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What is the meaning of Purim?
Purim, which literally means “lots” and is sometimes known as the Feast of Lots, is the Jewish holiday in which Jews commemorate being saved from persecution in the ancient Persian Empire. According to the Book of Esther in the Torah, the Jewish people of the city of Shushan were threatened by the villain Haman, a prime minister who convinces King Ahasuerus to kill all the Jews. Haman casts lots (hence the name of the holiday) to determine the date he would carry out his plan: the 13th of Adar. In the end, the Jews are saved by the heroic Queen Esther, Mordecai’s niece (and adopted daughter), who married Ahasuerus (after he banished his first rebellious wife, Vashti). When Ahasuerus discovers that his wife Esther is Jewish, he decides to reverse Haman’s decree, and instead of the Jews being killed, Haman, his sons, and other enemies are killed instead.
How is the Purim tradition celebrated?
Purim is the most fun holiday on the Jewish calendar (see mandatory alcohol drinking below) and occurs on the 14 days of the month of Adar. Observance of the holiday begins with dressing up in costumes: some people choose to dress as characters from the Purim story, and others dress in non-Purim-related costumes. It is a “mitzvah” to listen to the story of Purim chanted from Megillat Esther (“The Scroll of Esther”) and to hear every word. It is customary to make a loud noise with a noisemaker called a Rajasthan in Hebrew or grager in Yiddish. every time Haman’s name is mentioned to fulfill the obligation of blotting out Haman’s name. Part of the holiday also includes giving gifts or charity to the poor, called “ misloach matanot.” A fun tradition on the holiday is to perform a Purim spiel, a satirical show either dramatizing the Purim story in a humorous way or just a funny skit on any theme.
What kinds of foods are a tradition on Purim?
“Mishloach manot” (“sending a package of goods”) are gifts of food, treats, and goodies that Jewish communities send to friends and family on Purim. It is traditional to have a joyful feast, or Seudat Purim, in the holiday evening. Drinking alcohol is part of the Purim holiday celebration. In fact, the requirement in the Talmud goes so far as to instruct that one should get so drunk that they can’t tell the difference between the phrases Arur Haman (“cursed is Haman”) and Baruch Mordechai (“blessed is Mordecai”). Traditional foods include Oznei Haman or Hamentaschen (“ears of Haman”), a triangular cookie usually filled with different flavors of jam, or a poppy seed filling known as “mohn,” which is supposed to represent either Haman’s ears or his three-cornered hat. Another triangular-shaped food that is customary to eat is kreplach, small dumplings usually filled with meat, mashed potatoes, or other fillings. Other traditional foods are dishes made with beans, a reminder of what Esther ate in the king’s palace to avoid eating non-kosher foods. Because of this Esther/ legume tradition, Purim is often celebrated with a vegetarian meal. For Purim recipe ideas, click here.
Purim has more of a national than a religious character, and its status as a holiday is on a different level than those days ordained holy by the Torah. Hallel is not recited. As such, according to some authorities, business transactions and even manual labor are allowed on Purim under certain circumstances. A special prayer (“Al ha-Nissim” – “For the Miracles”) is inserted into the Amidah prayers during the evening, morning, and afternoon prayer services, and is also included in the Birkat Hamazon (“Grace after Meals”).
The four main mitzvot (obligations) of the day are:
- Listening to the public reading, usually in synagogue, of the Book of Esther in the evening and again in the following morning (k’riat megillah)
- Sending food gifts to friends (mishloach manot)
- Giving charity to the poor (matanot la’evyonim)
- Eating a festive meal (se`udat mitzvah)
The three latter obligations only apply during the daytime hours of Purim.
Purim meal (se’udah) and festive drinking
There is a longstanding custom of drinking wine at the feast. The tradition stems from a statement in the Talmud attributed to a rabbi named Rava that says one should drink on Purim until he can “no longer distinguish between arur Haman (“Cursed is Haman”) and baruch Mordechai (“Blessed is Mordecai”).” The drinking of wine features prominently in keeping with the jovial nature of the feast but also helps simulate the experience of spiritual blindness, wherein one cannot distinguish between good (Mordechai) and evil (Haman). This is based on the fact that the salvation of the Jews occurred through wine. Alcoholic consumption was later codified by the early authorities, and while some advocated total intoxication, others, consistent with the opinion of many early and later rabbis, taught that one should only drink a little more than usual and then fall asleep, whereupon one will certainly not be able to tell the difference between arur Haman (“cursed be Haman”) and baruch Mordecai (“blessed be Mordechai”). Other authorities, including the Magen Avraham, have written that one should drink until one cannot calculate the gematria (numerical values) of both phrases.
The Fast of Esther, observed before Purim, on the 13th of Adar, is an original part of the Purim celebration, referred to in Esther. The first who mentions the Fast of Esther is Rabbi Achai Gaon (Acha of Shabcha) (8th century CE) in She’iltot 4; the reason there given for its institution is based on an interpretation of Esther, Esther, and Talmud Megillah: “The 13th was the time of gathering”, which gathering is explained to have also had the purpose of public prayer and fasting. Some, however, used to fast three days in commemoration of the fasting of Esther; but as fasting was prohibited during the month of Nisan, the first and second Mondays and the Thursday following Purim were chosen. The fast of the 13th is still commonly observed; but when that date falls on Sabbath, the fast is pushed forward to the preceding Thursday, Friday being needed to prepare for Sabbath and the following Purim festival.
To wish someone a Happy Purim, say “Chag Purim Sameach!”