Tomorrow evening, February 23rd, and in the Jewish calendar on the 14th of Adar, Purim begins. It is an incredibly joyful and even immoderately joyful holiday. Why are we cheering? Well, we celebrate Purim in memory of the history that supposedly took place in the Persian city of Susa. A wicked vizier, Haman, tried to bring about the extermination of the Jews, but because of the intercession of the Jewish Queen Esther with King Ahasuerus (some argue that King Xerxes ruled under this name in the 5th century BC), instead of the Jews Haman and his sons were sentenced to death. The name of the holiday comes from thepur, lot, because Haman in his intrigue supported his case by drawing lots, though the end of story underscores that all depends on the will of God and not on luck or chance.
This tale is told in the Biblical Book of Esther read from the Megillat Esther scroll in synagogues on Purim.
The congregation doesn’t maintain decorum during the reading, whistling, booing and making noise each time the name of Haman is mentioned, for “the name of the evil should be wiped out.” Children make noise with rattles and noisemakers. Imagine a masquerade at which one can dress up even as someone of the opposite gender, something strictly forbidden at other times! One may also — some say one should — drink until one is unable to distinguishthe noble Mordechai (Esther’s uncle) from the cad Haman. The sense of this custom is to express that God sometimes acts in ways unseen and insusceptible to rational explanation.
One may also make fun of authorities, something in which yeshiva students specialized, going from house to house and performing, in return for a meal, sketches in which characters from the Book of Esther would appear alongside the rabbis who ran the yeshivas. Such purimshpiln (Purim sketches) laid the groundwork for the development of Jewish theater in general.