The story of Purim is found in the Book of Esther, one of the books in the Ketuvim (Writings) section of the Bible. It is set in the land of Persia (current day Iran) at the time when Ahashverosh was king. King Ahashverosh held a banquet in the capital city of Shushan and ordered his queen, Vashti, to come and dance before his guests. She refused to appear and lost her royal position.
Acting on advice from his counselors, Ahashverosh held a pageant to choose a new queen. Mordechai, a Jewish man living in Shushan, encouraged his cousin, Esther, to enter the competition. Esther won but, following the advice of her cousin, did not reveal her Jewish origin to the king.
Mordechai often sat near the gate of the king’s palace. One day he overheard two men, Bigthan and Teresh, plotting to kill the king. Mordechai reported what he had heard to Esther. She then reported the information to the king. The matter was investigated and found to be true, and Bigthan and Teresh came to an unfortunate end. Mordechai’s deed was recorded in the king’s diary.
Meanwhile, the king’s evil adviser, Haman, paraded through the streets, demanding that all bow down to him. Because Jews do not bow to anyone but God, Mordechai refused to bow down to Haman. Upon learning that Mordechai was Jewish, Haman decided to kill all the Jews in the Persian empire. He plotted to kill them—convincing King Ahashverosh to go along with the plan—and cast purim (“lots,” plural of pur), a kind of lottery, to determine the day on which he would carry out his evil deed: the 13th of Adar.
However, Mordechai alerted Esther to Haman’s evil plot, and Esther, in turn, revealed her Jewish identity to the King, convincing him to save the Jews and foiling Haman’s plot. Haman was hanged, Mordechai received his estates and the position of royal vizier, and the Jews of Persia celebrated their narrow escape on the 14th of Adar, the day after they were supposed to be annihilated.
Thus, the fate Haman had planned for the Jews became his own. The holiday of Purim celebrates the bravery of Esther and Mordechai and the deliverance of the Jewish people from the cruelty of oppression.
Although Purim is observed in most places on the 14th of Adar, in Jerusalem, it is celebrated on the 15th. M’gillat Estherexplains, “on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month—that is the month of Adar—when the king’s command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews intended to have rule over them, the opposite happened, and the Jews prevailed over their adversaries.” The Jews fought and won on the 13th of Adar and celebrated the following day. However, M’gillat Esther continues by explaining that the Jews did not defeat their enemies until the 14th of Adar in the walled city of Shushan. Therefore, cities that were enclosed during the time of Joshua do not celebrate until the 15th of Adar, which has been appropriately named Shushan Purim. Because of the significance of Jerusalem, Purim is celebrated on Shushan Purim.
Customs and Rituals
Hamantaschen (Yiddish for Haman’s pockets) are three-cornered pastries filled with poppy seeds (mohn in Yiddish), fruit preserves, chocolate, or other ingredients that are traditionally eaten on Purim. In Israel during the weeks leading up to Purim, the aroma of freshly baked hamantaschen can be smelled on every block. Their triangular shape is thought to be be reminiscent of Haman’s hat or ears.
As part of the carnival-like atmosphere of Purim, many children and adults wear costumes. Some attribute this tradition to the fact that Esther initially “masked” her Jewish identity. Now a vibrant and widely practiced custom, some choose to dress as characters from the Purim story, while others select Jewish heroes from throughout history.
In Israel, the celebrations are especially extravagant and exciting. People of all ages take to the streets, rejoicing with parades, parties, costumes and carnivals. The parade through the streets of Tel Aviv is known to be especially wild. At the Kotel (the Western Wall) volunteers for Women of the Wall read Megillat Esther in the women’s section.
In the Synagogue
The Megillah (scroll) most often refers to Megillat Esther (The Scroll of Esther) which also is known as the “Book of Esther.” According to the Talmud, “The study of Torah is interrupted for the reading of the Megillah.” Maimonides, a 12th century sage and rabbi, teaches, “The reading of the Megillah certainly supersedes all other mitzvot.”
Traditionally, the Book of Esther is read at both evening and morning services on Purim—both in North America and in Israel. A number of customs are associated with the reading. Haman, the enemy of the Jews in this story, is associated with all those who have tried to destroy the Jewish people throughout history. Therefore, we make loud noises—verbally or with noisemakers—at every mention of Haman’s name in order to drown it out. Derived from the Polish word meaning “rattle,” a grogger is the noisemaker used to drown out the name of Haman during the reading of the Megillah. Beginning in the 13th century, Jews throughout Europe sounded the grogger as a part of their Purim celebrations.
A Purimspiel (pronounced shpeel, rhymes with “reel”) is a humorous skit presented on Purim. Most parody the story of the Book of Esther, but it also is common for participants to take the opportunity to poke some gentle fun at themselves and their idiosyncrasies. Some congregations run an adults-only event for Purim, too.
Mishloach manot are gifts of food that friends (and prospective new friends!) exchange on Purim. Often presented in baskets, most mishloach manot include hamantaschen, the traditional three-sided pastry eaten on Purim, but may also include a wide variety of foods and treats. These gifts are frequently referred to by their Yiddish name, shalachmanos.
Jewish families make mishloach manot baskets at home and distribute then to friends. Many families also make hamantaschen to include in these baskets and to enjoy at home. Check out these creative ideas for making your own.
Matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) are gifts given at this season to those in need so that they, too, can celebrate Purim with a special meal. Many families have committed to participating in this important social justice aspect of the holiday.