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Summary Article: Purim
from Religions of the World: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Beliefs and Practices

Purim is an annual Jewish festival that celebrates the deliverance of the Jewish people of the ancient Persian Empire from a plot to annihilate them. The story is recorded in the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) in the book of Esther. In the past, the king Ahasuerus described in the story was believed to be either Artaxerxes I (r. 465-424 BCE) or Artaxerxes II (r. 404-358). More recently, scholars have been more skeptical of the historicity of the story and seen it more as a legendary tale.

The book of Esther begins with the account of a feast given by King Ahasuerus at which alcohol flowed freely. In a drunken state, the king ordered his wife Vashti, wearing her crown, to “display her beauty” before those in attendance. Her refusal to do so caused Ahasuerus to put her away and to choose a new wife and queen. He chose a young woman at the court named Esther, unaware that she was, in fact, a Jewish orphan named Hadassah now in the care of her cousin Mordecai, Soon afterward, Mordecai discovered a plot by several courtiers to kill Ahasuerus. He made the plot public.

Haman, the king’s highest official, came to despise Mordecai, for he refused to bow down to Haman. Haman discovered that Mordecai was Jewish and hatched a plot to kill not only him but the entire Jewish minority in the Persian Empire. After obtaining Ahasuerus’s permission to go ahead with his plan, Haman cast lots (purim) to choose the date for executing it. The lot fell on the 13th day of the month of Adar. When Mordecai discovered Haman’s plan, he informed Esther. She asked the Jewish community to engage in three days of fasting and prayer, and then requested an audience with Ahasuerus, even though to do so, without the king having summoned her, could have caused her death. But Esther found favor when the king saw her, and she invited the king and Haman to a feast. At this feast, she invited them to a second feast the next day.

Costumed players celebrate Purim, about 1657. Purim is a celebratory Jewish holiday in which plays and parodies are performed to commemorate the time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from extermination. (The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. Isadore Singer, 1901)

On the night between the two feasts, Ahasuerus had trouble sleeping, and he asked that the annals be read to him. Learning that Mordecai had foiled a plot against him and that he had received no honor in return, the king asked Haman how properly to reward a man the king wished to honor. Thinking it was he himself of whom the king spoke, Haman replied that the man should be dressed in a kingly fashion and paraded on the king’s horse. Haman, to his great despair, had then to do these things for Mordecai.

That evening, at the feast, Esther revealed that she was a Jew and informed the king of Haman’s plot. She pointed out that if his plot were carried out, she would be executed. Ahasuerus then turned on Haman and ordered him hung. But a problem remained. The decree allowing Haman’s action against the Jews had been signed; thus it could not be simply annulled—but it could be countered. Ahasuerus gave Esther and Mordecai leave to write a new decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves. When attacked on Adar 13, the Jewish community fought and triumphed over its enemies. Mordecai subsequently was given a prominent position in Ahasuerus’s court. He initiated the annual commemoration of the Jewish people’s deliverance.

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (usually in mid-March on the Common Era calendar). In leap years, when a second month of Adar is added to the Hebrew lunar calendar (7 times in a 19-year cycle), so that holidays stay in their appointed seasons, Purim is celebrated during Adar II. This is the most unequivocally joyous of Jewish festivals, though it begins on Adar 13 with Taanit Esther, a fast (as Esther had asked the Jews to fast before she went to the king). If Adar 13 falls on a Sabbath, there will be further adjustment of the date.

Ritually, the service at the synagogue will feature a reading of the biblical book of Esther. This occurs twice, first after sunset when the new day begins on the Hebrew calendar, and a second time the next morning. In contrast to the quiet demeanor during the scripture readings at Sabbath services, during the reading of the book of Esther the congregation shouts and makes noise whenever Haman’s name is read so as to blot out the sound of his name. Central to the day is a feast, which has been preceded by the sharing of gifts of food with others and the giving of money to the poor, with the understanding that joy is complete only when shared with the less fortunate. Additional customs have also developed above and beyond the guidelines of the biblical story, including the making of a particular dessert called hamantaschen (or “Haman’s pockets”), a fruit-filled pastry. Purim is one day in which the drinking of alcohol in excess is acceptable.

The story of Esther is also commemorated as a teaching event. It reminds believers of the capricious nature of evil in the world and the need for action when it arises. It also builds confidence that God does not neglect his people.

From the Middle Ages to the present, Purim has, on occasion, been used, usually as part of a larger anti-Semitic attack, to charge the Jews with, on the one hand, the excessive use of violence, and, on the other, with the inability to respond to violence directed at them (as occurred in the Holocaust). Historic persecutions of the Jews and ongoing tensions with the Arab world since the founding of the state of Israel continue to provide occasions for Jews to construe anew the meaning of Purim and the tyranny of new Hamans who seek their destruction.

Purim is an official holiday in Israel.

See also:

Calendars, Religious; Judaism.

  • Eckstein, Yecheil. What You Should Know About Jews and Judaism. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1984.
  • Greenberg, Irving. The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays. New York: Jason Aronson, 1998.
  • Horowitz, Elliott. Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Posner, Raphael, Uri Kaploun, and Sherman Cohen, eds. Jewish Liturgy: Prayer and Synagogue Service through the Ages. New York: Leon Amiel Publisher/Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1975.
  • Schauss, Hayyim. The Jewish Festivals: A Guide to Their History and Observance. New York: Schocken, 1996.
  • Melton, J. Gordon
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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