June 16, 2024
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What’s the Proper Way to Celebrate Purim During a War?

Many sensitive people have been struggling with the precise balance to strike in Purim celebrations this year. On the one hand, there is clearly a mitzvah to celebrate this most joyous day of קבלת תורה שבעל פה. In fact, all of the מצוות היום point to the importance of משתה ושמחה on Purim. Yet, on the other hand, we cannot divert our attention from the imminent danger that so many of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, and beloved friends are in, as they fight for the Jewish people in Gaza (and other fronts). We also are constantly mindful of the parents of our chayalim, who have not had a peaceful night’s sleep in months and whose hearts skip a beat with every knock on their door. We also continue to mourn with the families who have lost relatives in this war. Balancing conflicting emotions and behaving in a way that properly honors the significance of the day, while not betraying the challenges of this moment in history, is a difficult task.

Many of the great rabbonim of our generation have already been consulted on this question. Of course, all agree that the מצוות היום must be performed properly, and that we should avoid extreme behaviors that are in poor taste, but the gray area in between is fairly significant. Ironically, it seems that the majority of Israeli rabbonim have been emphasizing the need to experience שמחה with a full heart, while many of the leading American rabbonim and gedolim have been emphasizing the importance of tempering our celebrations in light of the מצב. Upon reflection, these competing reactions are not surprising. In Israel, where fear and concern are the constant companion of the people, it is important to emphasize the need to celebrate. In America, and חוץ לארץ in general, where there is a tendency to slip back into our normal routines and patterns of thought and behavior, it is important to emphasize the need to be ever mindful of the continuing עת צרה. I am therefore not certain that the Israeli community should be seeking the guidance of American rabbis or vice versa, with regard to how to celebrate Purim this year.

I would like to be מעלה על שולחן מלכים the following suggestion in striking the appropriate balance. Perhaps, our עבודה this year should be to experience the most authentic and genuine Purim that we can. Let us take those elements of our normal Purim experience that are based on chazal and experience them in the fullest way possible. At the same time, there are many other practices that have crept into our Purim experience that are not at all based on chazal or Jewish tradition. For example, some consider Purim to be the “Jewish Halloween,” which is awful every year and especially wrong this year. All elements of Purim not based on chazal or Jewish tradition, some of which are benign and some of which are destructive even in normal years, should be de-emphasized and indeed abandoned.

While having this overall attitude and direction will lead a Jewish heart to make the right choices, and actual examples are probably unnecessary, I will offer some concrete suggestions to better illustrate the balance that I am referring to:

This is the year that תענית אסתר should be fully appreciated and experienced. תענית אסתר is a celebration of the כח התפילה. It should be a day that is full of sincere תפילה to Hashem, with the confidence that Hashem is שומע תפילה and is willing and able to bring a ישועה to klal Yisrael. The mood ought to be one of intensity and positivity, as we recall the track record for answered prayers in times of great distress for klal Yisrael.

Purim is a day of קבלת התורה. This year it is a long day, as we have already changed the clocks. It would be completely fitting for the spirit of the day if we were able to have an hour-long seder limud at some point during the day, beyond our regular learning (of daf yomi or shnayim mikra). In fact, the day before Purim this year is Shabbos, a day that we don’t work and we will not be weakened from fasting. We have many long hours on Shabbos afternoon. Those hours should not be wasted.

It is a universal expression of simcha to sing and to dance. Songs of praise to Hashem over the great miracle of the day and of emunah, sung in a festive manner, are totally appropriate. Dancing this year should be slower and more tame than usual.

Costumes should be done in good taste, bringing joy to all who see us, and not חס ושלום bringing consternation, anger or sadness to others, even those far away who may be forwarded a picture. In Eretz Yisroel many are dressing up for Purim this year as soldiers. In the United States, however, we ought not to do so, since we must be careful not to give anyone the impression, or the opportunity, to claim that we are war mongers.

Tefilah should be taken seriously on Purim, and that includes all of the normal כבוד התפילה we would expect in a shul. Nobody should daven to Hashem in a costume, nor should there be frivolity and levity during davening or מקרא מגילה.

There is a mitzvah to drink some wine at the Purim seuda. This mitzvah should be fulfilled at the seudah just as it is every year. However, there should be absolutely no drinking of hard alcohol, or other alcoholic beverages aside from wine, at any time, nor any consumption of alcohol outside of the context of the seudah.

Our seudos should be festive and leibidig, with song and divrei Torah. We should prepare Torah to say at our seudah, as well as interesting questions to share. We should eat meat, drink wine, sing songs of emunah and praise to Hashem, and share Torah, in the most festive and enjoyable way possible.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Purim is a day of לך כנוס כל היהודים, a day of combating the message of an עם מפוזר ומפורד. We should share the simcha by emphasizing מתנות לאביונים, prioritizing those who can most use a little extra love when distributing משלוח מנות, and more broadly concentrate on our love for every Jew.

May the זכות of a properly celebrated Purim bring about similar miracles in our time, and a גאולה שלמה that will allow for unfettered celebration in ירושלים הבנויה.

From Rav Hershel Schachter: “I have read, and agree with, what Rabbi Lebowitz wrote regarding how to properly observe Purim.”

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