With celebrations including costumes, skits and songs, noisemakers, and gifts of food, Purim is definitely full of fun! Purim is a joyous holiday that affirms and celebrates Jewish survival and continuity throughout history. The main communal celebration involves a public reading—usually in the synagogue—of the Book of Esther (M’gillat Esther), which tells the story of the holiday. Purim is an unusual holiday in many respects. First, Esther is the only biblical book in which God is not mentioned. Second, Purim, like Hanukkah, is viewed as a minor festival according to Jewish custom, but has been elevated to a major holiday as a result of the Jewish historical experience.
The main characters in the Book of Esther are Queen Esther, King Ahasveros, Mordechai (Esther’s uncle), and Haman (viceroy to Ahasveros). After Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman, Haman devises a plan to kill both Mordechai and all the Jews in the empire. As a consequence, Esther fasts and prays for three days, after which she requests an audience with Ahasveros. The night before Haman carries out his plan to kill Mordechai, Ahasveros discovers that Mordechai had been responsible for preventing the King’s assassination.
Later that night, during Esther’s second banquet, Esther reveals to Ahasveros that she was Jewish and that Haman wanted to exterminate her people. As a result, Ahasveros commands that Haman be hanged.
Some of the traditions of Purim involve:
- While reading the Book of Ester, whenever Haman’s name is mentioned, the congregation engages in noise-making to blot out his name.
- According to Halakha, we partake in “mishlochei manot” (sending or portions) which typically involve giving out food and charity. In some circles, this custom has evolved into a major gift-giving event.
- Wearing masks or costumes.
- Festive drinking.
Over the centuries, Haman has come to symbolise every anti-Semite in every land where Jews were oppressed. The significance of Purim lies not so much in how it began, but in what it has become: a thankful and joyous affirmation of Jewish survival.