Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays
on the Jewish calendar. It commemorates a time when the Jewish people
living in Persia were saved from extermination.
The story of Purim is told in the Biblical book
of Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish
woman living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if
she were his daughter. Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus,
King of Persia, to become part of his harem, and he loved her more
than his other women and made her queen. But the king did not know
that Esther was a Jew, because Mordecai told her not to reveal her
The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical
advisor to the king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to
bow down to Haman, so Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. In
a speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Haman told the king, “There
is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples
in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from
those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore
it does not profit the king to suffer them.” Esther
3:8. The king gave the fate of the Jewish people to Haman, to do
as he pleased to them. Haman planned to exterminate all of the Jews.
Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on
behalf of the Jewish people. This was a dangerous thing for Esther to
do, because anyone who came into the king's presence without being
summoned could be put to death, and she had not been summoned. Esther
fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went into the king. He
welcomed her. Later, she told him of Haman's plot against her people.
The Jewish people were saved, and Haman was hanged on the gallows
that had been prepared for Mordecai.
The book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only
book of the bible that does not contain the name of G-d.
In fact, it includes virtually no reference to G-d. Mordecai makes a
vague reference to the fact that the Jews will be saved by someone else,
if not by Esther, but that it the closest the book comes to mentioning
G-d. Thus, one important message that can be gained from the story is
that G-d often works in ways that are not apparent, in ways that appear
to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck.
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which is usually in March. The
14th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the
Jews. In leap years, when there are two
months of Adar, Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar, so
it is always one month before Passover.
In cities that were walled in the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated
on the 15th of the month, because the book of Esther says that in
Shushan (a walled city), deliverance from the massacre was not
complete until the next day.
The word “Purim” means “lots”
and refers to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for the
The Purim holiday is preceded by a minor fast, the Fast of Esther, which
commemorates Esther's three days of fasting in preparation for her
meeting with the king.
The primary commandment related to Purim is to
hear the reading of the book of
Esther. The book of Esther is
commonly known as the Megillah, which means scroll. Although there
are five books of Jewish scripture that are properly referred to as
megillahs (Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of
Songs, and Lamentations), this is the one people usually mean when the speak of
The Megillah. It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle
gragers (noisemakers; see illustration) whenever the name of Haman is
mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to “blot
out the name of Haman.”
We are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry.
According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until he
cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and
“blessed be Mordecai,” though opinions differ as to exactly
how drunk that is.
In addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of
food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of
food and drink is referred to as shalach manos (lit. sending
out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews, a common treat at this time of
year is hamentaschen (lit. Haman's pockets). There are many explanations as to why we eat these tri-cornered pastries on Purim, including that they are meant to represent Haman's hat, or ears. Nobody knows for sure how these sweets became so heavily associated with Purim, but we do know that similar cookies known as Mohntaschen were popular in 18th century Europe, and they were adopted around this time as a Purim treat by European Jewish families. It is speculated that these cookies became a traditional Purim food because the word “Mohn,” of Mohntaschen, sounds similar to the name Haman. This association caught on, and soon the cookies were simply known as hamentaschen. During the 19th century the cookies spread to America and the rest of the world, and have remained a Purim staple every since.
It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations
on Purim, to perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests.
I have heard that the usual prohibitions against cross-dressing are
lifted during this holiday, but I am not certain about that.
Americans sometimes refer to Purim as the Jewish Mardi Gras.
Work is permitted
as usual on Purim, unless of course it falls on a Saturday.