What Is Purim?

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If you observe every Jewish holiday, then you’re probably well aware that Purim is often seen as the most fun Jewish holiday. If you’re unfamiliar with Judaism, you might be curious how such an upbeat, jovial, party-centric celebration can also be a prominent holiday in a leading global religion. Read on to find out what Purim is, why it’s so fun, and what this fun celebrates.

What is Purim?

According to the Megillah from the Hebrew Bible’s book of Esther, Purim is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the Jewish people of the ancient Persian empire thwarting King Ahasuerus’s vizier Haman’s plans to genocidally exterminate the empire’s entire Jewish population in one single day. The Jewish people of the Persian empire had reason to expect such drastic action from the region’s rulers: According to the Book of Esther, King Ahasuerus executed his first wife after she failed to obey him, and he then took the Jewish girl Esther as his wife. 

Esther kept her Judaism secret until she no longer had a choice. When Ahasuerus appointed Haman his prime minister, Esther’s cousin Mordechai – the leader of the Persian empire’s Jewish population – refused to bow to Haman, ultimately resulting in Haman’s thwarted plot. After Esther revealed her Jewish identity to Ahasuerus and Haman over dinner with the two, Haman was hanged and Mordechai took on the role of prime minister, giving the Jewish people equal weight in the Persian empire.

What does the word “Purim” mean?

“Purim” is not a Hebrew word. It is instead the ancient Persian word for “lots,” but not in the way that “lots” means “large amounts.” The holiday took the name of Purim since Haman threw lots to decide when he would attempt to exterminate the local Jewish population. Additionally, the common pronunciation of “Purim” used in the West – PURR-rim – is not the proper traditional pronunciation, which would instead be poo-REEM.

How is Purim celebrated?

To observe Purim, many Jews will read Purim’s story from the Book of Esther on the eve of Purim and once again the next day. They may also donate money or food to poor people.

Of course, neither of these traditions explains Purim’s reputation as the most fun Jewish holiday. Over time, Purim has come to encompass celebrations involving costumes and masks, performances, and massive feasts. In places with large Jewish populations, people may wear masks and costumes to school or work to honor Esther hiding her Jewish identity from the king. People may eat traditional hamentaschen cookies that have a jelly-like filling in the center. Others may also attend a play or musical that tells Esther’s story.

The feast, though, is arguably the tradition most associated with Purim today. The feast is the rare religious environment in which celebrators are encouraged to drink alcohol (within reason), and there tend to be massive amounts of food. The tone of the occasion is diametrically opposed to that of the high holidays Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

When is Purim?

If Purim sounds fun just to watch, then good news – it’s happening now. Purim always takes place on 14 Adar on the Hebrew calendar, a date that this year translates to the March 9 on the Gregorian calendar. Now that you have some background on Purim, feel free to get out there and join the fun while it’s at its peak.

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