The Biblical book of Esther is the main source of information about the cheerful Jewish holiday known as Purim. The author of the book is unknown, but researchers suggest he lived in Persia because he was familiar with customs and way of life in the region.The book was probably written in 460 BC, immediately following the events described in it and prior to the return of the scribe Ezra to Jerusalem. The earliest it was written is considered 350 BC, before the conquest of Persia (now Iran) by the troops of Alexander the Great in 331 BC.
Among the books of the Bible, Esther is unique in that there is no single explicit mention of God and the main character is a women. Also unusual is the setting of the royal courts of Persia instead of the Land of Israel. Historians and scholars are puzzled over the historical authenticity of the story and its characters, especially Esther’s cousin, Mordecai.
In the Vorderasiatische Museum of Berlin, a tablet with cuneiform text (a logo-syllabic script of the ancient Near East) is displayed dating from the last years of the reign of King Darius (522-486 BC) or perhaps the early years of Xerxes the First’s reign (486-465 BC). The tablet mentions a certain government official called Marduka. At the very least, this text may confirm the existence of a Persian official whose name was Marduka (Mordecai?) which agrees with The Book of Esther portrayal of Mordecai.
"When virgins were gathered together a second time, Mordecai sat within the king’s gate" (Esther 2:19).
At best, this mention of Mordecai is fragmentary and his character is still considered a conjecture rather than historical fact.
Persia (modern Iran) was first mentioned in Assyrian sources of the 9th century BC and reached its peak under the rule of the Achaemenid dynasty (559–330 BC) during the time period of the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. The Biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah were written around this time as well.
Virtually nothing is known about the early history of the Persian people, except that they, along with the Medes, were an Indo-European race who migrated to Mesopotamia from the north, about 1000 BC.
In the 7th century BC, the Medes became a decisive and united political power and dominated the Persians. In 612 BC, the Medes, in alliance with the Chaldeans and Persians, conquered ancient Nineveh, thereby ending the Assyrian Empire's existence.
Since the reign of King Cyrus the Great (559-530 BC), the influence of the Persians in this powerful bloc increased and dominated the region. Subsequently, the King expanded the boundaries of the empire, conquering the Middle Eastern political centers, including Babylon which was conquered on 10/12/539 (according to the historian, Herodotus).
Thanks to this very king and his famous decree (539 BC), the Jews were able to fulfill their dream and returned to Jerusalem and the land of their fathers.
"Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying,
‘Thus says Cyrus king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah. Who is among you of all His people? May the Lord his God be with him, and let him go up!’" (2 Chronicles 36: 22-23).
After the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses ascended the throne and conquered Egypt, but died without leaving an heir.
King Darius became the ruler of Persia and there are conflicting versions about how he came to power. One of the accounts says that while Cambyses was in Egypt, his brother revolted and seized power. On the return to Persia, Cambyses died and Darius was appointed commander-in-chief of his troops and subsequently suppressed the uprising then he became the king.
The second version of events and is more prosaic, simply that Darius himself was a usurper who killed the heir to the throne. However he became king, Judea became an autonomous province of the Persian Empire (a satrapy or a region ruled by a governor known as a satrap) during his reign.
Darius upheld the decree of Cyrus which allowed the reconstruction of Jerusalem's temple which was in ruins. Likely Darius was not a particularly religious person but realized that amiability towards his subject’s religious beliefs and the restoration of their holy site would strengthen his authority over them and earn their respect.
Complete domination over Greece and the defeat of the Persian troops was achieved by King Darius in the Battle of Marathon (490 BC). He was succeeded by Xerxes (also known as Ahasuerus) who is the ruler in the book of Esther,
"Now it came to pass in the days of Ahasuerus (this was the Ahasuerus who reigned over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces, from India to Ethiopia), in those days when King Ahasuerus sat on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the citadel, that in the third year of his reign he made a feast for all his officials and servants, the powers of Persia and Media, the nobles, and the princes of the provinces being before him,when he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the splendor of his excellent majesty for many days, one hundred and eighty days in all" (Esther 1:1-4).
According to the biblical book of Esther, Mordecai is credited with the deliverance of the Jews in Persia (modern day Iran) and from certain death that the evil nobleman, Haman, prepared for them,
"And Mordecai wrote these things and sent letters to all the Jews, near and far, who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, to establish among them that they should celebrate yearly the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar, as the days on which the Jews had rest from their enemies, as the month which was turned from sorrow to joy for them, and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, of sending presents to one another and gifts to the poor.
So the Jews accepted the custom which they had begun, as Mordecai had written to them, because Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to annihilate them, and had cast Pur (that is, the lot), to consume them and destroy them; but when Esther came before the king, he commanded by letter that this wicked plot which Haman had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows.
So they called these days Purim, after the name Pur. Therefore, because of all the words of this letter, what they had seen concerning this matter, and what had happened to them, the Jews established and imposed it upon themselves and their descendants and all who would join them, that without fail they should celebrate these two days every year,
According to the written instructions and according to the prescribed time, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city, that these days of Purim should not fail to be observed among the Jews, and that the memory of them should not perish among their descendants" (Esther 9:20-28).
The name of the holiday is derived from the word pur (from the ancient Akkadian word puru, which means lot). The Book of Esther tells us that evil Haman cast lots to appoint the month when the Jews were to be exterminated.
"In the first month, which is the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, they cast Pur (that is, the lot), before Haman to determine the day and the month, until it fell on the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar"
(Esther 3: 7).
From the 2nd century BC, the holiday was called the Day of Mordechai.
"And they ordained all with a common decree in no case to let that day pass without solemnity, but to celebrate the thirtieth day of the twelfth month, which in the Syrian tongue is called Adar, the day before Mardocheus' day” (II Maccabees 15:36).
According to the book of Esther, the Jews of Persia destroyed their enemies on the 12th and 13th of the Jewish month of Adar.
On the 14th, they celebrated in Susa (Shushan in Hebrew). The annihilation in the region continued for another day followed by the celebration of the victory on Adar 15.
"But the Jews who were at Shushan assembled together on the thirteenth day, as well as on the fourteenth; and on the fifteenth of the month they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness. Therefore the Jews of the villages who dwelt in the unwalled towns celebrated the fourteenth day of the month of Adar with gladness and feasting, as a holiday, and for sending presents to one another" (Esther 9:17–19).
Thereafter, the 15th of Adar is called Shushan (Susa) Purim and is celebrated in those cities of the Land of Israel, which, just like Susa, were surrounded by a wall in ancient times. According to Jewish tradition, Jerusalem and Tiberius were surrounded by a wall so these cities celebrate on 15th Adar. In all other cities, the feast occurs on 14th Adar.
Purim begins with the end of Esther's Fast. Working on this day allowed and the main part of the celebration is the public reading of the book of Esther. When the reader pronounces the name of Haman, those present become noisy and children shake rattles to express hatred and contempt for the villain.
Purim is a joyful holiday and it is customary to drink wine. It is said that one should drink until one “ceases to discern whether he utters curses to Haman or blessings to Mordechai”.
Some teachers of the law object to the literal interpretation of this instruction. On Purim, it is customary to bring each other parcels of sweets and pastries (משלוח מנות or mishloah manot).
"The days on which the Jews had rest from their enemies, as the month which was turned from sorrow to joy for them, and from mourning to a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and joy, of sending presents to one another and gifts to the poor"
For the holiday, special triangular pies with a sweet filling of poppy or jam are baked, called Haman's ears (in Hebrew אזני המן or Ozney Haman).
Purim is a carnival holiday and written works are read which parody religious literature, a tradition which dates back to the Middle Ages.
The most famous is Massehet Purim. Humerous carnival processions take place all over Israel on Purim, the oldest and most famous of them is called Adloyada, which means “until it ceases to distinguish”.