Purim is one of the most joyous holidays in the Jewish calendar. Meaning “lots” in ancient Persian, Purim is celebrated to commemorate the Jewish liberation from Haman, who was prime minister to the King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire. This is the story in the biblical book of Esther. Haman planned to kill the Jewish people after casting lots to see which day his devious plot would take place.
Celebrated annually on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, Purim is a day of great feasts, gladness, and much rejoicing, for ‘our sorrow was turned to gladness.’
A Brief History of Purim
The Persian Empire of the 4th century BC extended over 127 lands, and the Jewish people were its subjects. When the Persian king Ahasuerus had his wife, Queen Vashti, executed for failing to follow his orders, he arranged a beauty pageant to find a new queen. A Jewish girl, Esther, found favor in his eyes and became the new queen, though she kept her Jewish heritage a secret.
Meanwhile, the Jew-hating Haman was appointed prime minister of the empire. Mordechai, Esther’s cousin and the leader of the Jews openly defied the king’s orders and refused to bow to Haman. Haman was incensed, and he convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the extermination of all Jews in the kingdom on the 13th of Adar, a date chosen by Haman through casting lots.
Mordechai rallied the Jews, entreating them to repent, fast, and pray to God while Esther invited the King Ahasuerus and Haman to join her for a feast. At a subsequent feast, Esther revealed to the king her Jewish identity and Haman’s treachery. Haman was subsequently hanged and Mordechai was appointed prime minister in his stead. The king issued a new decree granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
On the 13th of Adar, the Jews mobilized and killed many of their enemies. On the 14th of Adar, they rested and celebrated. In the capital city of Shushan, they took one more day to finish the job.
Celebrating Purim Today
The community revels with joy throughout Israel, where children adorn themselves in costumes resembling Queen Esther and Mordecai. Special customs are observed, including hearing The Book of Esther, otherwise known as Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther) read two times in synagogues or in private gatherings.
The most common traditions include delivering sweet foods and treats to family and friends. Called mishloach manot (the sending of portions) Purim baskets containing candy, fruit, and triangular-shaped pastries made of dough and filled with fruit preserves, called hamentashen, ensure everyone has enough to celebrate the Purim feast later in the day. The holiday encourages love and friendship among family, friends, and neighbors, as well as charity towards the poor.
Children and adults dress up for the festivities, often wearing colorful masks as they march the streets of their respective cities in celebration. Starting around noon in most cities, parades boast brass bands, jugglers, dancers, and floats filled with significant figures from the Book of Esther.
While many celebrations happen throughout Israel, the largest usually take place in Holon, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. If you’re in the Holy Land on the 13th of Adar (usually late March), stop by one of these cities to partake in the colorful festivities. Celebrating Purim with the people of Israel will truly be a very special experience.