Purim, or the Feast of Lots, is a joyous holiday that recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period (539-330 BCE). The story of Purim is recounted in the Book of Esther, whose eponymous heroine plays the leading role in saving her people. The holiday is traditionally celebrated with wild abandon and with the giving of gifts to friends and the poor.
History: While the origins of Purim appear clear from the Book of Esther, historians have looked in vain for any sort of extra-biblical corroboration of the events of the story. Be that as it may, it is a tale that purports to take place during the Persian period.
A young Jewish woman, Esther, rises to be Queen of Persia under the tutelage of her guardian Mordecai. All, however, is not right. The Jews have enemies, and a certain Haman, the grand vizier, plots the Jews’ destruction. Even though Esther has hidden her Jewish identity from all, Mordecai prevails on her to risk her life by revealing her true identity to the king. She does this and denounces the evil Haman’s plot.
At the end of the story, the Jews are able to turn the tables on their enemies, who are then punished in place of the intended victims. This story is one of the most beloved in the Jewish community, because of the hope that it gives a minority living in an oftentimes hostile majority culture.
In The Megillah (scroll), the Talmudic tractate devoted to Purim observances, Rabbi Akiva declares the Book of Esther to be divinely inspired. Some commentators believe this eventually led to the inclusion of Esther in the Hebrew Bible, despite the omission of God from the book. The Greek versions of Esther contain a number of additions–including God’s name–not found in the Hebrew story.
At Home: In distinction to various other holidays, such as Pesach (Passover), Purim is the quintessential community holiday. Nonetheless, there are a number of activities that are centered in the home. One of the favorite activities in preparation for the holiday is the baking of hamantaschen, the triangular filled pastries that are the traditional food at Purim time. In addition, following the commandment to give gifts to friends and the poor, the preparation of so-called mishloah manot baskets is a fun activity to engage in, as is their distribution on the holiday. The centerpiece of Purim’s home celebration is the seudah, a festive meal accompanied by alcoholic beverages.
Themes and Theology: The overriding theme of Purim is the saving of the Jews from a mortal threat. Even though God is not mentioned at all in the Book of Esther, from a Jewish perspective, God is the one who is pulling the strings of redemption behind the scenes. The holiday of Purim has become one of the best-loved holidays of the Jewish year. The reasons for this are easy to see. It is a joyous holiday on which everyone just lets go. Most significant, however, is the paradigmatic nature of the story of Purim. It is not difficult to see how a story in which a small and threatened Jewish community in exile is able to triumph over its foes would prove to be a powerful image for a Diaspora community faced over the centuries with threats from many different sources. The story of Purim, however, holds out the hope that no matter how bad the circumstances, things will turn out well in the end.
In the Community: Purim is a community holiday of joyful celebration. The centerpiece of the communal celebration is the reading of the Scroll of Esther, the Megillah, in the synagogue. This is a raucous affair, with whoops, hollers, and noise being made every time that Haman’s name is mentioned, so no one can hear the name of this horrible evildoer.
Another tradition is the Purim shpiel, the Purim play, during which fun is poked at community leaders and members. Purim has often been called the Jewish carnival, and dressing in costume and taking part in a Purim carnival heighten the levity of the day, on which one is encouraged to engage in activities that at other times of the year would be somewhat more restricted in scope, such as drinking.
International Community: Jewish communities around the world celebrate Purim as a holiday of feasting and gladness, gift-giving and tzedakah (charity), revelry and imbibing. It is one of the most popular Jewish holidays for families and children. The celebration of Purim is based on the story found in the biblical Book of Esther. A tractate of the Mishnah (and hence the Talmud) is devoted to it as well. Purim is a time when Jewish communities, like the community in the book of Esther, become particularly aware of the fragility and even the danger of living in the Diaspora, as a people “scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples”(Esther 3:8).
The primary communal observance connected to Purim is the mitzvah (commandment) of reading the Book of Esther, called the Megillah (the scroll). It is supposed to be read in the synagogue with a minyan (quorum) present. The scroll is read twice, once in the evening after the Amidah (silent prayer) of Ma’ariv (the evening service) and once during Shaharit (the morning service). The Megillah is in the form of a parchment scroll, handwritten like a Torah. The Book of Esther has a special cantillation used only for that book, and the reading is preceded by three blessings.
During the reading, it is customary for the congregation to drown out the name of Haman by making noise, usually using a special noisemaker called a gragger, whenever the reader utters the villain’s name. Another custom is to read the verses listing the ten sons of Haman (found in chapter 9) in one breath. One theory regarding the significance of this practice says that it is done to symbolize how the brothers all died together, while a second theory suggests that we should not draw out the reading of the names so as not to gloat over their fate.
Torah: Traditionally, an additional Torah reading, in addition to the weekly reading, is inserted on the Sabbath preceding Purim. Called Shabbat Zachor (the Sabbath of remembrance), the additional reading is one of the four special parashiyyot (weekly Torah portions) leading up to Pesach (Passover). This excerpt from the Book of Deuteronomy (25:17-19) discusses the battle with Amalek. Jewish tradition views Amalek as the ancestor and in some ways the precursor of Haman. Both sought to annihilate the Jewish people, and both were thwarted in their plans.
Besides the reading of the Megillah, the only liturgical additions for the day of Purim are the addition of the Purim Al Hanissim (“for the miracles”) both in the Amidah Prayer and in the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals). There are a number of explanations for why Hallel (Psalms of praise) is not recited on Purim as it is on other joyous holidays. Among them is the theory that on Purim, unlike on such holidays such as Pesach or Hanukkah, the redemption is not complete. On Pesach and Hanukkah, the Jews are completely delivered from a foreign king, while on Purim the Jews are still subjects of Ahasuerus. The reading of the Megillah is seen to achieve the same purpose as Hallel. Also, Hallel is generally not said for events that took place outside the land of Israel.
Fast of Esther: Another traditional feature of Purim observance is the Fast of Esther (Ta’anit Esther).
It is one of the four statutory public fasts in the Jewish calendar. All of these other fasts are connected with tragic events related to the destruction of Jerusalem or to the loss of the Jewish state. The fast of the 13th of Adar, the day preceding Purim, is related rather to the threat to destroy the Jewish people. When Mordecai told Esther about Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews, she asked him to proclaim a three-day fast. It is in commemoration of this that some Jews still fast on this day.
In Israel: There is another unique feature to communal Purim observance. Purim is celebrated in most of the world on the 14th of Adar. However, in Jerusalem it is observed on the 15th of Adar, because of the interpretation of Esther 9:18-19, “But the Jews that were in Shushan assembled together on the 13th day thereof, and on the 14th thereof; and on the 15th day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness. Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the unwalled towns, make the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting.” The sages concluded that Purim was celebrated on the 15th of Adar, as in Shushan, in cities that had been walled since the days of Joshua.
In a leap year, when there is the additional month of Adar II, it is traditional to do everything that must be done in Adar during the first Adar. Purim is the exception to this rule and is celebrated during the second Adar.
Gifts: On Purim the Megillah mandates that we give gifts to friends (mishloach manot), usually of food, and to the poor (matanot l’evyonim). It is a tradition for congregations to collect money in memory of the half shekel collected in ancient days for the upkeep of the Temple. Purim is a time for carnivals and parties and masquerades. Most Jewish congregations hold special carnivals for children, and children dress in costumes that commemorate the various characters of the Purim story. They perform humorous plays called Purim shpiels, which more often than not mock both the characters in the story and leaders in the Jewish community.
Purim Shpiels: The joyous nature of the Purim celebration often carries a serious message behind the smile. The Purim Shpiel often takes a look at world politics with various world leaders playing the roles of heroes and villains. By offering a mocking commentary, the Purim Shpiel presents a Jewish version of political justice in the world.
Despite the relatively minor nature of the festival of Purim, it has assumed far greater proportions and significance in popular Jewish culture. It is often celebrated as if it were a major Jewish holiday. On the surface of it, the events of Purim–recounted in the biblical book of Esther–are about a near catastrophe in ancient Persia. The Jews, about to be attacked, end up turning the tables on their enemies and end up the victors. Therefore, the date of Purim became an opportunity for celebration of this miraculous turn of events.
Early on, the Talmud records that Purim was a date of celebrations and riotous parties. In the Talmudic tractate entitled Megillah (megillah means “scroll,” referring to the scroll of Esther) the ancient Rabbis passed along a longstanding tradition that in order to celebrate the victory of Purim, everyone is supposed to drink alcohol and reach the point where they are unable to differentiate between the phrases “Bless Mordecai” and “Curse Haman”(Megillah 7a). While the dictum of consuming alcohol may not be palatable to everyone today, drinking (at least for the adults!) and merriment remain a traditional aspect of Purim celebrations.
Even though Purim is a religious opportunity for young and old to celebrate together, the celebration of Purim has been commonly relegated to a children’s event. Many synagogues today celebrate Purim by holding a Purim fair or carnival. This is an opportunity to set up booths with games, give prizes, and serve holiday foods. And the highlight of any Purim celebration is the Purim Shpiel.
Shpiel is a Yiddish word meaning a “play” or “skit.” A Purim shpiel is actually a dramatic presentation of the events outlined in the book of Esther. Featuring the main characters, such as King Ahasuerus, Mordecai, Esther, and the wicked Haman, the Purim shpiel was a folk-inspired custom providing an opportunity for crowds to cheer the heroes (Mordecai and Esther) and boo the villains (Haman). It is a staple of many modern synagogue Purim celebrations for children to attend the ritual chanting of the book of Esther and Purim carnivals dressed in costumes depicting these main characters.
Often, a synagogue religious school will hold a costume contest and organize a parade of all the costumed children. While it is traditional to masquerade as characters from the story of Esther, many Jewish families celebrate Purim as an alternative to Halloween, with children dressing in non-traditional costumes and masks. There is no “right” or “wrong” costume for Purim.
In relatively modern times, the popularity of these Purim shpiel plays and the boisterous audience reaction they engendered, spilled over into the actual synagogue celebration of Purim when the scroll of Esther is chanted in Hebrew. There is an ancient tradition derived from the Torah that one is supposed to “blot out” the mention of Haman as a form of enduring spiritual punishment and ignominy for his actions. Therefore, synagogue attendees attempting to “blot out” Haman’s name will literally shout, catcall, boo and swing noisemakers, called graggers, to drown out the name of Haman as it is read.
Many synagogues often hold special family or children’s services on Purim, or make a point of including families in the chanting of the book of Esther so that the children will be able to not only attend in costume, but shake their noisemakers and contribute to the merriment through making lots of noise.
Purim shpiels have evolved over time into the presentation of humorous skits not just about the story of Purim, but also about leaders and well-known people in the community. In synagogues, members may write and act in funny skits gently mocking the rabbis, cantor, president, and other people. In Jewish religious day schools, no teacher ever escapes the mocking attention of their students in such Purim shpiels.
Purim shpiels also include popular songs sung with new, creative funny lyrics lampooning community leaders. Some congregations go to elaborate lengths in producing shpiels, sometimes writing mini-musical plays, or with some people renting expensive outrageous costumes. It is also traditional for religious leaders to deliver “Purim Torahs,” which are farcical sometimes nonsensical sermons about ridiculous topics. Often, the synagogue bulletin for Purim will be a special joke edition with many funny, ludicrous articles.
Dr. Jeffrey Rubenstein, a professor of religion at New York University writes that Purim is a holiday characterized by “liminality,” that is, a day in which traditional social boundaries and rules of etiquette are deliberately blurred. Purim is a day to “blow off steam” for a community by celebrating this ancient escape from destruction. Therefore, it is a day of topsy-turvy antics, especially in the Purim shpiel. In addition to drinking more alcohol than usual, well-respected leaders are lampooned, children dress up as adults, and especially in Israel, men often dress up as women and vice versa. It is a day in which society as we know it is turned upside down.
But the celebrations of Purim are ultimately for a religious purpose–to celebrate the unseen presence of God who saved the Jewish community in Persia thousands of years ago. While Purim shpiels and graggers may seem to diminish the spiritual importance of the holiday, they are part of an ongoing celebration of good over evil, and a festival celebrating God’s presence in Jewish history.
For definitions of terms used and more in-depth resouces on Purim, please visit myjewishlearning.com