Purim is an occasion to turn things upside down with costumes, pageants and treats while celebrating the triumphant story of an unlikely heroine—in an interfaith marriage—and the downfall of an evil villain.
Sometimes compared to Halloween or Mardi Gras for its party-like and costume-filled celebrations, the word Purim means, “lots,” like a lottery. That’s why the date was chosen in the plot to massacre the Jews. No need to worry, though: The holiday celebrates how they were ultimately saved.
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Purim comes in the late winter or early spring, on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar. The Talmud says, “When the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.” It’s a mitzvah to be happy all month (or months on a Hebrew leap year when there are multiple Adars!) long.
The story of Purim took place a few hundred years before the Common Era in ancient Persia in the city of Shushan. It is read from The Book of Esther, part of the canon of Jewish texts.
Ahasuerus: Buffoonish king of Persia.
Mordechai: Advisor to the King, and a Jew.
Vashti: Queen who was banished for refusing to appear naked before the king’s guests.
Esther: Mordechai’s niece, selected as the new queen who hides her Jewish identity.
Haman: Royal Vizier and story supervillain.
After Queen Vashti is banished, Esther enters a beauty contest to become the new queen. Since Jews bow only to God, Mordechai won’t bow down to Haman. In revenge, Haman decides to kill all the Jews. Mordechai convinces Esther to reveal her Jewish identity to save her people. King Ahasuerus asks Haman how to reward someone for saving the king’s life. Haman comes up with a reward for himself, only to find out that Mordechai is the recipient. Esther foils Haman’s evil plan, and he and his sons are hanged on the gallows he had built for Mordechai and the Jews of Shushan. Go Esther!
The book of Esther is also called Megillat (“Scroll of”) Esther. On Purim, the story is read twice—at sundown when the holiday starts and the following day. There’s a special trope (tune) to chant the book to, and readers may add to the silliness with funny voices or props. Every time Haman’s name is read, listeners drown it out with boos and noisemakers called groggers. Readers try to read all of Haman’s 10 sons’ names in one breath, and listeners hiss at the name of Zeresh, Haman’s wife.
On Purim, there’s a tradition of giving gifts of food to at least one friend, called mishloach manot in Hebrew or shalach manos in Yiddish. Some people come to Megillah reading with many bags to share with everyone, while others focus on creating elaborate baskets to give to one or two others. Think about including foods (or hamantaschen fillings!) that represent your family’s culture and background for a unique take on these ready-to-eat gifts.
Giving gifts of money, called matanot l’eyvanim, to at least two people needing financial support is a Purim requirement. Some synagogues encourage people to bring and then shake boxes of pasta in place of groggers, and then donate the boxes to a food pantry.
After asking, “What is Purim?,” you’ll want to know ways to celebrate.
Eat: The traditional Purim pastry, hamantaschen, are triangular cookies filled with a sweet poppy seed paste or jelly. There are tons more variations on our website. They might represent Haman’s pocket, his hat or, according the Hebrew name for them, oznei Haman—his ears!
Drink: The word seudah in Hebrew means meal, and it refers to a festive meal on the day of Purim that can get a little wild. The Talmud says that you should drink on Purim until you can’t tell the difference between Blessed Mordechai and Cursed Haman. Yikes.
Fast of Esther: Some people don’t eat or drink the day leading up to the Megillah reading—observing the Fast of Esther—in honor of her bravery before revealing her Jewish identity.
Be Merry: A Purim spiel is a play that spoofs the story and may include pop culture references, inside jokes and current events. Some communities hold Purim carnivals, casino nights or other festive parties with food, drink, costumes and other activities not normally found inside a synagogue.
From Vashti’s refusal to appear naked at the king’s command to Esther’s heroism, Purim is an incredible opportunity to highlight women’s often unsung roles in Jewish holidays and history.
The heroine of the story, Esther, is in an interfaith marriage with King Ahasuerus. Her ability to go back and forth between her Jewish uncle and her Persian husband, and her self-awareness about when to reveal her religion, invite discussions of identity.
Purim has a special connection to the LGBTQ community. Esther’s revelation that she’s a Jew can be compared to coming out experiences and sharing one’s sexuality and/or gender identity with the world.
Costumes and carnivals are perfect for kids, but the promiscuous and violent story of Purim (not to mention all the drinking)? Not so much. Younger kids can experiment with hamantaschen flavors, put together mishloach manot packages, decorate masks and make groggers.