What Is Purim? The History Behind the Halloween of Jewish Holidays

What is its origin? When did it begin? Why did many Jews scorn it – and is the underlying tale of love, murder and betrayal true?

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Masquerading was a relatively late addition to the Purim festivities, celebrating the Jews' rescue from genocide thousands of years ago.
Masquerading was a relatively late addition to the Purim festivities, celebrating the Jews' rescue from genocide thousands of years ago.Credit: àìëñ ìéá÷
Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

Purim is the most mysterious of Hebraic holidays. It suddenly appeared in the second century BCE, though many Jews ignored it for centuries. And the origin of the holiday, let alone its flagship text - the Book of Esther - are just as baffling.

The first reference to Purim is in the deuterocanonical book Maccabees II (15:32), which merely says that on the 14th of the Jewish month of Adar, Jews celebrated a holiday called "Mordecai Day." Clearly the holiday was celebrated in at least some Jewish communities as early as 124 BCE, when this book was written in Alexandria.

Double shot - Purim and St. Patrick's Day collide (tipsily) this year

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing in the first century CE also mentions the holiday, noting that it was widely celebrated.

Making hamantaschen - stuffed cookies, traditionally eaten on Passover. The first ones contained poppy seed; today bakers vie to make interesting stuffings.Credit: Nir Kafri

Yet it seems the holiday failed to gain acceptance by all Jews until the early Middle Ages. For example, Esther is the only megillah not found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating that the desert community didn’t consider it canonical. Yet the Mishnah tells that at least from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt (132–136 CE), reading the Book of Esther on Purim was considered a mitzvah.

Check out Haaretz’s interactive map of Purim celebrations across Israel.

But is it Jewish?

The Talmud itself refers to some who doubted whether Purim should be celebrated as a Jewish holiday. Still, clearly by the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, Purim was ascendant: More translations and exegeses of the Book of Esther can be found in this period than on any other biblical text.

The holiday's origin is heatedly disputed. A number of pagan holidays - Greek, Persian, Assyrian and Babylonian - have been suggested as candidates, but none really suits.

The story of the Book of Esther as it appears in the Hebrew Bible is as follows: Ahasuerus, king of Persia, wants his wife Vashti to show off her beauty before his guests. She refuses. Ahasuerus’ servants hold an ancient version of “The Bachelor,” bringing the most beautiful women of the kingdom. One is Esther, the eponymous hero of the book, an orphan raised by her uncle Mordecai.

After his niece becomes queen, Mordecai discovers a palace plot to assassinate Ahasuerus. He tells the king, who has the plotters killed.

At about this period, one of the king’s viziers Haman rises to supremacy. Everyone, including the other viziers, must bow before him. Mordecai refuses. Furious, Haman somewhat overreacts, deciding not only to have Mordecai killed but all of the kingdom’s Jews as well. To choose a propitious day to hold this genocide, he holds a lottery and the 13th of Adar is chosen.

Hearing of this, Mordecai urges Esther to talk to the king and have him rescind the execution orders sent throughout the kingdom. Although approaching the king uninvited was perilous, Esther fasts for three days, then does it, inviting him and Haman to a banquet.

At the banquet, the king asks Esther what she wanted. She wants only one thing: that he and Haman come to another banquet the next day.

That night, the king couldn't sleep. Presumably to help him relax, he asks his servants to read to him from the kingdom chronicles.

As it happened, the servants read how Mordecai saved him from certain death. He asks how Mordecai was rewarded and is told - he wasn’t.

The next morning Haman rushes into the king’s chamber to ask for permission to execute his evil plot, but the king preempts him ״What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honor?” Haman, thinking the king was talking about him, told him that such a man should be paraded in the streets of the capital on a horse in splendor with a man walking in front announcing that this is what happens to men who the king “delighteth to honor.”

Naturally, he was frustrated when the king ordered that be done to Mordecai, not to him, but he carried it out as commanded.

That night he went to Esther’s banquet, where Esther told Ahasuerus about Haman’s plot. The king stormed out in anger.

Later, Haman went to Esther’s room to beg for mercy but as he lay prostrate on her bed begging, the king walked in and mistook what he has seen as an attempt by Haman to rape his wife. He ordered Haman be hanged, and ordered that Jews throughout the kingdom protect themselves from those who come to kill them, as the orders could not be rescinded any more.

On the 13th of Adar and on the next day, Jews around the kingdom killed thousands of their attackers. But they themselves were saved.

An elaborate fairy tale?

The historicity of this story is highly contested. Proponents note the great detail in dates, names and objects mentioned, even to seemingly unimportant aspects of the story. They also argue that the description of court life fits what we know about the Persian court from other sources.

But it's still unlikely. No other ancient texts tell anything like this story, critics snort. Nor does Ahasuerus' character fit any of the known Persian monarchs (though some supporters think he's Artaxerxes). And the most convincing argument against the story's veracity is that a Persian king would have never married an orphan of unknown parentage.

The Mishnah is the first text to prescribe how Purim is to be celebrated - the Book of Esther is to be read in public. The Talmud (redacted 500 CE) augments the tradition of reading the Book of Esther in public with drinking wine, making merry - and giving gifts to the poor. That is prescribed in the Book of Esther itself, but seems to be a later addition to the book. Neither that practice nor the name "Purim" itsef appear in the earlier version of the Book of Esther, which we know from the Greek translation in the Septuagint, dating from the second century BCE.

Of special importance in the Talmud is drinking wine on Purim. We are told one should drink so much that one can't tell the difference between the evil Haman and the good Mordecai.

Sometime in the late 5th century, celebrating Jews began to burn Haman in effigy. This often got them in trouble with their Christian neighbors, who sometimes thought the effigy burnt was of Jesus. This tradition has died out.

A later tradition, that of fasting on the day before Purim in commemoration of Esther’s fast, called Taanit Esther, first appears in the writings of Rabbi Akha in the late 6th century.

It was the Tosafists, German and French rabbis of the 13th Century who first mention the act of making noise to blot out the name of Haman (with noise) while reading the Book of Esther in public. At first this was done by stomping one’s feet. Later people started using ratchets (also known as groggers).

Enter the Batman costume

But the most widely observed Purim traditions are dressing up and masquerading.
These began in 13th century Renaissance.

Purim is celebrated at roughly the same time as the Venice Carnival and other Italian celebrations that began at about that period. First to mention these traditions was Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, who wrote of this tradition with some contempt. Still, it spread from Italy to the rest of the Jewish world within two or three centuries.

Baking "hamentachen" "(Haman pockets") stuffed cookies began in Europe during the early modern period. At first these were filled with poppy seeds: today Israeli bakers vie to be creative.

In 18th-century Eastern Europe a tradition of performing whimsical plays called Purim spiels began. That birthed a tradition still carried out in some communities.

In Israel, in the 20th century a new tradition was formed - the Adloyada. This is a street parade featuring floats. The first Adloyada was held in Tel Aviv in 1912.

This article was originially published in March 2015 and updated March 2019

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