What is Purim?
Purim is a festival celebrated on the fourteenth of the Hebrew month of Adar. It falls out in late winter or early spring. It commemorates the failure of Haman (a Persian minister)'s plan to kill all the Jews of ancient Persia. It means "lots" and refers to the lots cast by the adversary of the Jews at the time, Haman.
What is the source of the Purim story?
The story of Purim is relayed in the scroll of Esther, one of the books if the Bible The scroll is named after the heroine of the story. The story took place in the Persian empire in the fourth century BCE. The king Achashverosh killed his wife Vashti in a moment of rage and held a beauty pageant in order to choose a new wife. He chose Esther as his new queen. Esther did not disclose her Jewish identity.
Meanwhile, the minister Haman was outraged when Mordechai, a Jew and Esther's cousin, refused to bow down to him. As a result, he decided to kill all the Jews. Haman received the permission of the king to kill all the Jews on the thirteenth day of the Hebrew month of Adar. This date was decided upon by Haman through his casting lots.
Mordechai gathered all the Jews and encouraged them to fast, pray and repent. Whilst this was going on, Esther invited Achashverosh to a feast and at the feast revealed her identity and Haman's plot which had been revealed to her by Mordechai. As a result, Achashverosh ordered the hanging of Haman, Mordechai was appointed in his place and the Jews were granted the right to fight against those rising up to kill them. On Adar thirteenth the Jews killed many of their enemies and by the fourteenth of Adar they were celebrating and resting.
What special Purim practices are there?
- The story of Purim is read from the Scroll of Esther on the eve of Purim and on Purim day itself. There is a custom to make noise when the name of the wicked Haman is read. In fact, there are special noise-makers called Groggers or Ra'ashanim that can be waved to create a noise at the sound of Haman's name.
- There is a special commandment to give charity to two needy people on Purim. Giving charity is a daily responsibility but on Purim it is a special commandment.
- Food portions are sent. They are known as Mishloach Manot. The obligation is to send one gift of two foods but it is meritorious to send several. The food gifts should ideally be sent via a third party.
- A special festive meal is eaten on the day of Purim after hearing the Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther in Hebrew). Alcoholic consumption is encouraged, adding to the festive cheer.
- Special prayers are recited, thanking G-d for deliverance from the hands of the enemy.
- There is a custom to wear costumes on Purim. This alludes to the fact that the story of Purim occurred behind the mask of "natural' occurrences, with G-d's name not being mentioned even once.
- A traditional Purim food is Hamantashen or Oznei Haman. These are triangular-shaped pastries or cookies with sweet fillings. The translation of Hamantashen or Oznei Haman is "Haman's ears". The original name was Mohn-Tashen meaning poppy-seed pockets but due to the similarity to the name Haman they became known as Hamantashen.