Megillat Esther: Story of the Holiday

In this resource, we will learn about Megillat Esther and the holiday of Purim. We will address the main themes that are found in Megillat Esther and reflected in the customs of the holiday, such as happiness, “Ve-Nahafokh Hu” (all upside down or topsy turvy), concealment and mutual responsibility.

Resource Ages: 6-8, 9-11

Source

The following text can also be found as a presentation.

Chapter 1

The Persian king Achashverosh, who lives in Shushan, holds a long, extravagant feast to show off his wealth.

It happened in the days of Achashverosh —that Achashverosh who reigned over a hundred and twenty-seven provinces […]  In those days, […] he gave a banquet for all the officials and courtiers […]  For a hundred and eighty days he displayed the vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty.

(Esther 1: 1–4)

The king calls for Queen Vashti to show off her beauty to the crowd, but she refuses. The king, following the advice he receives from his advisors, deposes the queen and then looks for a new queen to replace her.

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, הוּא אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ הַמֹּלֵךְ מֵהֹדּוּ וְעַד כּוּשׁ, שֶׁבַע וְעֶשְׂרִים וּמֵאָה מְדִינָה. 

בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם […] עָשָׂה מִשְׁתֶּה לְכָל שָׂרָיו וַעֲבָדָיו. […] בְּהַרְאֹתוֹ אֶת עֹשֶׁר כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ, וְאֶת יְקָר תִּפְאֶרֶת גְּדוּלָּתוֹ; יָמִים רַבִּים, שְׁמוֹנִים וּמְאַת יוֹם.

Read more

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How do the holidays bring beauty and order to our Jewish year?
  • How are symbols used in celebrations and holidays?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • Why is it important for people and cultures to construct narratives about their experience?
  • How can exploring the past impact our present?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How is the concept of change and transformation related to Purim and what can we learn from it?
  • Why is the story told in Megillat Esther still important to us today?
  • What can we learn from the main characters of the Megillah?
  • What lessons can we learn from the customs of Purim? What values do they demonstrate?

Background for Teacher

Megillat Esther, which is read on the holiday of Purim, is one of the five megillot in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Tanach. The Sages decreed that this Megillah should be read on the night of Purim and again on Purim morning. The...

Read more

Megillat Esther, which is read on the holiday of Purim, is one of the five megillot in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Tanach. The Sages decreed that this Megillah should be read on the night of Purim and again on Purim morning. The reading of the Megillah in the synagogue is accompanied by noisemakers, which are used to make a loud noise whenever Haman’s name is read, to drown out his name. 

There is no external historical source to confirm the story told in the Megillah. The description of King Achashverosh  matches that of King Xerxes I, who ruled the Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C.E. Researchers disagree on when the events of the Megillah occurred. Research dates the writing of the Megillah to the 2nd–4th centuries B.C.E.

The plot of Megillat Esther begins with King Achashverosh, a Persian king with a powerful empire and an extravagant palace in the capital city of Shushan. The king presents his wealth to the people at an extravagant feast. Over the course of the feast, an event occurs that completely changes the situation. Despite the king’s order, Queen Vashti refuses to come before the king and present her beauty to the assembled crowd. The king deposes Vashti and decides to search for a new queen to replace her. The plot moves on to a story of a young Jewish woman, an orphan named Esther, who is under the guardianship of her cousin Mordechai. Esther is taken against her will to the king’s palace and chosen to be the new queen. As instructed by Mordechai, she hides her Jewish identity. At the same time, an important minister to the king, Haman, notices that Mordechai refuses to bow down to him, like all the other citizens do. Haman discovers that Mordechai is a Jew and decides to destroy the Jewish people. Haman receives the king’s approval and sends a letter throughout the kingdom to announce the planned killing of the Jews. With Mordechai’s encouragement and assistance, Esther acts to save the Jewish people and, as a first step, comes to speak with the king. Since she is not authorized to just come in and speak with the king, she prepares spiritually for the task by fasting for three days and asks the Jews of Shushan to fast with her. Then, she presents an unusual request to King Achashverosh , asking him to come, together with Haman, to a feast and then to a second feast, at which she reveals her origins and Haman’s plan to exterminate her people. At this point, there are a number of twists in the plot. Haman finds himself fallen from his previous position of honor and is eventually hung, Mordechai’s position is raised and he gets Haman’s old job, and the Jews fight against those who had come to kill them and are victorious.

There are a number of themes in the Megillah that form the character of the holiday. These include feasting and joy; the different transformations in the plot and the changes in the positions of the characters (e.g., the destruction of the Jews is transformed into victory, Esther’s role changes from passive to active, etc.); the concealment of identity or intentions and hidden actors who act behind the scenes; and mutual responsibility. These themes are reflected in the customs of the holiday, specifically, the joy of the holiday, costumes, and the gifts given to the poor.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study

Give the students copies of the worksheet with illustrations and ask them to use a pencil to circle the pictures that are connected to the Purim story. (You can make your own worksheet with a different number of pictures, to suit the level of your students.) Then, have the students work in pairs and compare their answers. Ask them to think about whether there are any pictures that they didn’t circle that are actually related to the holiday, or any pictures that they did circle, but should not have. 

As a class, study the Purim story and, together with the students, discuss how all of the pictures are actually related to the Purim story.

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

After studying the Purim story (see Optional Hooks), discuss the issues that it raises:

  1. On Purim, we celebrate “Ve-Nahafokh Hu”, the transformations that occur in the Megillah. Name at least three transformations that occur in the plot of the Megillah or that are experienced by the characters in the story.
  2. Why do you think that we read Megillat Esther on Purim? What do we learn from it? 
  3. The Megillah mentions a large number of feasts. Why do you think people make big meals with food and drink? What other ways can people celebrate? What makes the Jews in the Megillah happy? What Purim customs are meant to encourage happiness? 
  4. Many Purim customs teach us about the importance of mutual responsibility, like giving gifts to the poor and mishloach manot. Where in the Megillah do we find examples of people taking care of each other? Why do you think that we observe these customs?

For older students: 

  1. What can the transformations in the Megillah teach us about our own lives? 
  2. How do you feel about the fact that sometimes in our lives things turn completely around? 
  3. What pushes Esther to hide her Jewish identity, besides the instructions she gets from Mordechai? What do you think about this? How does this affect the course of events and the fate of the Jews? Would it have been better if Esther had been open about her identity from the start? Explain.
  4.  What can we learn from Esther’s decision to go to the king even though it was dangerous for her to do so?
  • Give the students sheets of paper that each have one verse from a chapter in the Megillah, with different students getting verses from different chapters. Discuss what happens in each verse and each chapter and have the students draw pictures of the events that occurred in the chapter in which their verse appears. Then, attach all of the pages to each other, so that you can all see the whole story in pictures. Then, roll up the pages together like a Megillah. You can have the students work in pairs or individually.
  • Play a game about the characters in the Megillah (translate the hints for the students from the English or the Hebrew).

You can also learn about the customs of the holiday and the values that those customs represent in the resource “The Four Memim”.