Purim (the word comes from the Assyrian or
Persian pur-"lots") is the most joyful holiday in the Jewish calendar.
It is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the month of adar (in Israel
on the fifteenth-i.e., either in February or in March).
Purim is celebrated in commemoration of when the Jews in Susa were
saved from the extermination planned by Haman, a dignitary at the court
of the king of Persia, Ahashverus. Through a provocation orchestrated by
Haman, they were to be accused of blasphemy and disrespect of the
government. Then they were to be killed. The plans were ruined by the
king's wife, Ester, and her uncle, Mordechai. As a result, it was Haman
and his ten sons who were killed, and the Persian Jews were put under
the protection of the king.
Sources show that this holiday has been celebrated since the first
century AD-first under the name Mordechai Day, and then under its
current name, "Purim".
The holiday is preceded by a one-day fast, Tannit Ester (Hebrew,
Ester's fast), which is observed in commemoration of the queen's fast
before her visit to Ahashverus. It is also a custom during this holiday
to give alms to the poor, and to give small gifts to one's friends and
neighbors-usually sweets, fruit or alcohol. Among the foods
traditionally eaten during this holiday are hamantashe ("Haman's ears",
"Haman's pocket")-three-cornered yeast cakes with poppy-seed, plum jam,
or fruit and nut fillings.
In the synagogue, Megilat Ester (The Scroll of
Ester) is read, which is the story of the Jews' fate in Susa, Haman's
intrigue, and the courage of Ester and Mordechai. During the reading,
those present try their best to drown out Haman's name when it is
uttered. They do this by making noise, whether by shouting, whistling or
using noise-makers�all this in the belief that the names of the
evil-doers should be erased. After the service, a party is thrown,
during which alcohol is served, in addition to all manner of special
treats. Traditionally on this holiday, one is required to drink
alcoholic beverages until one no longer distinguishes between good and
evil (ad lo yada, Hebrew: let him know)-which is to say, until one
begins to confuse the words: "may Mordechai be blessed, may Haman be
damned". This has many meanings. It is a reminder that the Jews were
saved during a feast at the king's. Some commentators stress the
mystical significance of ad lo yada�as an entrance into a world in which
concepts become ambiguous, in which they mingle and create a harmonious
Such recommendations have made Purim the most joyous of the Jewish
festivals, something akin to a general carnival. That day, even the
strictest ban on men dressing in skirts and women in men's clothes can
be broken. As a result, during Purim there are usually masquerade balls,
other masked events and other boisterous social gatherings. Students at
religious schools usually write humorous presentations, in which they
explain the basic precepts of faith in an absurd way, and sometimes
criticize their teachers and undermine the authority of the rabbis.
The Purim celebrations gave rise to a
special kind of play, the purimshpil (Yiddish, Purim play). At first,
these were comprised of texts about the story in the Book of Ester;
later, they expanded to include other Biblical themes, which were often
depicted in a humorous or parodistic manner. Groups of purimshpilers
would go from house to house, giving short, humorous shows, and in
return would receive gifts of money or something to eat. These Purim
shows became the basis of modern Jewish theater.