What is Purim and How is It Celebrated?
While any holiday is by nature full of frivolity and celebration, there is perhaps no other festival on the Jewish calendar that is quite as festive as Purim.
Beginning at sundown on the 15th day of the month of Andar, which usually falls some time in March (in 2022, Purim begins on March 16th), this is a chance for Jewish people from all over the world to let loose and celebrate with what appears to be religiously-sanction reckless abandon.
For example, not only is it acceptable to get quite drunk on Purim, but it’s actually encouraged by the Torah!
But what exactly is Purim besides just a springtime holiday where you can let your guard down and not feel bad doing so? Turns out it’s one of the oldest holidays of the Jewish faith, and modern celebrations are steeped in references to its original story.
The Story of Purim
The story of Purim can be found in the Torah in the Book of Esther, and it dates all the way back to the days of the Persian empire (c. 750 BC – c. 300 BC). Based out of what is now the nation of Iran, the Persian empire was a vast trade network that stretched across western Asia and Mesopotamia, reaching India in the east and Ethiopia in the west.
Because of its size, the Persian empire was quite diverse. People from many different cultures and backgrounds could be found living within its borders, usually rather peacefully. The Jews, who can trace their origins to Jerusalem and the surrounding lands of Palestine, were one the many groups living in the empire. Though as is often the case, they were the subjects of much oppression and discrimination.
Purim in the Book of Esther
During the reign of the Persian king Artaxerxes I in the 5th century, however, this oppression intensified. As is indicated in the Torah, during a banquet thrown for his army, Artaxerxes I got drunk and ordered his wife to parade around naked so that everyone could see her beauty. She refused and Artaxerxes I disowned her. To find a new wife, he asked the people around him to present women to him so that he could choose a new queen.
One of his advisors, a man named Mordechai, offers up his niece, a woman named Esther, and the king chooses her, not knowing she is Jewish.
Shortly thereafter, Artaxerxes I appointed a new vizier, or prime minister, a man named Haman who hated Jews. When he learned Mordechai was Jewish, he plots to have him killed. He also passes a decree that lays out a plan to exterminate all the Jews from the empire.
Mordechai encourages Esther to use her influence with the king to stop this genocide against her people. After initially refusing, she eventually agreed to fast and pray for three days. She then sought an audience with the king to ask for his help in stopping Ham man's plot, and when Artaxerxes I learned what his right-hand man was planning to do, he was furious and had him hanged.
Mordechai was then made vizier and allowed to issue a decree to reverse the one made by Haman. This new law allowed Jews to kill anyone they perceived as a threat to their safety.
In addition, the day in which the decree was made was declared a day of celebration across the empire. This became Purim and is still celebrated to this day.
The Meaning of Purim
The word “Purim” comes from the ancient Persian word for “lots.” This is a reference to the lots, or groups, Haman had put Jews in, and that he would choose from when it came time to exterminate the Jewish people in the empire.
At face value, Purim seems to be a holiday celebrating the salvation of the Jewish people from annihilation. And it is. But it’s also about something else: the invisible presence of God.
The Book of Esther is the only book in the Torah in which God is not mentioned directly, yet He is everywhere.
In the story of Purim, few people knew Esther was Jewish. That she later revealed her true origins and used them to save the Jews in Persia is seen as a miracle.
Furthermore, the Jews of Persia, after Haman’s decree, would have had every reason to want to abandon their faith. Yet few did, and they were rewarded with salvation, a reminder that God is always working in the background, even when you cannot see it.
The Purim Celebration
The date of the Purim celebration coincides with the original decree issued by Mordechai, the 14th day of the month of Andar. While traditions vary around the world, a few things are practiced by nearly all Jews, such as:
- Public readings and reenactment of the Book of Esther – To commemorate the holiday, it is typical to reread the Book of Esther out loud in a group to remember its lessons. In some places, the story is reenacted as a play. Either way, this retelling usually takes place in a synagogue.
- The Purim feast – Like most Jewish holidays, there is a big feast to celebrate the holiday. Some typical foods include hamantaschen, which are triangular stuffed pastries said to be “Haman’s ears,” bean and lentil soups that might have been consumed by the vegetarian Esther, and, in some places, turkey, brisket, Cornish hen, and other special delights.
- Drinking of alcohol – Again, it’s quite normal in modern society for people to drink alcohol on a holiday. But during Purim, not only is drinking encouraged but so is getting drunk. Wine is usually the libation of choice, though it doesn’t matter. Of course, you don’t need to get drunk. But it’s okay because it’s supposed to symbolize the blurring lines between people and God. During the crisis leading up to Purim, God did not reveal Himself yet he was very present. By lowering your inhibitions, you can emulate this phenomenon in a symbolic, and fun, way.
- Costumes – Perhaps as a way to connect the current holiday to the past, but also as a symbol of the hidden nature of God in daily life, it has become common for people to dress up in costumes to celebrate Purim.
- Charity and giving of food – Because of the persecution the Jews were subjected to under Haman, a big part of Purim is giving to charity and also giving food to others. According to the Torah, one should give away at least two meals worth of food and they should also give to two people in need. Today, most people give gift baskets filled with food to one another. Officially, if someone asks for charity on Purim, Jewish people are required to give it.
- Fasting – Just like Esther fasted and prayed for three days before appealing to her husband to save the Jews, it is customary to not eat for one whole day before Purim begins. However, once the holiday officially starts, fasting for non-medical reasons is prohibited. One must take part in the party!
Purim is a chance to celebrate. But while the holiday brings feasts and lots of wine, there is a solemn significance to it, and some important life lessons. Jews are taught to remember that life can be hard, but that these difficulties aren’t always what they seem. God is always present and rewards those who are faithful and keep Him close even when there is great temptation to drift.
Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!