Considered one of the most joyous festivals of the Jewish year, Purim commemorates the biblical event when Jewish people were saved from extermination in the ancient Persian Empire. Each year, Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar on the Hebrew calendar. This year, the holiday begins the evening of March 4 and ends the evening of March 5.
Jews began celebrating the festival during the first century, but it gained prominence only during the Middle Ages. Modern celebrations resemble a cross between Halloween and Mardi Gras, with revelers donning costumes, as they eat, drink and be merry.
For those who want to learn more about Purim, here are answers to three common questions about the Jewish festival:
What's The Story Behind Purim?
The story of Purim is told in the biblical Book of Esther. The plot centers on Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman living in Persia who was raised by her cousin and the leader of the Jewish people there, Mordecai.
The story begins when King Ahasuerus has his wife, Queen Vashti, killed for failing to follow his orders. To find her replacement, he sets up a royal pageant, where his eyes are drawn to Esther. He does not know her identity or nationality.
The villain of the story is Haman, who serves as an adviser to the king. He hates Mordecai because he refuses to bow down to Haman. This has Haman on a mission to destroy the Jewish people in the empire. He decides to organize a lottery to pick a date for the mission. He pulls the 13th of Adar. Interestingly, "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 this, Mordecai persuades Esther to speak to Ahasuerus. This is risky because someone generally has to be summoned to speak to the king. Esther fasts for three days in preparation. Luckily, Ahasuerus welcomes her. Later, at a feast, Esther reveals Haman's plot to kill the Jewish people. Ahasuerus orders Haman and 10 sons to be hanged. Mordecai is given Haman's signet and estate.
The king then orders the Jews throughout the kingdom to protect themselves because he could not rescind in time Haman’s order to have them killed. On the 13th of Adar, the Jews killed their attackers, and they were saved.
How Is Purim Celebrated?
Purim is observed on the 14th of Adar, when the Persian Jews celebrated their survival. Observances include reading from the Book of Esther and the associated commentary known as the Megillah. During Purim services, congregants hiss, stamp their feet or shake noisemakers whenever Haman’s name is mentioned in an effort to “blot out” his name.
In addition to synagogue parades, plays and parodies may be performed with people dressing up in costumes. This tradition stems from the Fat Tuesday celebrations the Italian Jewish community witnessed in the 13th century.
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?
Pastries known as "hamantaschen," or Haman pockets, are popular Purim treats. One interpretation holds the triangular cookies filled with fruit marmalade represent Haman's three-cornered hat. Another interpretation of the pastry's shape stems from the idea of Esther's strength and the founders of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Another name for hamantaschen 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.