hamentachen Hamentachen, a traditional pastry baked for Purim. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Purim is one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish year. Celebrated on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar, this year the holiday begins on the evening of March 15 and ends the evening of March 16.

While the festival dates back to as early as the first century CE (AD), it gained acceptance by Jews only in the early Middle Ages. Today, Purim resembles a Jewish Mardi Gras of sorts, with revelers dressing in costume to commemorate when the Jewish people supposedly were saved from extermination in ancient Persia. (Independent accounts of such an event are lacking.)

For those who want to learn more about Purim, below are answers to common questions surrounding the Jewish festival:

What is the story behind Purim?

The story of Purim comes from the biblical Book of Esther. The plot follows a beautiful young Jewish woman, Esther, living in Persia who was raised by her cousin and leader of the Jews, Mordecai. At the time, King Ahasuerus had his wife, Queen Vashti, executed for failing to follow his orders. To find a new wife, he set up a beauty pageant along the lines of “The Bachelor.” His eyes were drawn to Esther, even though she refused to reveal her identity or nationality.

The villain of the story is Haman, a Jew-hater appointed prime minister of the empire. Mordecai had refused to bow down to Haman, which set him off on a rampage to destroy all the Jews in the empire on the 13th of Adar – a date chosen by lottery that Haman organized. In fact, "Purim" is the plural of "Pur," which means "lot," referring to the lottery that Haman used to choose the date for the massacre.

To prevent the mass killing, Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to Ahasuerus. This was a risky move since one could only speak to the king when summoned. To prepare, Esther fasted for three days before going to the king. Luckily, he welcomed her and she invited him to a feast. Later at the feast, the king asked what Esther wanted. She said only one thing: for the king and Haman to come to another banquet the following day.

That night Ahasuerus has trouble sleeping. He asks his servants to read from the court chronicles, where he learns that Mordecai saved him from death. He asked if Mordecai was rewarded, and it turns out he wasn’t. The following morning the king ordered Haman to have Mordecai paraded in the streets to celebrate his service. Although frustrated, Haman carried out the orders as commanded.

At the feast that night, Esther reveals Haman’s plot to kill the Jews. The king storms out in anger. That night, Haman goes to Esther’s bedroom to beg for mercy. The king walks in and mistakes the scene for Haman attempting to rape his wife. He orders Haman to be hanged on the gallows originally meant for Mordecai. The king then ordered the Jews throughout the kingdom to protect themselves since he could no longer rescind the order to have them killed. On the 13th of Adar, Jews killed their attackers but they were saved.

How is it celebrated?

Purim is observed on the 14th of Adar, the day the Jews fought for their survival. Observances include reading from the Book of Esther, sending gifts of food and donating to charity. During Purim services, it is common for congregants to hiss, stamp their feet or bring noisemakers to use whenever Haman’s name is mentioned in an effort to “blot out” his name.

To eat, drink and be merry is also a must. Parades, plays and parodies are performed on the holiday with people dressing up in costumes. This tradition dates back to the 13th century when it was celebrated roughly around the same time as the Venice Carnival, the Christian pre-Lenten festival.

On the day before Purim, the Fast of Esther takes place to commemorate Esther’s three days of fasting. This usually falls on the 13th of Adar unless it is on the Sabbath, when it is pushed to the preceding Thursday.

What are traditional Purim foods?

Baking "hamentaschen" (Haman pockets) is another Purim tradition. The triangular pastries filled with fruit marmalade are meant to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. Another interpretation for the pastry’s shape stems from the idea of Esther’s strength and the founders of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Another name for hamentaschen are "oznay Haman," which means "Haman's ears" in Hebrew. This interpretation comes from the ancient practice of cutting off criminals’ ears before they were hanged.

What are popular holiday greetings?

On Purim, the common Hebrew greeting is "Chag Purim Sameach" ("Joyous Purim holiday").

St. Purim’s Day?

For the first time since 1995, Purim and St. Patrick’s Day fall on the same weekend. Purim starts on Saturday and finishes on Sunday this year, and St. Patrick’s Day is on March 17.

This isn’t the first time a Jewish holiday shared a day with a different celebration. In November, Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah fell on the same day, giving birth to “Thanksgivukkah.” The last time Purim and St. Patrick’s Day fell on the exact same day was in 1957. The next time will be in 2022.