Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar. In a leap year, in which an additional month of Adar is added, Purim is celebrated in Adar Bet, the second month of Adar. Shushan Purim, the day following Purim, is the day when the holiday is celebrated in cities that were walled during the time that Joshua conquered Israel after the Exodus. Effectively, this means that in Jerusalem Purim is celebrated one day later, on the 15th of Adar.
Purim celebrates the victory of the Jews in Persia against their enemies during the reign of King Achashverosh (Ahasuerus), also known as Xerxes, who ruled the Achaemenid Empire between 486 and 465 BCE. The Book of Esther relates how the king ordered the Jews to be killed at the request of his advisor, Haman the Agagite, but things turned around and in the end the Jews emerged victorious.
The Talmud (Taanit 29a) instructs us to increase in joy the entire month. Purim, which is the day of the month which celebrates the salvation of the Jews, is one of the happiest days of the Jewish calendar.
WHAT DOES ‘PURIM’ MEAN?
Purim literally means “lots” in ancient Persian. Purim was thus named since Haman had thrown lots in order to determine when he would carry out his diabolical scheme. By “chance,” the 13th of Adar came up. Haman was thrilled, as the 7th of Adar was the day that Moses died. He assumed that the month was a dark time for the Jews. What Haman didn’t know, however, was that the same 7th of Adar was also the day that Moses was born. Thus, the month that Haman thought was a time of darkness was actually a time of great joy for the Jewish people.
THE FOUR MITZVOTH OF THE HOLIDAY
There are four mitzvot (commandments) that are special to the holiday of Purim:
- Reading of the Megillah (the Book of Esther), which recounts the historical story of Purim. This is done once on the night of Purim and then again on the following day. It is important to hear every word as it is read from a handwritten parchment scroll. There is a custom in many communities to use noisemakers to drown out the name of ‘Haman’ as it is read. This is a method of engaging children and is also an extension of the Biblical commandment to wipe out the name of Amalek, as Haman is from the nation of Amalek.
- Giving gifts of money to at least two poor people. On Purim, we give a donation to whoever asks; we don’t suspect or question whether or not they are in need.
- Sending gifts of at least two kinds of food to at least one person. The food should be ready-to-eat food items and/or beverages. The gifts of food can be sent by a third-party messenger during Purim day.
- A Purim feast is eaten during the day. Bread should be served, requiring the ritual washing of hands and the blessing after the meal. This feast often includes wine or other intoxicating beverages.
There is a custom for children and even adults to wear costumes open Purim. The simple reason is that it is a method to engage the children in the holiday, This also commemorates the dressing up of Mordechai in King Ahasuerus’s royal garments, and Esther adorning herself to impress the king. The midrash also compares this to Jacob impersonating Esau.
The custom of wearing costumes on Purim is an allusion to the nature of the Purim miracle, where the details of the story are really miracles hidden within natural events. The Book of Esther is unique in the Bible as the name of God does not appear and the miracles were all simply remarkable natural events.
It should be emphasized that there are no spiritual or thematic similarities between Purim and Halloween. Purim is not “the Jewish Halloween.”
The Talmud (Megillah 7b) states that “a person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman.’” It is, in fact, the only time when drinking alcohol is recommended. This may be because drinking alcohol plays a role in the Purim story.
There are many opinions as to how this mandate should be observed. The Rambam suggests that a person drink until he falls asleep. The Shulchan Aruch rules that a person should drink slightly more than is his custom. Everyone agrees that drinking is only permitted if you are confident you will continue to behave according to the standard set by the Torah.
It is traditional to eat a triangular, three-cornered pastry called hamantaschen (Haman’s ears). These cookies are made with a variety of sweet fillings.
During the Shemonei Esrei (the 18 benedictions), also known as the amidah, a section beginning with the words V’al Hanissim is added. It thanks God for the “miracles, redemptions, mighty deeds, saving acts and wonders” that He performed for the Jewish people. This section is also added during birkat amazon (the blessing after a meal).
In the morning service there is a special Torah reading (Exodus 17:8–16), describing the battle Joshua waged against Amalek since Haman was descended from King Agag, an Amalekite.
FAST OF ESTHER
On the day before Purim (or on the preceding Thursday when Purim is on Sunday), it is customary to fast. The fast is a minor fast, lasting from sunrise to sunset, and commemorates the fasting and prayers of the Jews in Persia in response to the decree of annihilation.