One of the most joyous holidays in the Jewish calendar, Purim is celebrated annually throughout Jewish communities around the world, starting at sunset on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar. Meaning “lots,” as in to draw lots or straws, in ancient Persian, Purim commemorates the Jewish liberation from Haman, who was prime minister to King Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire. This is the story in the biblical book of Esther. Haman planned to kill the Jewish people after casting lots to see which day his devious plot would take place.
Purim is a day of great feasts, gladness, and much rejoicing, for “our sorrow was turned to gladness” (Esther 9:21-22).
The Story of Esther | The Foundation of Purim
In 4th century BC, the Persian Empire ruled over 127 lands, and the Jewish people were its subjects. When the Persian king Ahasuerus had his wife, Queen Vashti, either banished or executed for failing to follow his orders, he arranged a beauty pageant to find a new queen. A Jewish girl, Esther, found favor in his eyes and became the new queen, keeping her Jewish heritage a closely guarded secret.
Meanwhile, the Jew-hating Haman was appointed prime minister of the empire. Mordecai, Esther’s cousin and the leader of the Jewish community, openly defied the king’s orders and refused to bow to Haman. Haman was incensed, and he convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the extermination of all Jews in the kingdom on the 13th of Adar, a date chosen by Haman through casting of lots.
Mordecai rallied the Jews, entreating them to repent, fast, and pray to God for their safety while Esther invited King Ahasuerus and Haman to join her for several feasts in the palace. At the final feast, Esther revealed her Jewish identity to the king and exposed Haman’s treachery. The king ordered that Haman be hanged. Following, the king appointed Mordecai as prime minister in Haman’s stead. Esther pleaded with the king to be kind to her people, the Jews, and protect them against Haman’s sons and the villagers. The king issued a new decree granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.
Having been granted permission to kill those who plotted with Haman against them, on the 13th of Adar, the Jews mobilized and killed many of their enemies. For Jewish communities around the world living in unwalled cities, Purim is celebrated with much merriment from Adar 13th to 14th. Because the city of Shushan was a walled city, and it took two days to subdue their enemy, Jewish communities living in walled cities, still to this day, observe and celebrate Shushan Purim on the 14th and 15th of Adar, when, during Esther’s time, the community rested and the merrymaking began after the massacre of their enemies was completed.
Celebrating Purim Today
Throughout Israel, celebrants revel with joy. Children adorn themselves in costumes resembling Queen Esther and Mordecai. Special customs are observed, including a reading of The Book of Esther, otherwise known as Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther). It is read twice in synagogues or in private gatherings.
The most common traditions include delivering sweet foods and treats to family and friends. Called mishloach manot (the sending of portions), Purim baskets contain candy, fruit, and triangular-shaped pastries made of dough and filled with fruit preserves, called hamentashen. These baskets ensure everyone has enough to celebrate the Purim feast later in the day. The holiday encourages love and friendship among family, friends, and neighbors, as well as being mindful to give charity to the poor early in the holiday.
Children and adults dress up for the carnival-like festivities, often wearing colorful masks as they march the streets of their respective cities in celebration. Starting around noon in most cities, parades boast brass bands, jugglers, dancers, and floats filled with significant figures from the Book of Esther.
While many celebrations take place throughout Israel, the largest usually take place in Holon, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem. While the dates change each year on the Gregorian calendar, if you’re in the Holy Land during Purim, Adar 13 – 14, or Shushan Purim, Adar 14 – 15, usually coinciding with dates in February or March (this year February 25 – 27, 2021), stop by one of these cities to participate in the colorful festivities. Celebrating Purim with the people of Israel is truly a very special experience, where the joy and merrymaking that took place during Esther’s time can be felt to this day.