Purim 101 – An Oorah Holiday Guide
Oorah’s “10 Minute” guides are designed to help you “find your way around” the Yomim Tovim that mark the Jewish year. Our heritage is rich with traditions, rituals and special prayers that unite us with Jews throughout the centuries and throughout the world. But most importantly, they provide us with meaningful ways to become better connected to our own souls, our Torah, and of course, to G-d.
We hope you will find the information provided within these pages to be helpful and enlightening. Use it to enhance your experience of the Jewish holidays, and to give your family a sweet, authentic taste of the beautiful tradition that is every Jewish child’s birthright!
The When and Why of Purim
Purim is a one-day holiday that marks the salvation of the Jewish people living in the Persian Empire after the destruction of the First Temple. The drama climaxed in the year 3405 on the Jewish calendar, corresponding to 356 BCE.
The Jews dispersed throughout the Empire had been driven from their homeland by the Babylonian invasion of Israel. Among the exiles was Mordechai, who had been a member of the prestigious Sanhedrin (the Supreme Rabbinical Court), and his orphaned cousin, Esther, whom he raised. The antagonist of the story is Haman, a Minister serving King Achashverosh, who ruled over Persia’s 127 provinces.
It was Haman’s overblown pride and his hatred of the Jews that led him to engineer what he hoped would be the annihilation of every Jewish man, woman and child, all on one day. That one day was chosen by lot, which is the meaning of the word “pur” from which the holiday takes its name. The fateful day was the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar.
Because that day turned into one of salvation instead, the holiday is celebrated on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar, the day the Jews emerged victorious. Like all Jewish holidays, the festival begins at sunset the night before.
This year (2023), Purim begins on Monday evening, March 6, and continues on Tuesday, March 7.
Where is Purim mentioned in the Torah?
Purim is one of two holidays (the other is Chanukah) that were decreed by Rabbinical authorities after the giving of the Torah. There is no commandment to refrain from work as there is for the Torah-given holidays and Shabbat. In other words, lighting fire, driving, turning on and off electricity, writing, using the phone, computer and so forth are not prohibited on Purim as they are on Sukkot, Pesach, Shavuot and Shabbat.
However, Purim does have its roots in a holy text. the Book of Esther tells the story of Haman’s rise and fall and the salvation of the Jewish people under the leadership of Mordechai and Queen Esther. There it is written: “Therefore do the Jews…make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting, and a good day, and of sending portions one to another…. and that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memory of them perish from their descendants.”
The Story of Mordechai and Esther
The Megillah of Esther presents a story that is filled with drama, intrigue, danger and courage. It takes place over the course of nine years, unfolding in seemingly unrelated bits and pieces that, in retrospect, reveal the constant, behind-the-scenes supervision of G-d.The setting is the Persian Empire’s capital city, Shushan. Persia has recently conquered the Babylonian Empire and inherits the Jewish population that has been driven into exile when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple. Among those exiled is the righteous Mordechai. While many Jews try to blend into Persian society, hoping to be allowed to live in peace, Mordechai stands strong. He knows that the Jewish people’s best protection is to serve G-d wholeheartedly.
The first indication the Megillah gives us that the Jews are falling into a sorry spiritual state is when they attend a party given by the powerful Persian King Achashverosh, ruler of the Empire’s 127 provinces. Although Mordechai warns the Jews not to attend the feast, they pay no heed. At the feast, the vessels of the Holy Temple are brought out and used for drinking and debauchery, and the Jews who are present become part of their own degradation.
By the seventh day of the feast, the king is drunk. He demands that his wife, Queen Vashti, be brought from her own feast for women and paraded in front of the drunken gathering. She refuses, and the king’s advisors suggest that her disrespect be punished with removal from the throne, which means death. The king is now in the market for a new wife. Messengers are sent throughout the provinces to find a suitable young lady. The ladies are brought to the King’s harem and presented to him one-by-one until he finds one that pleases him.
Among the young women who are taken is Mordechai’s niece, Esther, whom he has raised as a daughter. Her unpretentious beauty wins the king’s heart, and she is crowned queen. However, she adheres to Mordechai’s advice to keep her Jewish origins a secret.
Meanwhile, King Achashverosh’s Minister, Haman, is engaged in a drama of his own. He has reached a level of high prestige, and by order of the King, passers-by must bow before him. Mordechai, however, refuses to bow because of the symbol of idol-worship Haman wears on his chest. Mordechai’s stubborn refusal infuriates Haman. Rather than try to exact revenge upon Mordechai alone, Haman decides to find a way to wipe out his entire people.
Haman goes to the king and persuades him that the Jewish people, who keep themselves separate from society, can not be trusted. He claims that they should not be permitted to live. He offers to put 10,000 silver talents into the king’s treasury for the privilege of getting rid of the Jews. King Achashverosh is easily convinced. He gives Haman his signet ring and authorizes him to deal with the “Jewish problem” however he sees fit. Haman issues a decree, sealed with the king’s signet ring, declaring that on the 13th of Adar, the subjects of the Persian Empire must take it upon themselves to annihilate every Jew throughout the land. The decree, translated into all the languages of the Empire, is sent out to the 127 provinces.
The Jews are bewildered and frightened by the decree. Mordechai dons sackcloth, a traditional form of mourning and repentance, and sits outside the palace. Esther sends a messenger to find out why he is behaving in this manner. She is then informed of the decree against her people. Mordechai asks her to intervene with the king, but at first she hesitates. Even the queen is not permitted to come before the king uninvited, and she has not been invited. She will be risking her life if she goes to him. Mordechai tells her that she can not save herself at the cost of the Jewish people, and that salvation will arise whether it is through her efforts or not. Furthermore, he proposes, it could well have been for this very reason that she has become queen. Esther understands. She asks that Mordechai call a public fast for the next three days, while she and her maids also fast. At the end of the fast, she will approach the king.
The remainder of the Megillah details Esther’s plan to bring about Haman’s downfall. In the end, Haman is hanged on the gallows that he had built for Mordechai, the Jews are empowered by the king to defend themselves against anyone who attacks them, and Mordechai takes over the position of power left vacant by Haman. The turn-about is so stunning that the populace stands in awe of the Jewish people and many try to become Jews themselves. The victims become the victors, and the road to their victory can be clearly traced back along the paving stones laid down by G-d over the course of years.
The most significant factor in the turn-around is the awakening of the Jews of Shushan to the error of their ways. When they fast for three days and repent, they rededicate themselves to keeping the commandments and laws of the Torah. Some commentators see Purim as a second Shavuot (the Jewish holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai), because on Purim the Jewish people accepted the Torah once again, out of pure love and devotion to G-d. When they stopped seeking security and favor with the king and put their faith in G-d instead, their faith was rewarded. G-d literally turned the logical course of events upside-down and saved His people from destruction.
The Fast of Esther
On the day before Purim (13th of Adar), the Jewish people observe a fast. It is named for Esther because it commemorates the fast she called for when she prepared to go before King Achashverosh and to attempt to save the Jewish people. This fast is observed from sunrise to night-time; it does not begin the night before, as do the Yom Kippur and Tisha b’Av fasts. This year, Taanis Esther will be on Monday, March 6th.
Even though the fast is named for Esther, it does not coincide with the calendar days on which she and the Jewish people actually fasted. That three-day fast took place in the month of Nisan, on the 14th, 15th and 16th. However, the Fast of Esther was established on the day the Jews prepared to fight for their lives. Fasting before going into danger is a custom that drives home an important point: Our success does not come from our physical strength, but from G-d’s kindness and protection.
Customs in Shul
Right before Purim begins, at Mincha (afternoon prayer service) on the 13th of Adar, there is a custom of giving a donation in the amount of three halves of the basic coin of the local currency. For Americans, that amount would add up to $1.50 – three halves of a dollar. The money is given to the poor to use in any way they wish. Some people give the amount per household, and others give per member of the household.
This mitzvah, usually done in the synagogue, should be done on the fast day, this year (2023) on Monday, the 11th of Adar (March 6th) before Mincha.
This custom, although it has become linked to Purim, has no direct connection to the festival. It is a reminder of the half-shekel donation made by every Jew toward the upkeep of the Holy Temple. An announcement was made on Rosh Chodesh (the first of the month) Adar, informing people of the upcoming donation. Because all Jews must hear the Megillah, it has become the custom to give this donation right before the Megillah reading.
Hearing the Megillah
Every man and woman is required to hear every word of the Megillah read out loud from a handwritten parchment scroll. It must be heard twice – once after nightfall after the holiday begins and again on Purim day. The actual requirement is to read the Megillah, but this can be fulfilled by hearing it read. You should follow along in your own copy. There are many variations available, including illustrated ones for children.
To keep the listeners involved and aware of what is going on in the story, there are four places in which the listeners read a verse out loud. These are called the “verses of salvation,” and they each refer to some good news or good development on behalf of the Jews.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Megillah reading is the blotting out of Haman’s name. Haman is a descendant of the tribe of Amalek, an ancient and eternal enemy of the Jewish people. Amalek won its notoriety by attacking the Jewish people soon after they emerged from Egypt and began their journey through the desert. The entire world had heard of their miraculous exodus and knew that the Jews were under Divine protection. Amalek, however, believed in their own prowess. They attacked, judging the situation strictly from a military point of view and forgetting that the victor would be the one that had G-d on its side.
The Torah commands the Jewish people to wipe out Amalek and blot their memory from the world. This is because Amalek represents the refusal to see that G-d’s hand runs the world. Amalek represents might over right, the physical over the spiritual, the negation of G-d’s power. In fact, on the Shabbat preceding Purim, congregations read the verses in the Torah that command the Jewish people to remember Amalek’s evil and to blot out their memory.
Haman, a descendant of Amalek, acts as a true representative of his people. When his name is mentioned during the Megillah reading, listeners make noise to drown it out. That is where graggers, clappers and other noise-makers enter into the picture. Some people stamp their feet or bang on a table. In some congregations, especially those with many children, the word “Haman” elicits quite a din. However, the reader must then repeat the name without the noise so that the listeners fulfill the mitzvah of hearing every word of the Megillah.
Special Mitzvos & Customs of Purim
In keeping with the Megillah’s instructions that Jews should “send portions to each other,” every Jewish adult is responsible to send out two portions of food to one of their fellow Jews. Men and women are both included in this commandment. The proper time for performing this observance is on Purim day, starting after the morning services and Megillah reading.
The food has to be ready to eat without further preparation. For instance, baked goods, cooked dishes, fruit, beverages and chocolate are all suitable. While it is not mandatory to give out Mishloach Manos to more than one person, the exchange of Mishloach Manos was designed to express brotherhood among Jews and therefore, it is common for families to prepare Mishloach Manos for many friends and neighbors. That makes Purim day in a Jewish neighborhood – and especially in Israel! – a veritable street festival, with families walking or driving along, going from house to house delivering food baskets. With children in costume and music blaring from every car and doorway, the atmosphere is one of pure happiness.
Perhaps the highest form of giving Mishloach Manos is to give to someone with whom you’ve had a falling out or someone with whom you’d like to cultivate a friendship. It’s also praiseworthy to give to those who are lonely or needy and would truly appreciate it.
One traditional food that is often included in Mishloach Manos is a pastry called “hamentashen,” which means “Haman’s Pockets.” These are triangular shaped pastries made out of either yeast dough or cookie dough, filled with fruit jam or poppy seeds. The dough is folded into a triangle, forming pockets for the filling.
Mishloach Manos baskets take on many forms. From a simple gift bag to elaborate arrangements wrapped in cellophane and ribbons, many families love to exercise their creativity and come up with new ideas for Mishloach Manos each year.
However, Mishloach Manos need not be expensive. It is an observance that even a poor person is required to fulfill. It is perfectly acceptable, in fact, for two people to exchange Mishloach Manos with each other and fulfill the obligation that way. However, only food and beverages satisfy the requirement. Money, clothing or other non-edibles do not qualify as Mishloach Manos.
For most Jewish observances, it is preferable for a person to fulfill the requirement personally. Mishloach Manos, however, is an exception to the rule. In this case, the directive is “sending” portions, and therefore, it’s preferable to send the portions through an agent (your children, for example). However, if you do it yourself, you’ve still fulfilled the requirement.
Matanos L’evyonim (Gifts to the Poor)
When the Jews united to fast and pray during the three days prior to Esther’s meeting with Achashverosh, a powerful force was set into motion. That is, the unparalleled power of Jewish unity. Like the obligation of Mishloach Manos, the special Purim observance of giving to the poor is also aimed at reawakening and strengthening our sense of brotherhood.
Although a Jew is required to give charity throughout the year, Matanos L’evyonim has a special status. It should be something beyond your regular charitable giving. The amount a person gives to fulfill the requirement is fairly small – enough for a poor person to buy bread. However, some rabbis maintain that a person should give the equivalent value of an entire meal. Food, drink or clothing also count as Matanos L’evyonim. These gifts should be given to at least two people. Even the poor themselves are required to give. A person should not use money he has set aside for this obligation for another purpose
The money or gifts should be given on Purim day. This is to ensure that the recipient can use it toward his own celebration of Purim. If you give it the day before, he may be forced to use it before Purim. If you give it after Purim, obviously, it cannot serve its purpose. In either of those cases, though, the money still counts as tzedakah – charity.
Even though the sages intended the gifts for a specific purpose, as the giver, you need not concern yourself with how they will actually be used. The poor person is allowed to use his gifts in any way he wants, even if he wishes to save them for another day.
If you do not think you’ll be able to find poor people to whom you can give, there are many organizations that you can contribute to, which will properly distribute the money on your behalf on Purim day.
In addition to Matanos L’evyonim, general charitable giving is at a peak on Purim day. It is yet another ingredient in the formula that builds the loving bonds among Jews and generates a tremendous wave of Divine compassion for our people. A unique feature of Purim giving is that during this one time during the year, we are not supposed to scrutinize the recipient in order to determine whether he’s really needy. All G-d wants us to do is fill our hearts up with good will toward every Jew, to feel connected to each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and then open our hands freely. Why? Because that is exactly what G-d did for us on Purim. He saw our unity as we joined together to fast and pray as one large family, and without distinguishing between the worthy and the unworthy, He gave us our salvation. That is the power of unity, and that is what we arouse through both Matanos L’evyonim and general charity.
The Festive Meal
On Purim day, families and friends sit down to large, sumptuous meals including meat and wine. This, too, is a commandment mentioned in the Megillah. The main part of the meal should take place during daylight hours, but it often extends well into the night.
The Zohar (a sacred text that reveals many hidden meanings in the Torah) explains why on Purim, physical pleasures like eating and drinking are exalted. It is a day in which the Jewish soul and body are united in their desire to reach up and connect to G-d. The Jewish way is not to ignore or demean the physical, but rather to make it holy by using it to serve G-d. The Zohar teaches that on Purim, the feast elevates the soul as much as fasting does on Yom Kippur!
Wine features prominently in the Purim meal. The Sages of the Talmud stated that on Purim, “A person is obligated to drink on Purim till he no longer knows the difference between ‘Cursed is Haman,’ and ‘Blessed is Mordechai.’” Why, when Judaism usually emphasizes self-restraint and moderation, does it seem that the Sages are recommending drunkenness?
The reasons are varied, but the effect is universal. The Talmud teaches that one can know another person’s true character “b’kiso, b’koso, u’vkaaso – in his wallet, in his cup (meaning drunkenness) and in his anger.” And indeed, life experience bears out this insight; if you want to know what’s really inside a person, watch how he behaves when his money is involved, when he’s intoxicated or when he’s angry. The truth comes out!
On Purim, this factor floods the Jewish world with the incredible beauty that resides within each Jewish soul. “B’koso,” – you’ll see the inhibitions drop and the words of Torah wisdom come flooding out of the most seemingly ordinary person. You’ll see estranged people forgive each other with tears and hugs. You’ll see those who are struggling to break free of negative habits and thoughts pouring out their hearts to G-d and anyone else who will listen, praying for strength to improve and come closer to their Creator. You’ll see friendship, warmth, a flood of charitable giving, dancing, singing and pure joy in being a part of the Jewish people.
Is it possible that in this state, a person would really be unable to differentiate between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman?” One interpretation of these words explains that both Haman and Mordechai generated great benefits for the Jewish people. From Haman’s evil, the Jews received the rude awakening that sent them running back to G-d for help and protection and set in motion the repentance that reversed their fortunes. At the same time as Haman fell, Mordechai rose to power, bringing our salvation to its completion. Each factor is a different aspect of G-d’s goodness, but a person who is floating in Purim’s cloud of gladness doesn’t make the distinction. It’s all the same – and it’s all good!
Wine is important to the Purim celebration for another reason as well. It was through wine that the entire drama moved forward. Achashverosh’s drunkenness brought about the death of Vashti, which opened the door to Esther’s ascension to the throne, which in turn positioned her to save her people. Furthermore, her plan involved inviting Haman and the king to two wine feasts (see the full text of the Megillah), which were instrumental in bringing about Haman’s downfall
The rabbis do caution, however, that drunkenness is not an obligation. Rather it is a beloved custom. Therefore, a person for whom drinking would be detrimental, either for health or other reasons, should abstain from this custom. Certainly one who will be driving must abstain. In addition, a person is obligated to remain sober enough to perform the rituals associated with the festive meal, such as hand-washing, reciting a blessing over the bread and reciting the Grace After Meals.
Dressing in Costume
Thinking up a costume for Purim is a delightful pre-occupation for Jewish children, sometimes for months in advance of the holiday. While many children choose to dress up as Queen Esther, Mordechai, King Achashverosh or even Haman or Vashti, others come up with costumes that are completely whimsical. There are cowboys, policemen, clowns, brides and even inanimate objects like candy bars and cell phones. Adults get into the act too, sometimes just with a wig a fake beard or grease-paint, and sometimes with a whole head-to-toe disguise.
Why? One explanation is that the Purim story teaches that nothing is as it seems. G-d’s hand was hiding in seemingly natural events, reading much like the daily headlines of today: A dissolute ruler, a spurned wife, a beauty contest to find a new wife, politics, intrigue, jealousy and of course, an anti-Semitic megalomaniac – there’s nothing very “G-dly” in the details of the story.
Yet, in each of these details, G-d was there, pulling the strings, setting the stage for a massive surge of repentance and rededication by the Jewish people, and an amazing turn-around in our fate. Nothing was as it seemed, and on Purim, we remind ourselves, by hiding our real identity, that G-d is hidden in everything.
The name “Esther,” in fact, bears the same root as the Hebrew word that means hidden – “haster.” Although Purim is not mentioned in the Torah, the Sages say that it is hinted to in a verse in Devarim (Deuteronomy, the Fifth Book of the Torah) in which G-d tells of a time in which, due to the Jewish people’s sins, He will remove His special protection and allow the forces of history to hold sway. The words in the Torah are “V’Anochi haster astir panai – and I will surely hide My face.” Indeed, this describes all the troubled times in the Jewish people’s history. But the beauty of Purim is that it teaches us to see that salvation is brewing behind the scenes – that light comes out of the darkness. Although G-d hides His protection it is there nevertheless.
Wearing costumes also alludes to the episode in the Torah in which our forefather Yaakov disguised himself as his older brother Esav in order to receive his father’s blessing. On the outside, he appeared to be the rough, brazen Esav, but in his heart, he was pure. Likewise, our costumes remind G-d that no matter how we appear on the outside, inside we are His pure, holy children.
Like Yom Kippur
If someone were asked to name the two Jewish holidays most diametrically opposed to each other in their spirit and traditions of observance, no doubt he would choose Purim and Yom Kippur. On Purim, eating, drinking and celebration are the order of the day, while on Yom Kippur, fasting and solemnity reign.
It is therefore surprising to learn that the renowned Kabbalist, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari’zal (he lived in Tsfat in the 1500s), compared the two days and found that in certain ways, Purim has greater sanctity. The reason has to do with the two main avenues by which a person becomes closer to G-d. One way is through fear and awe. When we stop to contemplate G-d’s greatness and His mastery of everything in creation, from the breath we draw to the planets that spin in their orbit, we understand that we are subjects of an all-powerful King. A person would be afraid to violate the will of such a King, and would therefore feel compelled to serve Him to the best of his ability. This is the spirit of Yom Kippur.
The other avenue of becoming closer to G-d is through love. When we relate to G-d as a loving Father who wants the best for us, who protects us and gives us all we need, we have the desire to please Him and continue to feel close to Him. We’re filled with joy and gratitude toward our Father, who loves us unequivocally. That is the spirit of Purim.
Both love and awe are necessary components in one’s spiritual growth. Many times, the only thing that stops a person from following the urge to do wrong is the fear of Heaven, the knowledge that eventually, “what goes around comes around” and he will be punished for his sins. The higher motivation, however, is to refrain from wrongdoing and strive to do good, because we love G-d and want to serve Him with all our hearts.
Another explanation of the Ari’zal’s point is that on Yom Kippur, our observances are totally spiritual. We put aside all our physical needs and spend the entire day in prayer. On Purim, however, we celebrate with both body and soul, thereby making the physical, material world an instrument for holiness.
The link between the holidays is hinted to in their names. At times, Yom Kippur is referred to as Yom Kippurim, which can be read as Yom ki-Purim, meaning “a day like Purim.” There are many lessons that can be drawn from this comparison, but underlying them all is the Ari’zal’s message – that food, drink, costumes and celebration actually add up to a day of unique sanctity.
A Purim Tale
Jewish tradition teaches that in the future, when the world reaches a state of perfection, the only Yom Tov that will still be celebrated will be Purim. This is a puzzling statement, for Purim seems to be a minor holiday in comparison to Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, which are ordained right in the text of the Torah. The following allegory, based on the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt’l, explains why Purim holds this unique importance:
Two men were appointed as night watchmen of the town gate. One man was given a flashlight that he could shine in the face of each person who approached. The other guard, who stood at the other gate, got nothing. He had to rely on his sense of hearing to determine who was coming. As the weeks went by, the second guard trained himself to identify the unique sound of each resident’s footsteps.
One day, as the sun rose, the night watchmen realized that their replacements were not arriving for their shifts. Each watchman stayed at his post, continuing to guard the town. The one with the flashlight soon found that his weak little beam was useless in the light of the sun. The other watchman, however, discovered that even in the light of the sun, the skill he had acquired – his fine-tuned hearing – still served him well. It enabled him to know someone was coming before he could even see the person.
The explanation of this allegory is as follows: The three Biblical holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot all have their roots, to some extent, in the redemption from Egypt. This was a redemption that was brilliantly revealed to the Jewish people, with G-d’s “hand” patently evident to all. As we marched out of Egypt, received the Torah and lived directly under G-d’s protection in the desert, we could see with our own eyes the evidence of G-d’s presence and His involvement in our lives.
Purim, on the other hand, was a redemption without a flashlight. As noted earlier, the Torah only hints to this holiday, using the words “I will surely hide – haster astir,” hinting at the name of Esther, as well as the nature of the entire Purim episode, in which there are no open miracles and G-d’s name is never mentioned. The Jews of Shushan had to sharpen their sense of hearing and recognize G-d in the dark. This is a skill that has been crucial to Jewish survival in every generation since.
But G-d promises that there will be a time in the future when a spiritual light will shine on the world with intensity that has never before been experienced. This will be a redemption that outshines everything else, and all the festivals that recall the earlier redemption will fade in comparison, like the light of the flashlight against the light of the sun. Yet as we recall from the allegory, the guard who learned to recognize people in the darkness, who had developed a keen ability to recognize characteristics that escaped other people, found that his talents were still valuable once the sun had risen. Likewise, our hard-earned skill at recognizing G-d in the darkness will always be a precious asset to the Jewish people. It will always serve to enhance our sense of G-d’s presence and give us the ability to experience a unique and special closeness to Him.