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Purim (po͞oˈrĭm) [Heb.,=lots], Jewish festival celebrated on the 14th of Adar, the twelfth month in the Jewish calendar (Feb.–March). During leap years it is celebrated in Adar II. According to the book of Esther (Esther 3.7; 9.24,26) it commemorates the deliverance of the Persian Jews from a general massacre; however, the festival may have arisen in the pagan celebration of the advent of spring. Preceded by a day of fasting, Purim is celebrated as a day of joy, marked by merrymaking and feasting. The Book of Esther is read in the synagogue, and it is customary for children to make noise to blot out the name of the evildoer Haman. Other customs related to the festival included the exchange of gifts, especially of food, the giving of alms to the poor, the presentation of Purim plays, and the wearing of costumes, especially by children. In Israel, a Purim carnival is held. Purim is considered a minor festival, and work is permitted.


See A. J. Rosenberg, Megillath Esther (1984); P. Goodman, Purim Anthology (1988).

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Purim (Feast of Lots)

Type of Holiday: Religious (Jewish)
Date of Observation: February-March; fourteenth day of Adar
Where Celebrated: Europe, Israel, United States, and by Jews all over the world
Symbols and Customs: Hamantaschen, Kreplach, Megillah, Noisemakers, Purim Plays, Queen Esther, Shalachmanot
Related Holidays: Carnival, Halloween


Purim is a Jewish holiday dating back over 2,600 years. Judaism is one of the oldest continuously observed religions in the world. Its history extends back beyond the advent of the written word. Its people trace their roots to a common ancestor, Abraham, and then back even farther to the very moment of creation.

According to Jewish belief, the law given to the Jewish people by God contained everything they needed to live a holy life, including the ability to be reinterpreted in new historical situations. Judaism, therefore, is the expression of the Jewish people, attempting to live holy (set apart) lives in accordance with the instructions given by God. Although obedience to the law is central to Judaism, there is no one central authority. Sources of divine authority are God, the Torah, interpretations of the Torah by respected teachers, and tradition. Religious observances and the study of Jewish law are conducted under the supervision of a teacher called a rabbi.

There are several sects within Judaism. Orthodox Judaism is characterized by an affirmation of the traditional Jewish faith, strict adherence to customs such as keeping the Sabbath, participation in ceremonies and rituals, and the observance of dietary regulations. Conservative Jewish congregations seek to retain many ancient traditions but without the accompanying demand for strict observance. Reform Judaism stresses modern biblical criticism and emphasizes ethical teachings more than ritualistic observance. Hasidism is a mystical sect of Judaism that teaches enthusiastic prayer as a means of communion with God. The Reconstructionist movement began early in the twentieth century in an effort to "reconstruct" Judaism with the community rather than the synagogue as its center.

The story of Purim takes place six hundred years before the Christian era, when most of the Jews were slaves in Persia. Ahasuerus, the Persian king, had married Purim

the most beautiful girl he could find, Esther, without knowing that she was Jewish. Mordecai, her cousin and guardian, advised her not to reveal her identity as a Jew. After the marriage took place, Mordecai overheard two of the king's soldiers plotting to kill him. Their plans were foiled, and Mordecai was praised for having saved the king's life.

Mordecai's fortunes were reversed, however, when the king decided to appoint Haman as prime minister. Haman took a dislike to Mordecai, who refused to bow down before the new prime minister. Haman decided that Mordecai should be killed and persuaded the king to let him destroy the empire's entire Jewish population along with him. He cast lots (pur is the ancient Akkadian word for "lot") to find out which day would be the most auspicious for carrying out his evil plan. This means that he threw small sticks or stones on the ground, using them in much the same way that dice are used today to make a decision based on chance. The lots told him that things would go especially well on the fourteenth of Adar.

When Mordecai heard about Haman's plan, he rushed to tell Queen Esther, knowing that if she told the king she was Jewish, the slaughter would not take place. Esther was worried that her husband might be angry with her for concealing her background, and she told Mordecai she needed to summon her strength before she could confront the king. So Mordecai, Esther, and all the Persian Jews fasted and prayed for three days, at the end of which she felt brave enough to tell Ahasuerus the truth. Recalling that Mordecai had once saved his life, the king was grateful to Esther and Mordecai for revealing Haman's evil nature. Haman and his ten sons were hung from the gallows, and Mordecai became the new prime minister. In his first official act as the king's top adviser, Mordecai sent letters rolled into scrolls (see MEGILLAH ) to everyone in the kingdom, telling them what had happened and declaring the next day a holiday.

Purim was not observed widely until the second century, when it was referred to as the Day of Mordecai or Day of Protection. But even the earliest celebrations included reciting the story of Esther and exchanging gifts (see SHALACHMANOT ). It is customary to serve a large meal, known as the Seudah, in the afternoon rather than the evening. Turkey is a popular main dish at this meal, and there are usually KRE PLACH in the soup. HAMANTASCHEN are the favorite Purim dessert.

Scholars have pointed out that the story of Esther cannot possibly be factual, since none of the Persian kings had a wife named Esther, and none had a prime minister named Haman. It is also highly unlikely that a Persian king could marry a Jewish bride without knowing it, since Persian kings were only allowed to marry into one of the seven leading families of the realm. How do they account, then, for the origin of Purim? Since the name of the holiday is similar to the Persian word meaning "first," some scholars think that Purim goes back to the old Persian New Year festival, which was celebrated around the time of the VERNAL EQUINOX.

Whatever its origins, Purim remains a happy occasion. Children dress up in costumes and put on PURIM PLAYS that tell the story of the holiday. It is also a time for sharing food with friends and for charity to the poor.



Hamantaschen are small pastries filled with a mixture of honey and poppy seeds. In Israel they are called Oznei Haman, which means "Haman's ears" and refers to the old European custom of cutting off a criminal's ears before hanging him. Elsewhere they are called "Haman's pockets," a reference to the fact that the legendary Haman's pockets were filled with money from all the bribes he had taken. Some claim that hamantaschen look like the three-cornered hat that Haman wore, but there is no evidence that such hats were in use at that time.

The custom of eating pastries filled with poppy seeds at Purim already existed in the Middle Ages. Sometimes the pastries are filled with prune jam, in commemoration of a plum merchant from Bohemia who, along with the rest of the Bohemian Jews, was saved from persecution in the early eighteenth century.


On the eve of Purim, it is traditional among European Jews to eat kreplach, small pockets of dough filled with ground meat or cheese, boiled, and usually served in soup. For reasons that are not entirely clear, eating kreplach is also associated with beating and banging. They are eaten on the eve of YOM KIPPUR because people beat their breasts while reciting their sins. They are also eaten on the last day of SUKKOT , when the willow branches are beaten, and on Purim because of the banging that accompanies the mention of Haman's name (see PURIM PLAYS ).


The Megillah is a scroll containing the Book of Esther, symbolic of the rolled letters that Mordecai sent throughout the Persian Empire, explaining how the Jews had been saved and declaring an official holiday. On Purim, the Megillah is read in the synagogue using a special melodic rhythm. Sometimes it is read in a comical way; for example, when the reader comes to the names of Haman's ten sons, it is common to read them very quickly so that they all blend together. Whenever Haman's name is mentioned, people boo and stamp their feet. The same spirit of celebration and merriment that is seen in the PURIM PLAYS and in the election of a QUEEN ESTHER Purim

carries over into the synagogue. Sometimes Haman's name is written in chalk on the soles of slippers so that the stomping and shuffling will make it wear off.

The Megillah (Book of Esther) is the only book of the Bible in which illustrations are permitted. The Jewish religion forbids drawing an image of God, but God's name is not mentioned in the Megillah, which has been illustrated by a number of artists over the centuries. The container in which the Megillah was traditionally kept was often decorated as well.


The grager (also spelled gregger) is the most popular noisemaker on Purim. It is used to drown out the sound of Haman's name during the reading of the MEGILLAH . Because the Bible instructs Jews to wipe out the memory of Amalek, the leader of the tribe from which Haman was descended, the use of noisemakers symbolically eliminates the evil prime minister who was nearly responsible for wiping out the Persian Jews. In Israel, children often use pop guns or cap guns as their noisemakers.

Haman was so universally detested that, in some Jewish communities, making noise was not enough. The people also made effigies of Haman and burned them.

Purim Plays

During the Middle Ages, the celebration of Purim included masquerades, jesters, musicians, and actors. It was, in fact, the Jewish counterpart of the Christian CARNIVAL celebration. But Purim plays didn't really become popular until the sixteenth century. Young men and women dressed in costumes would go from house to house in the Jewish community, parodying the characters described in the MEGILLAH . Ahasuerus, for example, might resemble the local sheriff, and Haman was often modeled after the town drunkard. They also poked fun at other biblical figures and at contemporary Jewish life. A surefire way to get laughs was to mock the rabbi's recital of the prayer known as the Kiddush by reeling off a meaningless string of Hebrew words or by chanting obscure verses from the Bible that had nothing to do with one another. In return for the entertainment they provided, the players received money or treats.

This kind of door-to-door theater eventually gave way to actual stage performances and folklore plays. Up until World War II, such plays were common in Germany and eastern Europe during the month of Adar. Although they were more formal, these Purim plays still retained their burlesque character, often degenerating into vulgarity and even obscenity. They were tolerated rather than encouraged by the Jewish authorities-and, in some cases, prohibited. In western Europe, North America, and Israel, the plays gave way to masquerade parties for adults and children, and to beauty contests held to select a QUEEN ESTHER . Masquerading remains especially popular in Israel, where Purim is an official school holiday and children roam the streets in all kinds of costumes, much as they do on HALLOWEEN in the United States.

Queen Esther

Just as the celebration of TWELFTH NIGHT involved the crowning of a mock "king," a young boy was crowned Purim King, a custom that dates back to the fourteenth century. In modern times, especially in the United States and at the Purim Carnival in Tel Aviv, the winner of a beauty contest is crowned as Queen Esther.

Scholars believe that these mock kings and queens who are chosen to reign for just the brief period of the festival are actually a survival of a very ancient custom, which was to install a temporary monarch during the brief period between the end of one year and the beginning of the next.


Shalachmanot is the word used to describe the Purim gifts that parents give to children and that friends and relatives exchange with each other. Gifts are also made to rabbis and teachers. Donating to the poor and the needy is part of the Purim tradition as well. In the United States, it usually takes the form of presenting Purim baskets to poor families and making contributions to various Jewish funds.

Cakes, candies, and fruit have always been popular Shalachmanot items, along with books, clothing, and other useful items. Sephardic children (the descendants of Jews from Spain and Portugal) prefer cakes baked in the shape of the MEGILLAH , QUEEN ESTHER , or Mordecai riding on a horse. Jewish bakers in Jerusalem and other communities compete with one another to see who can make the most interesting Purim cakes.


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Gaster, Theodor H. Festivals of the Jewish Year. New York: William Sloane Associates, 1953. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.


Union for Reform Judaism urj.org/holidays/purim

Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America www.ou.org/chagim/purim
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


Between February 25 and March 25; Adar 14
Six hundred years before the Christian era, most Jews were slaves in Persia. The Persian prime minister Haman, who generally hated Jews and particularly hated a proud Jew named Mordechai, persuaded King Ahasuerus (Xerxes I) to let him destroy the empire's entire Jewish population. Haman cast lots ( pur is Akkadian for "lot") to find out which day would be the most auspicious for his evil plan, and the lots told him that things would go especially well on the 14th of Adar. This is why Purim is also called The Feast of Lots .
The king did not realize that his own wife, Esther, was Jewish, and that Mordechai was her cousin, until she pleaded with him to spare her people. Haman was hanged, and his position as prime minister was given to Mordechai.
Ahasuerus granted the Jews an extra day to vanquish Haman's supporters, so the rabbis decreed that in Jerusalem and other walled cities, Purim should be celebrated on 15 Adar and called Purim Shushan, Hebrew for "Susa," the Persian capital. In leap year, the 14th (or 15th in Jerusalem) Adar is known as Purim Katan, "the lesser Purim."
The Old Testament Book of Esther is read aloud in synagogues on the eve and morning of Purim, and listeners drown out every mention of Haman's name by jeering and stamping their feet. Purim is also a time for sharing food with friends and for charity to the poor.
See also Purims, Special
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
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Union for Reform Judaism
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BkFest-1937, p. 206
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DictFolkMyth-1984, p. 477
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FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 112
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 180
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OxYear-1999, p. 727
RelHolCal-2004, p. 57
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.


Jewish festival commemorating salvation from Haman’s destruction. [O.T.: Esther 9:20–28]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.