Purim (pronounced Poo-Reem) marks the dramatic rescue of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from an evil plot to wipe them out. The story is recorded in the Biblical book of Esther, known in Hebrew as Megillat Esther. Purim is a communal day of joy and merrymaking and begins at sundown on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar and ends at sundown on the 15th. However, during the Jewish leap year, there are two months of Adar. On leap years (such as this one), Purim is celebrated during the second Adar. The holiday begins at sundown on Wednesday, March 20th and lasts until Thursday, March 21st. The greeting to wish someone a Happy Purim is “Chag Purim Sameach!” (khag poo-reem sah-may-akh).
What is the Purim Story?
The Purim story can be found in the Book of Esther (Megilat Esther), which is found in the Writings (Ketuvim) section of the TaNaKh.
The Book of Esther takes place in the 4th century BCE, when all Jews were subjects of the vast Persian Empire. In the capital city of Shushan (pron. Shoe-shahn), the Persian ruler, King Achashverosh, was known for throwing elaborate banquets. During one such party, King Achashverosh asked his wife, Queen Vashti, to dance before the banquet guests. After refusing to appear, she was executed for failing to follow his orders (the text says she “went away”). Following the advice from his advisors, Achashverosh then orchestrated a pageant to find a new queen. He chose Esther, a young woman who—at the suggestion of her cousin, Mordechai—deliberately refrained from divulging her Jewish identity.
Mordechai would often sit near the gates of the palace. One day, he overheard a plot to kill the king and relayed this information to Esther, who then informed the king. Once this was found to be true, the would-be assassins were sentenced to death and the king recognized Mordechai’s actions.
Meanwhile, Haman, the king’s malicious advisor, bitterly resented Mordechai and the Jewish people for refusing to bow down to him. Haman convinced the king that since the Jews only bow to God and refuse to bow down to humans, they are not worthy of living under his rule. Haman convinced King Achashverosh to issue a decree to massacre the Jewish people on the 13th of Adar—a date Haman chose by a lottery. (The holiday gets its name from the word purim, meaning “lots,” which refers to the lottery Haman used to choose that date.)
Upon learning of Haman’s plot, Mordechai shared this information with Esther and then galvanized the Jews of Shushan, convincing them to repent, fast, and pray to God. Esther asked the king and Haman to join her for a feast at which she courageously revealed her Jewish identity. Esther also revealed Haman’s plot to the king, which would include murdering the Queen. As a result, the king ordered Haman to be hanged, the Jewish people were saved, Mordechai was appointed advisor to the King in his stead, and the Jews were granted the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
The Four Mitzvot (Commandments) of Purim
We celebrate the holiday by observing four mitzvot:
- Read (or hear) Megillat Esther. On Purim evening and morning we read the whole megillah. It is a custom to use a grogger (noisemaker) or audibly make noise every time Haman’s name is mentioned so that we will not have to hear it and blot out his name.
- Sending of mishloach manot (pron. meesh-lo’akh mah-note) – gifts of food to friends. Tradition holds that we should all send a gift to at least one person and it should contain at least two types of food or drink to help our friends make the holiday joyous and merry. Typically, people create a basket or package including hamantaschen and send or deliver it to a friend on Purim morning.
- Giving of matanot l’evyonim (pron. mah-tah-note le’ev-yo-neem) – gifts to the poor. This mitzvah requires us to give money or food (enough to provide for at least one big meal) to at least two different people or to an organization that provides meals to those in need.
- Have a seudah (pron. seh-oo-dah), or festive meal, in the afternoon and into the evening on Purim day. (The day before Purim some have the custom to take part in Ta’anit Esther – the Fast of Esther. Just as Esther refrained from food and water before revealing both her true identity and Haman’s plot to King Achashverosh, we recognize her heroism and stand in solidarity with her.)
Customs and Practices
In addition to the four mitzvot, there are a number of customs associated with Purim.
Dressing in Costume: The most well-known custom is to dress up in costume. This custom originates in how Esther masked her Jewish identity throughout the Purim story and the carnival-esque nature of the holiday.
Purim Spiel: Many communities (including RSS) perform a Purim Spiel, which is a humorous depiction of the Purim story, often using community leaders as characters. The Spiel historically provided a chance for the “folk” to make humorous jabs at community leaders and themselves; this is rooted in the theme nahafoch hu (pron. nah-hah-fokh hoo) – the anticipated outcome (the annihilation of the Jews) did not come to be, and the tables were turned instead. In form and content, the spiel is another way to commemorate the holiday that celebrates the victorious reversal of fortune.
Purim Carnivals: Purim Carnivals are another way in which communities create the festive atmosphere for Purim. These are full of games, prizes, food, and general merriment.
Hamantaschen: Just like the other foods associated with Jewish holidays, Hamantaschen remind us of the Purim story and the way in which the Jewish people’s fate was reversed in the story. However, there is more to its history and interpretation than meets the eye. At their core, Hamantaschen are cookies in the shape of a triangle with some sort of filling (it could be almost anything – raspberry, apricot, date, poppy, chocolate, prune, etc.). In some interpretations, it represents the three-pointed hat Haman wore, and in others, it represents his ear, referring to the ancient practice of cutting off a criminal’s ear before their execution (in Hebrew they are referred to as “ozney Haman,” Haman’s ears). According to the article, What Are Hamantaschen?, “the cookie represents one of the fathers of Judaism (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) who gave strength to Esther to save the Jews and ultimately weaken Haman’s power (incidentally, tash in Hebrew means ‘weaken’). A final thought is based on the word tasche, the German word for “pouch” or “pocket,” representing Haman’s pockets and the money he offered to the king for permission to kill the Jews.
Another custom, discussed in the Talmud, is to consume alcohol so that one is unable to differentiate between the Hebrew expressions for “Blessed be Mordechai” and “Cursed be Haman.”
Some Russian communities make challah known as keylitsh [kulich], that is specifically for Purim: it is oversized and extensively braided, which is meant to remind people of the rope used to hang Haman.
Some communities eat meals with plenty of beans and grains to remind us that while she was in the court of Achashverosh, Esther kept a vegetarian diet so she would not break the laws of Kashrut. It is also customary, especially in Persian communities, to serve garinim (pron. gar-ee-neem) or shelled roasted seeds at ones meal.
Purim Fun Facts!
Megilat Esther is the only book in the TaNaKh that does not include the name of God.
It is believed by some that Achashverosh is the Persian King Xerxes I who reigned from 486–465 BCE.
Hamadan, Iran is home to the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai and is the most sacred Jewish pilgrimage site in Iran.
Purim is celebrated in walled cities one day later than elsewhere.
Chag Purim Sameach!
(Adapted from ReformJudaism.org, My Jewish Learning, thenosher.com, toriavery.com, bj.org, hebrewsongs.com, haaretz.com, The Fascinating Evolution of the Purim-Spiel by Cantor Janet Leuchter)
© Rodeph Sholom School 2019