chapter 9 about the obligation of this particular holiday, even though it never appeals to divine revelation in doing so. Instead, it relies on the leadership of Esther and Mordecai and the collective acceptance on the part of the Jewish people. Esther 9:31 compares it to the obligation of annual “fasts and lamenting”—that is, the cycle of mourning for the destruction of the Temple (Zechariah 8:19).
This teaches us about the Jewish legislative process. The Torah of Moses forms the basis of all Jewish practice, and one may certainly not add to it. Even so, Mordecai and Esther perceived that there is a right time, place, and procedure for godly leadership to enact customs, norms, and even mitzvot for the Jewish people to accept.
We can often see our Master Yeshua engaging in traditional practices in the Gospels. And while it doesn’t describe his observance of Purim, this is probably because it was not out of the ordinary. (Still, could you imagine getting a gift basket from the Messiah himself?)
Have a joyous Purim!