February-March Illustration: Masha Manapov

What is Purim? 

Purim (“lots”), described in the biblical Book of Esther, marks the salvation of ancient Persian Jews from a plot to wipe them out. The story transpired in Shushan, the walled capital city of Persia, where, according to the scroll, the plot was only fully foiled on the 15th day of Adar. The scroll describes how Esther, a Jewish orphan, became queen to King Ahasuerus, and was thus in a position to foil the schemes of Haman, the evil vizier who planned the genocide. She was alerted to the plot by Mordechai, her uncle, was evidently on the king’s council.  

The name of the holiday reflects the Pur – the lots drawn by Haman to determine when exactly his (ultimately unsuccessful) plot to destroy the Jewish people was to be carried out.

When is Purim?

Purim is on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (corresponding roughly to March). In walled cities, such as Jerusalem, it is celebrated on the 15th of Adar, known as Shushan Purim. The date discrepancy is due to the fact that the fighting in Shushan continued for an extra day.

Purim begins the evening before and ends the evening of:

Purim 2016 – March 24

Purim 2017 – March 12

Purim 2018 – March 1

Purim 2019 – March 21

How do we observe Purim?

The Book of Esther is read in public on Purim, and most communities have the tradition (since the 13th century or so) of making noise to “blot out” the name of Haman wherever it is mentioned in the book. Children, in particular, enjoy getting into the act by twirling special ratchets, known as groggers.

The custom of drinking wine on Purim stems from a quotation in the Talmud (Megillah 7b): “One must drink on Purim until one can’t distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai.” 

In addition to partying, it is customary to give gifts to the poor, particularly food and drink, called “Mishloah Manot”. Although there are many explanations for this custom, it can be seen as the best response to near-catastrophe: nothing brings people together like eating together and giving gifts.

All this feasting makes up for the fact that one also fasts on the day before Purim in commemoration of Esther’s fast, called Taanit Esther.

 In Israel, the most widely observed Purim traditions are dressing up and masquerading. Sometimes whole cities join in with the annual Adloyada stree-fair, including floats, clowns, and acrobats.

On a smaller scale, some communities perform whimsical plays called Purim spiels, often parodying current political leaders and public figures. These traditionally took their lead from the actual characters from the Purim story.

What do we eat on Purim?

Purim has always been associated with food, with “mishloach manot” (gifting food) and banquets playing a major role in the observance of the holiday. Some have the tradition of adding enough different foods to each gift basket to require at least three separate blessings, for example: fruit, wine, and cookies.

 The best known Purim food is a type of filled pastry known as Hamantaschen (“Haman’s ears”). These were originally called Mohn Taschen, German for “poppy pockets,” but “Mohn” sounds like Haman (the villain from the Book of Esther), and the pun guaranteed the cookies a place in the general revelry of Purim.

Purim Reading