What is the Jewish Holiday of Purim?

The Story, Celebration, and Meaning of Purim

Israel Celebrates Festival Of Purim
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One of the most festive and popular of the Jewish holidays, Purim celebrates the deliverance of the Jews from imminent doom at the hands of their enemies in ancient Persia as told in the biblical Book of Esther.

When Is it Celebrated?

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, which usually falls sometime in February or March. The Jewish calendar follows a 19-year cycle. There are seven leap years in each cycle. The leap year contains an extra month: Adar I and Adar II. Purim is celebrated in Adar II and Purim Katan (small Purim) is celebrated in Adar I.

Purim is such a popular holiday that the ancient rabbis declared that it alone would continue to be celebrated after the Messiah comes (Midrash Mishlei 9). All other holidays will not be celebrated in the messianic days.

Purim is so-called because the villain of the story, Haman, cast "purim" (which are lots, as in a lottery) to destroy the Jews, yet failed. 

Reading the Megillah

The most important Purim custom is reading the Purim story from the scroll of Esther, also called the Megillah. Jews usually attend synagogue for this special reading. Whenever villain Haman's name is mentioned people will boo, howl, hoot, and shake noisemakers (groggers) to express their dislike of him. Hearing the Megillah reading is a commandment that applies to both women and men.

Costumes and Carnivals

Unlike more serious synagogue occasions, both children and adults often attend the Megillah reading in costume. Traditionally people would dress up as characters from the Purim story, for example, as Esther or Mordechai. Now, people enjoy dressing up as all manner of different characters: Harry Potter, Batman, wizards, you name it. It's somewhat reminiscent of what a Jewish version of Halloween would be like. The tradition of dressing up is based on how Esther concealed her Jewish identity at the beginning of the Purim story.

At the conclusion of the Megillah reading, many synagogues will put on plays, called shpiels, that reenact the Purim story and poke fun at the villain. Most synagogues also host Purim carnivals.

Food and Drinking Customs

As with most Jewish holidays, food plays an important role. For instance, people are commanded to send mishloach manot to other Jews. Mishloach manot are baskets filled with food and drink. According to Jewish law, each mishloach manot must contain at least two different kinds of food that is ready to eat. Most synagogues will coordinate the sending of mishloach manot, but if you want to make and send these baskets on your own, you can.

On Purim, Jews are also supposed to enjoy a festive meal, called the Purim se'udah (meal), as part of the holiday celebration. Often, people will serve special Purim cookies, called hamantaschen, which means "Haman's pockets," during the dessert course.

One of the more interesting commandments related to Purim has to do with drinking. According to Jewish law, adults of drinking age are supposed to get so drunk that they cannot tell the difference between Mordechai, a hero in the Purim story, and the villainous Haman. Not everyone participates in this custom; recovering alcoholics and people with health problems are exempt altogether. This drinking tradition stems from the joyous nature of Purim. And, as with any holiday, if you choose to drink, drink responsibly, and make appropriate arrangements for transportation after you celebrate.

Charity Work

In addition to sending mishloach manot, Jews are commanded to be especially charitable during Purim. During this time, Jews will often make monetary donations to charity or will give money to those in need.

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Pelaia, Ariela. "What is the Jewish Holiday of Purim?" Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/jewish-holiday-of-purim-2076441. Pelaia, Ariela. (2023, April 5). What is the Jewish Holiday of Purim? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/jewish-holiday-of-purim-2076441 Pelaia, Ariela. "What is the Jewish Holiday of Purim?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/jewish-holiday-of-purim-2076441 (accessed June 8, 2023).