March 17, 2015 · updated February 15, 2022

“Mordecai... sent dispatches to all the Jews... charging them to observe the 14th and 15th days of Adar, every year... they were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.”

Esther 9:20-22

In Judaism, Purim is a joyful spring holiday that features a festive meal, gift-giving, costumes, noisemakers in the synagogue, and required drunkenness. Purim is thus sometimes nicknamed the "Jewish Mardi Gras" or "Jewish Halloween."

Purim is such a joyous holiday that the rabbis teach it will still be observed in the age of the messiah, when most other holidays will be abolished.[#1807]

Purim is not one of the holidays commanded in the Torah, but it is rooted in the biblical book of Esther and its requirements are outlined in the Talmud. Purim has been celebrated since at least the second century CE, and probably long before.[#1808]

The word "Purim" means "lots," and refers to Haman's casting of lots to determine the date of the massacre. Purim is also known as "The Feast of Lots."

Date of Purim

Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar (mid-March), as commanded by Esther 9:17. In leap years, when there are two months of Adar, Purim is celebrated during Adar II. Like all Jewish holidays, Purim begins at sunset the night before the date of the holiday.

In Jerusalem, Purim is celebrated on 15 Adar, a day later than everywhere else. The separate date, known as Shushan Purim, is based on Esther 9:20-22, which says the "walled cities" did not achieve victory until that day. Rabbis interpret this as the cities that were walled at the time of Joshua, and one city that definitely fits that description is Jerusalem (Shushan Purim is also celebrated in Hebron and the Old City of Safed).

Jews living in Israel can extend the Purim festival by celebrating outside the city on 14 Adar, then returning home for the Shushan Purim on the 15th.

The Story of Esther

The event commemorated by Purim is one of victory over oppressors of the Jewish people. The heroine is Esther, a beautiful Jewish woman who married the king of Persia, King Ahasuerus, after winning a beauty contest. The king loved Esther more than any of his other women and made her his Queen. He was not aware that Esther was a Jew, for her guardian Mordecai, a great Jewish leader, had advised her to not to reveal her true identity.

Haman, the villain of the story, was the king's prime minister. He hated the Jews (especially Mordecai, because he would not bow down before him) and tried to convince King Ahasuerus that it would be in the best interest of his kingdom if the Jews were eliminated. In his speech he argued:

"There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them."[#1809]

The king gave Haman permission to deal with the Jews as he saw fit, so Haman made plans to massacre the Persian Jews. He cast lots to determine the day, which was to be 13 Adar.

Mordecai convinced Esther to speak to the king on the behalf of her people, which would require her to appear before him without being summoned - a crime punishable by death. She fasted for three days to prepare for the meeting. King Ahasuerus welcomed her, listened to her story, and was outraged by what he heard. He had Haman hanged on the gallows that had been intended for Mordecai, and appointed Mordecai as prime minister in Haman's place.

The story does not quite end there, for the king had officially decreed the massacre, and it could not be stopped. But he allowed the Jews to fight to defend themselves. They fought on the 13th of Adar and celebrated their victory on the 14th day. Those in walled cities were victorious a day later, on 15 Adar.

The themes of this 2,500 year-old story are still very relevant to modern Jews. Tracey Rich of Judaism 101 sees modern echos of Purim in both the Nuremberg trials, after which ten of Hitler's top associates were hanged, and in Stalin's death by a stroke before his plans to deport Jews could be carried out.[#1805] Amy Kramer of EverythingJewish.com explains, "The story of Purim presents the eternal story of the Jew threatened in a strange land. For this reason we are commanded to read the Book of Esther. Still in exile, Purim is a reminder that we, as Jews, must resist becoming too complacent in our lives."

Purim Rituals and Observances

The ritual observance of Purim begins with Ta'anit Esther (The Fast of Esther). This minor fast day is held on one of the days preceding Purim, usually 13 Adar. (If the 13th falls on a Friday or Saturday, it is held on the preceding Thursday, in honor of the Sabbath.) It actually commemorates the fasting of the Jewish warriors before their battle on 13 Adar, but it is named for Esther, who also fasted before her important task.[#1814]

On Purim, all Jews are required to fulfill the four Purim mitzvot:

  1. Two readings of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) (Mikrah Megillah)
  2. Festive meal (Seudah Purim)
  3. Gifts of food to friends (Mishloach Manot)
  4. Charity to the poor (Matanot l'Evyonim)

The first reading of the Megillah must occur sometime between sunset the night before Purim and sunrise on Purim; it usually takes place just after sunset. The second reading must occur between sunrise and sunset on Purim. It is ideal to hear the Megillah in the synagogue with many people, but the most important thing is that the reading is heard clearly. When Haman's name is read, it is customary for the congregation to boo, yell, stamp feet, and otherwise make noise so that it cannot be heard. This symbolically blots out the memory of his name from the earth.

"The Purim feast is unlike any other in the Jewish year. In addition to good food and lots of alcohol, the meal is characterized by its zany raucous atmosphere -- trombones blare, silly string flies, and grown men dance together for hours on end." [#1810]

One of the most well-known aspects of the Purim festive meal is that each (adult) participant is obliged to become drunk enough that he or she cannot distinguish between the phrases, "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordecai."[#1805]

Opinions vary as to exactly how drunk this is, but there is no doubt that the intoxication is intended to be significant. However, one should not become so drunk that he endangers his health or neglects other mitzvot such as ritual washing, praying, or saying the blessing after meals, and it is improper to pray if one is so drunk that he is "unfit to stand before the King."[#1811] Recovering alcoholics or others who may be harmed by drinking are exempt from this obligation.[#1805]

The third mitzvah of Purim is to give two types of food or drink to at least one friend (the Mishloach Manot). It is inappropriate to give overly expensive gifts, as this takes away from how much can be given to the poor. It is especially meritorious to send gifts to those from whom one is estranged, to demonstrate the falsity of Haman's accusation of dissension among the Jews.

Finally, charity must be given to at least two poor people on Purim, in an amount at least equal to the value of one inexpensive meal. Each Jew's donation need not be given to the poor directly, but it must be distributed on Purim. Most notably, Purim charity must be given without regard to the merit or even need of the recipient. On all other days, Jews are required to ensure their donations are used properly, but not on Purim. "On this day of unbridled joy, no questions are to be asked."[#1812]

Other Purim Customs

As with many holidays, non-religious customs for celebrating Purim have developed over the years. One very popular custom is the baking of hamantaschen ("Haman's ears" or "Haman's pockets"), which are three-cornered pastries with a fruit filling.

It has also become customary to celebrate Purim with plays, satirical skits (Purimshpiels), costumes, and beauty contests to commemorate Esther's story.