If you want to know what to expect at a Purim celebration, expect the unexpected. Of all Jewish holidays, this is the one when people let loose, dress up in silly Expect the unexpectedcostumes, sometimes have a bit (or more than a bit) to drink, and otherwise act in ways you’d never see them act during the rest of the year.
In the waning hours of Purim, after a full day of liveliness and fun (more on that below), families and friends gather around the table for a festive meal. It’s actually a mitzvah to eat. Judaism is cool like that. The celebration will resemble a traditional Jewish meal, but with a number of unique characteristics:
- People will be in costume. Purim celebrates a miracle in which G‑d’s presence was hidden, so people often “hide” behind costumes. Both adults and kids can dress up. If you are not comfortable coming in costume, just come as yourself, dressed as you would for a Shabbat meal.
- “Work” that is prohibited on Shabbat is permissible on Purim. Unless Purim is on a Friday and the meal coincides with Shabbat (which is not likely), work may be done, so feel free to ring the doorbell, snap pics on your phone, etc.
- Ritually wash your hands before the meal. Even though there is no official kiddush over wine at the start of the meal, everyone will still wash their hands (ask for help if you need) and recite the hamotzi blessing over bread at the start of the meal.
- You may be eating kreplach. In Ashkenazi (northern European) tradition, the menu will often include kreplach, meat-filled dumplings swimming in chicken soup (learn why here). Enjoy.
Photo: Miriam Szokovski, Cook It Kosher
- There may be alcohol served. There may even be a significant amount of alcohol, normally wine, consumed. Even people who are teetotalers the rest of the year can be seen sipping some wine or even toasting a rambunctious l’chaim! If you are not able to drink, please feel free to say no. It is not a mitzvah to be sick or otherwise harm yourself and those around you. It is safe to assume that there will not be alcohol at child-centric events or those catering to underage students. In many cities, there are also alcohol-free Purim parties for recovering alcoholics and others who enjoy an alcohol-free environment.
- The speeches may sound a little off. Of course, no Jewish table is complete without words of Torah. Purim Torah, as it is known, is often a parody of more conventional forms of Torah teaching, with questions and answers, complex gematrias, and homiletic lessons that sometimes border on the absurd.
- Yeshivah students may pop in to share words of Torah, sing songs or perform skits. In heavily Jewish neighborhoods, roving bands of yeshivah students wend their way from home to home, dispensing Purim Torah and good cheer in exchange for donations to worthy causes. These revelers may sometimes put on “Purim shpiels,” skits for the entertainment of their appreciative audiences.
- There will be Purim-specific songs. Purim has its own set of jolly songs that, together with other joyous Jewish melodies, can be heard at Purim tables from China to Chicago.
- The meals may go late—way past nightfall, which marks the end of Purim, so feel free to stay to the end or leave early. (If you’ve had something to drink, make sure not to drive.) There is a special section in the Grace After Meals for Purim (called “V’Al Hanissim”), and even if the meal ends after Purim is over, that section is still included.
- The Purim celebration may be themed (and may happen the night before). Chabad centers, synagogues and other organizations often hold larger Purim parties, which share any number of characteristics with the meals described above. In recent years it has become popular to have themed parties. So you may find yourself at “Purim in the Shtetl,” “Purim in Persia,” “Purim in Israel,” etc. You can tailor your costume to match the occasion.
Note that some communal celebrations are held on the night leading into Purim, right after the Megillah reading (more on that below). These tend to be more party-like and less meal-like. Also note that attending one of these celebrations does not “cut it” as far as the Purim mitzvah is concerned, so make sure to also attend a meal on the following afternoon.
Other Important Stuff
Beyond the meal, there are actually three other Purim mitzvahs, which may or may not be a part of the celebration you are invited to, so make sure to get them in as well:
A. The Megillah reading. A handwritten Hebrew scroll that tells the miraculous story of Purim, the Megillah is read twice: on the night leading into Purim and then again the following day. It is imperative to hear every single word of the Megillah both times, so people will often ask for complete silence during the reading, which usually takes around half an hour.
Photo: Chaimperl.com (Note: you are not expected to fly at any point during the Megillah reading)
Every once in a while the silence will be shattered as the assembled break into booing, foot-stomping and the twirling of graggers (hand-operated rotating noisemakers). This happens when the name of Haman—the villain of the Purim story—is mentioned. In some communities only certain mentions merit noisemaking, so take your cues from those around you, and make sure to stop your noisemaking before the reader continues to read.
If you don’t understand Hebrew, feel free to follow along using an English translation.
B: Gifts of food. During the day of Purim, we give mishloach manot (also called shalach manos, or mishloach manos), a gift of at least two ready-to-eat food items, to at least one fellow Jew. Men give to men, and women give to women. If you’re invited to a Purim party in someone’s home, you can bring them mishloach manot (make sure to use kosher-certified items). Even if not, make sure to give such a gift at some point during the day.
If you are not sure what to give, a great default is a bottle of kosher grape juice or wine along with a nice bar of chocolate in an attractive bag. If you are the creative type, you may want to have themed mishloach manot, perhaps even matching the theme of your costume. Feel free to have fun with this one.
When someone gives you mishloach manot, it is customary to reciprocate. So make sure to have a stash of goodies ready.
C: Gifts to the poor. Another beautiful Purim mitzvah is to give money to at least two poor Jewish people. In the absence of actual poor people, there are lots of organizations who will be glad to pass on your donation to poor people—especially in Israel—provided that you make sure to give them the money early enough in the day so that they can pass it on before Purim ends.
Have a happy Purim!