PURIM (Heb. פּוּרִים), the feast instituted, according to the Book of *Esther (9:20–28), by *Mordecai to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews from *Haman's plot to kill them. Purim (Akk. pūrū, "lots") is so called (Esth. 9:26) after the lots cast by Haman in order to determine the month in which the slaughter was to take place (Esth. 3:7). Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, and in Hasmonean times it was known as the "Day of Mordecai" (II Macc. 15:36). The Jews of Shushan celebrated their deliverance on the 15th of Adar (Esth. 9:18), and this day became known as Shushan Purim. Out of respect for Jerusalem, it is said, the day is still kept by Jews living in cities which had a wall around them "from the days of Joshua" (Meg. l:1). Thus in present-day Israel Purim is celebrated in Jerusalem on the 15th, but in Tel Aviv on the 14th. In leap years Purim is celebrated in the second month of *Adar.
The chronological difficulties such as the identity of King *Ahasuerus and the absence of any reference in the Persian sources to a king having a Jewish consort; the striking resemblance between the names Mordecai and Esther to the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar; the lack of any reference to Purim in Jewish literature before the first century B.C.E.; the language of the Book of Esther, which suggests a later date – all these have moved the critics to look elsewhere than the account in Esther for the true origin of the festival. Various conjectures have been made (see *Scroll of Esther) but the problem still awaits its solution. In any event the festival had long been established by the second century C.E. when a whole tractate of the Mishnah (*Megillah) was devoted to the details of its observance, especially to the rules governing the reading of the Scroll of Esther, called in the rabbinic literature the megillah ("scroll"). Purim is a minor festival in that work on it is permitted, but it has been joyously celebrated in Jewish communitiesas a reminder of God's protection of His people. However, the widespread acceptance of the festival as only minor is reflectedin the popular Yiddish saying that as a high temperature does not denote serious illness neither is Purim a festival.
The main feature of Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther, the megillah, with a special cantillation. Megillot are frequently decorated, sometimes with scenes from the narrative. Since according to the midrashic interpretation the word ha-melekh ("the king"), when it is not qualified by Ahasuerus, refers to the King of the universe, some megillot are so written that each column begins with this word. It would seem that originally the megillah was read during the day, but eventually
The Book of Esther (9:22) speaks of "sending portions" (mishlo'aḥ manot – abbreviated to shelakhmones) to friends on Purim and of giving gifts to the poor. The rule is to send atleast two "portions" of eatables, confectionery, and so forth, to a friend and to give a present of money to at least two poor men. A special festive meal is eaten on Purim afternoon toward eventide. Among the special Purim foods are boiled beans and peas, said to be a reminder of the cereals Daniel ate in the king's palace in order to avoid any infringement of the dietary laws, and three-cornered pastries known as hamantashen ("Haman's ears"). There has been much discussion around the saying of the Babylonian teacher Rava (Meg. 7b) that a man is obliged to drink so much wine on Purim that he becomes incapable of knowing whether he is cursing Haman or blessing Mordecai. The more puritanical teachers tried to explain this away, but the imbibing of alcohol was generally encouraged on Purim and not a few otherwise sober teachers still take Rava's saying literally (see, e.g., H. Weiner: 9½ Mystics (1969), 207). The laws of Purim and the reading of the megillah are codified in Shulḥan Arukh, OḤ 686–97. Various parodies of sacred literature were produced for Purim, the best known of which, Massekhet Purim, is a skillful parody of the Talmud with its main theme the obligation to drink wine merrily and to abstain strictly from water. The institution of the Purim rabbi, a kind of lord of misrule, who recites Purim Torah, the frivolous manipulation of sacred texts, was the norm in many communities. Some have seen in all this an annual attempt to find psychological relief from what otherwise might have become an intolerable burden of loyalty to the Torah (Druyanow, Reshumot, 1 and 2). Under the influence of the Italian carnival it became customary for people to dress up on Purim in fancy dress, men even being permitted to dress as women and women as men. The *Adloyada carnival in Tel Aviv has been a prominent feature of Purim observance in modern Israel.
In the kabbalistic and ḥasidic literature much is made of Purim as a day of friendship and joy and as the celebration of God at work, as it were, behind the scenes, unlike Passover which celebrates God's more direct intervention. (God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther.) The "lots" of Purim are compared with the "lots" cast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8), what human beings call "fate" or "luck" being, in reality, only another manifestation of God's providential care. So highly did the kabbalists esteem Purim that they reported in the name of Isaac Luria that the Day of Atonement is "like Purim" (Yore ke-Furim).
While some Reform congregations abolished Purim, others continued to celebrate it as a day of encouragement and hope, some even arguing that it helped Jews to express their aggressive emotions and to sublimate their feelings of wrath and hatred (W.G. Plaut, The Growth of Reform Judaism (1965), 224).
N.S. Doniach, Purim (Eng., 1933); S. Zevin, Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (196310), 188–214; J.D. Epstein, Oẓar ha-Iggeret (1968); P. Goodman, Purim Anthology (1960), incl. bibl.; J.L. Fishman, Ḥagim u-Mo'adim (1944), 119–68: J.H. Greenstone, Jewish Feasts and Fasts (1945), 135–78; H. Schauss, Jewish Festivals (1938), 237–71.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.