Fast of Esther and Purim: Jews celebrate bravery and victory with jovial traditions

Child Purim dressed up

In Israel, a young person is dressed up for Purim. Photo courtesy of PxHere

(Purim begins at sunset) WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16: For many observant Jews, the dawn-to-dusk period on Wednesday is a time of self denial: It is the Fast of Esther, related to the story of Purim. Unlike other Jewish fasts, which typically last from sunset to sunset, today’s fast lasts only from sunrise to sunset—and for a joyful reason. While other fasts involve mournful remembrance, the Fast of Esther recalls a story of victory.

Here’s the story of today’s fast:

About 2,500 years ago, a beautiful young woman named Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia. When Esther became queen of Persia, she hid her true Jewish identity.

Queen Esther’s husband, King Ahasuerus—who did not know that his wife was Jewish—was swayed by an evil advisor (Haman), who wanted to rid Persia of all Jews. When Esther was informed of this tragic plan, she knew she had no other choice; Esther asked her fellow Jews to fast with her in hope of divine favor, and she courageously revealed her true religious identity to her husband. Queen Esther’s brave act could have resulted in her death, but King Ahasuerus was partial to his wife—and he spared the lives of all the Jews.

Today’s classification as a “minor fast” speaks of an event that has brought great inspiration to Jews for thousands of years. In the Middle Ages, for example, Jews who were forced to convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition looked to Queen Esther and drew strength from her bravery.

Haman's pockets, Purim

Hamantaschen, the traditional treat of Purim. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

PURIM: THE BOOK OF ESTHER AND G_D

The story of Purim is found in the pages of the book of Esther, in the Hebrew scriptures of the Bible. Many Jews still observe the Fast of Esther from dawn to dusk—and then, with the start of Purim at sundown, fruit-filled cookies are served, outrageous costumes are donned, plenty of wine is consumed and comical skits entertain audiences. In the synagogue, readings from the book of Esther evoke hissing, booing and stomping, as Jews “blot out” the name of the villainous Haman. Some Jews even write Haman’s name on the bottom of their shoes, so as to literally stomp on his name!

Did you know? The name of G_d is not mentioned in the book of Esther, and many Jews interpret this as indication that G_d works in ways that are not always apparent. On Purim, disguises and costumes serve as symbolism of G_d “hidden” behind the scenes.

The carnivals and masquerades of Purim are accompanied by the four primary obligations of the day: to listen to a public reading of the book of Esther in the evening and the morning; to send food gifts to friends; to give charity to the poor; and to partake in a festive meal. (Find interactive tools and more at Chabad.org.)

While traditional Purim costumes reflect the various roles in the story of Esther, Jewish organizations continue to make merry on this ancient holiday by including cultural themes that tie Purim with the 21st century: themes like Harry Potter, “Star Wars” and Marvel superheroes, for example, have gained popularity in recent years.

The signature treat for this holiday is Hamentaschen, or Haman’s pockets, which consists of sweet pastry filled with prunes or poppy seeds. FeedTheSpirit columnist Bobbie Lewis tells the story of baking these delicious triangular treats in her family—and provides her own recipe for these cookies.

WANT MORE?

An array of Purim recipes can be found at AllRecipes. Thirsty? Try making your own apricot-infused bourbon for Purim.

Western and Eastern Christians begin Lent on March 2 and March 7 in 2022

Man putting ashes on woman's forehead

Receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday. Photo by John Ragai, courtesy of Flickr

Western Christians Mark Ash Wednesday on March 2, 2022

In the Western church, Ash Wednesday is a day of repentance and prayer. During a liturgy marking the day, a church leader typically swipes the ashes into the shape of a cross on the recipient’s forehead. Rather than wash the ashes, recipients are supposed to let the ashes wear off throughout the remainder of the day as part of their spiritual reflections.

2022 update: Once again this year, many churches are offering alternatives to the typical Ash Wednesday services. Some are offering the application of ashes on the forehead via a cotton applicator, while others are offering DIY ashes. Check with your local congregation for details.

The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke detail the story of Jesus spending 40 days fasting in the desert, where he is repeatedly tempted by Satan; similarly, Lent marks 40 days—not counting Sundays.

Eastern Orthodox Christians Mark Clean Monday on March 7, 2022

Eastern Orthodox Christians start Great Lent on March 7, this year. “Clean Monday” is the start of the fasting period for Eastern Christians that prohibits meat, dairy and various other foods. Clean Monday—a public holiday in Greece—is commemorated with outdoor picnics, kite flying and shared family meals.

Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras): Christians mark ‘Fat Tuesday’ with tantalizing traditions

Stack of pancakes on plate with raspberries

In the United Kingdom, pancakes have been a part of Shrove Tuesday for so long that the day has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” Photo courtesy of fshoq! blog.

TUESDAY, MARCH 1: Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Pancake Day—all describe the massive celebration that takes place one day before the start of the Christian season of Lent, this year celebrated on March 1. So empty those cupboards and refrigerators and dine on in sweet paczkis, delicate crepes, spongy pancakes and even a King Cake, before beginning the fast that begins the Western Christian Lenten season.

Woman holding stack of three paczki donuts, Fat Tuesay

Paczkis are a popular treat on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. Photo by Kurman Communications, Inc., courtesy of Flickr

SHROVE TUESDAY, CARNE LEVARE & PANCAKES

For centuries, Christians have gathered their supply of sugar, butter, eggs and other rich foods on Fat Tuesday, cooking up an array of tempting treats and clearing the home of these foods in anticipation of Lenten fasting. In England, pancakes are topped with fruits and creams, cooking herbs and other savory flavors; in Poland and Lithuania, fried donuts and paczkis are more common. Swedes and Finns cook up semla pastries, and in the United States—well, any number of these treats can be seen on Fat Tuesday.

Did you know? In the UK and Ireland, the week prior to Ash Wednesday is known as “Shrovetide,” ending on Shrove Tuesday and always involving pancakes. Shrove Tuesday is derived from the word shrive, which means, “to confess.”

Originally, Fat Tuesday (or, in French, Mardi Gras) was known as “Shrove Tuesday,” which derived from shrive, meaning, “to confess.” Tradition has it that Christians not only clear indulgence from their systems in a physical way on Fat Tuesday, but also clear themselves on a spiritual level, too. Confession has long been common on the day before Ash Wednesday, so that Lent may begin with a “clear plate.”

Bread & faith: Find an array of bread-based recipes, along with stories of the deep connection between baking together and and sharing various faith traditions, in the book Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

The popular Carnival associated with Mardi Gras, primarily celebrated in Portuguese-, Spanish- and Italian-speaking countries, derives from carne levare, meaning “to take away flesh/meat.” Street processions abound in Brazil and Venice for Carnival.

PANCAKE RACES! In the United Kingdom, pancakes have been a part of Shrove Tuesday for so long that the day has all but been renamed “Pancake Day.” One of the longest-running pancake races has been held annually since 1445, in Olney at Buckinghamshire. One legend goes that a housewife was once so busy making pancakes that she lost track of time, and when she heard the church bells ringing, she ran out of the house still carrying her frying pan. (Despite a hiatus for the COVID pandemic, the world-famous race in Olney will resume this year, in 2022! Find more information here.)

Gluten-free? Find a roundup of gluten-free pancake recipes, along with making everything from blintzes to Swedish pancakes, at Gluten Free on a Shoestring.

FROM GUMBO AND JAMBALAYA TO SEMLA BUNS: INTERNATIONAL RECIPES

An array of recipes from around the world can bring all of the day’s tastes to your table!

Meatfare Sunday, Cheesefare Sunday: Orthodox Christians prepare for Great Lent

Meat dish on plate with vegetables

Photo by ahrimon19, courtesy of Pixabay

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 27 and SUNDAY, MARCH 6: Lent is quickly approaching for the world’s 2 billion Christians, and on February 27, Eastern Orthodox churches take the first steps toward their traditional Lenten fast with Meatfare Sunday (also referred to as the Sunday of the Last Judgment). After Meatfare Sunday, no meat may be consumed until Pascha (Easter).

One week later, Cheesefare Sunday will mark the discontinuation of partaking in dairy products until Pascha. For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent begins the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—this year, March 7.

MEATFARE SUNDAY (THE LAST JUDGMENT )

On Meatfare Sunday, or the Sunday of the Last Judgment, emphasis is placed on the Second Coming and Last Judgment—a time when Christ (in the Gospel of Matthew) refers to coming in glory with the angels to judge the living and the dead. While the opportunity exists, the faithful are encouraged to repent. The parable of the Last Judgment points out that Christ will judge on love: How well one has shared God’s love, and how deeply one has cared for others.

Looking to cook up a delicious meat dish today?  Find recipes at Allrecipes, Southern Living and Food Network.

Bowl of yogurt with raspberries

Photo courtesy of Pxhere

CHEESEFARE SUNDAY (AND FORGIVENESS)

Great Lent commences for Eastern Christians on the day following Cheesefare Sunday, on Clean Monday—but the faithful already are cleaning their slates today, by asking forgiveness and preparing to eliminate dairy from their diets until Pascha. (Dairy is permitted on Cheesefare Sunday, but not from the day following.) In the Orthodox church, this year, March 1 is Forgiveness Sunday (also known as Cheesefare Sunday).

On the search for dairy recipes? Find recipes from Eating Well, Food Network and Dairy Goodness, a recipe collection from the Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Throughout Great Lent and until Pascha (Easter), Eastern Christians will fast from meat and dairy products and only consume oil and wine on occasion.

Starting on the evening of Forgiveness Sunday, the Vespers of Forgiveness will signal the first liturgy of Great Lent; the service will end when attendees ask forgiveness from both fellow congregation members and the priest. If you have Orthodox friends and colleagues, this is a moving liturgy to attend, as the process of forgiveness often is deeply personal for the faithful.

Ayyam-i-Ha and Nineteen-Day Fast: Baha’is celebrate unity, prepare for New Year

Baha'i gardens

    Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 25: Baha’is begin a period of special, “outside of time” days to correct their annual calendar.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 2: Baha’is begin the 19-day month of Ala, which is a fasting month in preparation for the Baha’i New year.

AYYAM-I-HA (DAYS OF HA)

Sacred days “outside of time” begin for members of the Baha’i faith as the festival of Ayyam-i-Ha, or Intercalary Days, commences. Until sunset on March 1, Baha’is mark a break in their 19-month calendar: the “extra days” are used to bring awareness to God’s oneness, along with a focus on charity and unity.

Ayyam-i-Ha—literally, the Days of Ha—plays on a double meaning of “Ha”: Ha, the first letter of an Arabic pronoun commonly used to refer to God, is used as a symbol of the essence of God in Baha’i writings; the Arabic abjad system designates the letter Ha as having a numerical value of five, which has always been the maximum number of days allowed for the period of Ayyam-i-Ha.

Baha’u’llah designated that Ayyam-i-Ha should be filled with “good cheer” and “joy and exultation”—for Baha’is, their kindred and for recipients of the Baha’is’ charity.

Note: As of March 2015, the Baha’i calendar has reflected changes made by the Universal House of Justice: Naw-Ruz (New Year) now falls on the Vernal Equinox, as opposed to being fixed on the Gregorian March 21.

When the Bab began creating a calendar for the new Babi religion in the 1840s, intercalation (which is not practiced in Islam) was implemented to differentiate it from the existing Islamic calendar. When the Bab did not specify where the Intercalary Days should be inserted, Baha’u’llah—the one foretold of by the Bab—designated that they should be placed before the fasting month of Ala. Today, Baha’is still observe the Nineteen-Day Fast throughout the entire month of Ala. A New Year begins the day after Ala ends.

THE NINETEEN-DAY FAST

With the festive days of Ayyim-i-Ha behind, Baha’is enter the final month of the calendar year with the Nineteen-Day Fast. For the entire final month of the Baha’i calendar year—Ala, which lasts 19 days—Baha’is observe a sunrise-to-sunset fast. Many Baha’is regard the Nineteen-Day Fast as one of the greatest obligations of their faith.

Instituted by the Bab and revised by Baha’u’llah, the Nineteen-Day Fast is intended to bring a person closer to God. According to the Bab, the true purpose of the fast is to abstain from everything except divine love. Fasting guidelines, exemptions and more are in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah’s book of laws.

Vasant Panchami: Hindus and Sikhs celebrate ‘fifth day of spring’

Vasant Panchami Hindu

A celebration and decorations for Vasant Panchami. Photo by Adam Jones, courtesy of Flickr

SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 5: Welcome the approaching season of spring and don the color yellow, as Hindus and Sikhs in India and beyond celebrate the festival of Vasant Panchami (spellings vary).

Literally the fifth day of spring, Vasant Panchami honors Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of music, art, culture, learning and knowledge. Today begins the spring cycle that will end with Holi, the massive spring festival that is now celebrated internationally.

Did you know? Saraswati is often depicted seated on a white lotus, with four hands. The four hands symbolize the aspects of learning: manas (mind, sense), buddhi (intellect, reasoning), citta (imagination, creativity) and ahamkāra (self consciousness, ego).

For Sikhs, Vasant Panchami marks the day in Amritsar when musicians begin singing the Basant Raga, a practice that will continue until the first day of Vaisakh. In some regions of India, kites fill the sky, and the festival is better known as the Basant Festival of Kites.

VASANT PANCHAMI: HONORING SARASWATI, KNOWLEDGE AND SPRING

An ancient celebration stretching back thousands of years, Vasant Panchami reveres Kamadeva, the god of love, and his friend Vasant (the personification of spring). In modern times, however, rituals for the goddess Saraswati have taken precedence over Kamadeva. Hindus treat Vasant Panchami as Saraswati’s birthday, worshiping the goddess and filling her temples with food. Figures of Saraswati are often draped in yellow clothing, and as the deity is considered supreme in many types of knowledge, students ask for her blessings. It is traditional that children begin learning the alphabet or their first words on Vasant Panchami, believing it auspicious to do so. While donning yellow clothing, Hindus often make and distribute yellow foods and treats to neighbors, family and friends.

A log with a figure of the demoness Holika is placed in a public area on Vasant Panchami, and for 40 days, devotees will add twigs and sticks to form an enormous pile. The pyre is lit on Holi.

Remembering the ‘Four Chaplains’ who gave their lives

Black-and-white stamp of Four Immortal Chaplains

This U.S. postage stamp was issued in honor of the Four Immortal Chaplains in 1948. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

FEBRUARY 3 and on SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 6—Though Feb. 3 is officially Four Chaplains Day, events remembering the men usually take place on the Sunday nearest to that anniversary.

On Feb. 3, 1943, the converted luxury liner Dorchester was struck by a torpedo while crossing the North Atlantic; the ship sank within 20 minutes. Hundreds of U.S. troops and civilians were aboard the ship when it was struck, and as passengers were scurrying to lifeboats, four chaplains—the Rev. George Fox (Methodist), Rabbi Alexander Good (Jewish), the Rev. Clark Poling (Dutch Reformed) and Fr. John Washington (Roman Catholic)—spread out and began helping the wounded and panicked. Amid the chaos, the four chaplains were calmly offering prayers and encouraging words. When life jackets ran out, the chaplains already had given their own to others fleeing the ship. The four men joined arms and said prayers, singing hymns as they sank with the ship.

Ceremonies in honor of the courageous men emphasize “unity without uniformity,” a primary part of the mission of the Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation. The Chapel of the Four Chaplains was dedicated by President Harry S. Truman in 1951. In 1988, an act of Congress officially declared February 3 as an annual Four Chaplains Day.

A WINDOW AT THE PENTAGON

The four chaplains were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Distinguished Service Cross. In 1960, a Congressional Medal of Valor was created and presented to the chaplains’ next of kin. Stained glass windows of the men still exist in a number of chapels across the country—and at the Pentagon—and each year, American Legion posts nationwide continue to honor the Four Chaplains with memorial services. The Four Chaplains Memorial Foundation continues to honor those who exemplify the heroic traits of the Four Chaplains, promoting “unity without uniformity.”