March 13-14: Purim
This lesser festival celebrating a Jewish triumph over the threat of extinction has gained importance in recent years
Would you give away a friend's secret to become more popular with others? Would you let your friends suffer to keep out of trouble yourself? What would you think of a person who gave up his or her old friends on becoming rich or even did them down?
Some people who become famous or powerful never forget their old friends.
That was the case with Esther, a Jewish woman who lived centuries ago in Persia (now Iran). When she was chosen by the King to be his wife, she did not forget her own people. The king's minister, Haman, hated Jews and plotted to exterminate all the Jews in Persia.
Prompted by her cousin Mordecai, Esther devised a plot to save her people - a scheme which worked, but could have gone wrong and made her husband hate her. The story is told in the Bible, in the book of Esther, and is read in synagogues at this time of year.
If the Jews had been able to live in peace in their own land, Purim might not now exist. But the threat of extermination (especially in Nazi Germany) has kept alive the idea of Purim. Its message for Jews is that God will preserve their people even if some are killed. On this day, they say, "If things are good, be joyful. If things are bad, they'll get better - so be joyful."
So they celebrate Purim as a time of feasting and send gifts to one another and to the poor. According to the Talmud (a body of Jewish teachings and traditions) a person should drink until unable to tell the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai". Opinion differs as to how drunk that is.
The story of Haman's evil and downfall is told in chapters 3-7 of the Old Testament Book of Esther. During its reading in synagogues, the congregation makes as much noise as possible at each mention of his name, with children booing and even twirling football rattles. This may be appropriate in some assemblies.
* A shortened retelling of the story is available in an earlier Dates for Assembly column (February 27, 2004) at www.tes.co.ukassembly
* Further information about the festival is available on the Judaism 101 website www.jewfaq.orgholiday9.htm