What Is Purim, and How Do People Celebrate It?

Photo Courtesy: yula/iStock

Purim is a Jewish holiday that takes on a fun, lively tone thanks to its costumes, gifts and drunken revelry — it’s often called the “Jewish Halloween.” But at its heart, Purim is the celebration of a courageous heroine: a Jewish queen named Esther who saved her people from certain demise in ancient Persia.

Each year, Purim celebrations begin on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, which usually corresponds with March. This can translate to a different date each year on the Gregorian calendar, but in 2022, Purim will begin on the evening of March 16 and end on the evening of March 17. 

Ready to find out what all of the revelry’s about? Join us for a look into Purim, its tale of deliverance and the ways people celebrate the holiday today. 

Esther Ascends to the Throne 

Esther feasts with the king in a mid-1800s illustration by James Tissot. Photo Courtesy: Culture Club/Getty Images

To understand the celebration, we have to travel back in time to the Persian empire during the mid-400s, B.C. In those days, the empire was ruled by the testy King Ahasuerus, who became enraged when his wife, Queen Vashti, refused to follow an order to appear in front of the general public wearing only her royal crown. Rather than engage in a marital spat, King Ahasuerus banished his wife, removed her title and decided to find a new queen. 

To do this, he ordered all the younger women in the empire to appear before him. A young girl named Esther, who was among the many Jewish people living in the empire at the time, caught the king’s eye, and he selected her to become his new bride. Esther had a cousin (or possibly uncle — historians aren’t exactly sure) named Mordechai, who had raised her after her parents died. Being a wise man, he knew that Esther could land herself in trouble if the king discovered her Jewish heritage, so he convinced her to keep her background a secret. 

Esther Faces the Ultimate Test of Courage

An etching of an 1865 painting by Edward Armitage (1817-1896) showing queen Esther condemning Haman. Photo Courtesy: KenWiedemann/iStock

Every tale of heroism has a villain, and in the story of Purim, that evildoer is Haman. Things seemed to be going relatively well for the newly crowned Queen Esther until Haman began to make his bigotry known. Haman was the king’s power-hungry viceroy, and he didn’t take it well when Mordechai refused to bow down to him during an encounter — after Mordechai had foiled an assassination plot against Ahasuerus and found himself in the king’s good graces, no less. In Haman’s mind, Mordechai’s refusal was enough of a slight to justify having all the Jewish people in Persia killed. 

Haman set about bringing this plan to life, casting lots (“Purim” literally means “lots” in Hebrew) — the practice of deciding something by chance, like we do today by flipping coins or rolling dice — to choose the date on which he’d have all the Jewish people eliminated. He determined that the 13th of Adar would be the fateful date. However, Mordechai heard of the plan and recognized Esther had a bold choice to make: risking her own life by revealing to the king that she too was Jewish, or keeping quiet, sparing herself and watching from the sidelines while her people were slaughtered.

Like a true heroine, Esther displayed her integrity by doing the right thing — with the help of a clever plan she and Mordechai concocted. In the end, not only were the Jewish people of Persia saved, but it was Haman who ended up being executed instead. For the full story, see the “Megillah of Esther” in the Hebrew Tanakh — it’s an essential tradition to listen to the full tale each Purim.

Fulfilling the Four Purim Mitzvot

A member of a Brooklyn, New York, synagogue hands out “mishloach manot” gifts on Purim. Photo Courtesy: Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

While some Jewish holidays, such as Yom Kippur, are rather solemn, Purim is a time when celebrants let loose and have fun. There are several key traditions people participate in to mark the holiday; each centers on a mitzvah, or commandment, that’s considered a religious duty. These Purim mitzvot (that’s the plural form of “mitzvah”) include:

  • Hearing the story of Esther: The entire Megillah of Esther is read twice each year in Jewish synagogues, once on Purim night and again on Purim day. 
  • Giving back to others (“matanot l’evyonim”): Purim is all about community, and people who practice Judaism are encouraged to give monetary gifts to at least two people who are less fortunate on Purim day. 
  • Sending gifts of food (“mishloach manot”): Purim is also about community, so it’s customary to present a gift of a few kinds of food and/or beverages to at least one acquaintance on Purim day. Purim gift baskets are a popular choice and often contain themed snack offerings and alcoholic beverages.
  • Partaking of the Purim feast: What’s a holiday without a great feast? On Purim day, Jewish families gather with family and friends and enjoy a great meal, complete with plenty of wine. The holiday also traditionally involves baking triangular cookies known as hamantaschen, which, depending on whom you ask, symbolize the shape of Haman’s three-pointed hat or his ears. Taking a bite out of them is a sort of symbolic act of defiance against the ancient villain. 

The Fun Purim Shenanigans Continue

Participants of a Purim festival, dressed in costumes on the waterfront, play musical instruments in Caesarea, Israel. Photo Courtesy: svarshik/iStock

So, what was that about “Jewish Halloween”? Taken at face value, the four mitzvot might not sound like everyone’s idea of a wild holiday. It’s only when you look closer that things begin to make a bit more sense. Remember how the story of Esther is read in synagogues each Purim? Well, it’s not exactly a solemn affair. Every time Haman’s name is spoken aloud, everyone stomps their feet and twirls noisemakers to ensure that his lasting legacy involves a hefty dose of public shaming.

Many Jewish communities also put on something called a Purim shpiel or Purim play. While the play recounts the story of Esther, it usually does so with a comic twist, often mixing in the roasting of contemporary public figures or even local community leaders. 

Then there are the costumes. Children and even some adventurous adults don costumes to symbolize various elements of Esther’s story. One is the nature of the miracle itself, which was hidden by a series of events that only made sense once the whole story unraveled. Dressing in costume also alludes to the secrecy of various people involved in the tale. Seeing as how it was a delicate situation, everyone, especially Esther, had to carefully mask their intentions to avoid disaster. The costumes also symbolize the royal garb Mordechai was permitted to wear in thanks for his service to the king.

Purim carnivals and parades abound during the holiday, as everyone is encouraged to go a little wild, similar to a Jewish version of Mardi Gras. For those who choose to imbibe, alcohol also figures prominently into Purim celebrations — some Jewish biblical scholars declared it a mitzvah to drink until you have trouble telling Mordechai (good) apart from Haman (evil). While excessive drinking is generally frowned upon, Purim is a time when everyone can let loose and experience the delirious joy the Jewish people felt to finally be free from Haman’s wrath centuries ago.