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What Is Purim?

What Is Purim?


The jolly festival of Purim is celebrated every year on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar (late winter/early spring). It commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia from Haman’s plot “to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day,” as recorded in the Megillah (book of Esther).

The Story in a Nutshell

The Persian Empire of the 4th century BCE extended over 127 lands, and all the Jews were its subjects. When King Ahasuerus had his wife, Queen Vashti, executed for failing to follow his orders, he arranged a beauty pageant to find a new queen. A Jewish girl, Esther, found favor in his eyes and became the new queen, though she refused to divulge her nationality.

Meanwhile, the Jew-hating Haman was appointed prime minister of the empire. Mordechai, the leader of the Jews (and Esther’s cousin), defied the king’s orders and refused to bow to Haman. Haman was incensed, and he convinced the king to issue a decree ordering the extermination of all the Jews on the 13th of Adar, a date chosen by a lottery Haman made.

Mordechai galvanized all the Jews, convincing them to repent, fast and pray to G‑d. Meanwhile, Esther asked the king and Haman to join her for a feast. At a subsequent feast, Esther revealed to the king her Jewish identity. Haman was hanged, Mordechai was appointed prime minister in his stead, and a new decree was issued, granting the Jews the right to defend themselves against their enemies.

On the 13th of Adar, the Jews mobilized and killed many of their enemies. On the 14th of Adar, they rested and celebrated. In the capital city of Shushan, they took one more day to finish the job.

Read the complete story of Purim.

Why Is It Called Purim?

Purim means “lots” in ancient Persian. The holiday was thus named since Haman had thrown lots to determine when he would carry out his diabolical scheme. You can pronounce this name many ways. In Eastern tradition, it is called poo-REEM. Among Westerners, it is often called PUH-rim. Some Central-European communities even call it PEE-rim. (WARNING: Calling this holiday PYOO-rim—as English speakers are sometimes wont to do—is a surefire newbie cover-blower.)

Purim Observances

  • Reading of the Megillah (book of Esther), which recounts the story of the Purim miracle. This is done once on the eve of Purim and then again on the following day.
  • Giving money gifts to at least two poor people.
  • Sending gifts of two kinds of food to at least one person.
  • A festive Purim feast, which often includes wine or other intoxicating beverages.

Learn more about the four Purim mitzvahs here.

Purim Customs

There is a spirit of liveliness and fun on Purim that is unparalleled on the Jewish calendar. If there were ever a day to “let loose” and just be Jewish, this is it! Read why here.

It is also customary for children (and adults, if they desire) to dress up in costumes. Read why here.

A traditional Purim food is hamantaschen (or oznay Haman), three-cornered pastries bursting with poppy seeds or another sweet filling. Read why here.

On the day before Purim (or on the Thursday before, when Purim is on Sunday), it is customary to fast, commemorating Esther’s fasting and praying to G‑d that He save His people. Read more here.

When to Celebrate

One of the unique aspects of Purim is the diverse timing for its celebration.

Common Custom: Jews all over the world celebrate Purim on Adar 14, the day when our ancestors rested from the war against their enemies.

Walled Cities: Since the Jews of Shushan rested one day later, their Purim was deferred to the 15th. This was extended to include any city that was surrounded by walls in the days of Joshua, notably Jerusalem.

Small Towns: In ancient times, villagers only banded together with fellow Jews in the larger towns on Mondays and Thursdays, which were market days. Thus, the sages decreed that they should read the Megillah on the market day preceding 14 Adar. This custom is no longer practiced.

Read more about the days of Purim here.

Note that on Jewish leap years, there are actually two months called Adar, Adar I and Adar II. Purim is celebrated in the second Adar, but 14 Adar I is still a happy day, referred to as Purim Katan (Small Purim).

The Significance of Purim

In addition to the miracle of Jewish survival despite the efforts of our enemies, Purim celebrates G‑d’s intimate involvement in every aspect of this world. Even though there were no overt miracles recorded in the Megillah—indeed, His name is not even mentioned once—G‑d was actively “pulling the strings” to care for His nation.

Additionally, Haman’s edict catalyzed a spiritual revival among the Jews. In a sense, this was even more significant than the Covenant at Sinai—an overwhelming spiritual experience that compelled the Jews to accept the Torah—since it occurred of their own volition, even as they were scattered among the Persian people and immersed in their culture. It was in the merit of this spiritual reawakening that G‑d orchestrated their salvation.

Other Cool Purim Facts

All too often, Jewish communities have narrowly escaped catastrophe. More often than not, the plot involves an evil tyrant who follows the ways of Haman. And just like the Purim story, G‑d is there to save His people from certain doom. Some communities make their own “Purim” holiday on the anniversary of the date of their respective salvation. Some even read the chain of events from specially-made “megillah” scrolls.

Read some dramatic “Purim” stories here.

In modern times, the plans of some of our nation’s worst enemies have have been thwarted on this day.

In the early 1950s, Joseph Stalin, the ruthless butcher of millions of innocent people, had bloody plans for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in the U.S.S.R. Just as things were reaching a crisis point in 1953, he died . . . on Purim! Read the riveting details here.

In 1990, Saddam Hussein of Iraq defiantly invaded nearby Kuwait. As pressure ramped up from the international community, his army began firing SCUD missiles into Israel. The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, repeatedly assured the people of Israel that they would be protected. After the U.S.-led forces attacked Iraq, they were quickly victorious and the hostilities ended . . . on Purim! Read all about it here.

Useful Purim Links:

  • Click here for our mega-Purim site.
  • Here for a global Purim event directory.
  • Here for Purim FAQ.
  • Here for the story of Purim.
  • Here for Purim insights and inspiration.
  • Here for Purim stories.
  • Here for Purim multimedia.
  • Here for our Purim Kids’ Zone.
  • Here for Purim shopping.
  • Here for Purim recipes.
    Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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    Join the Discussion
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    Caye Virginia, USAcayehorn@ September 12, 2017

    Thank you for the pronunciation guide for the word Purim. I've never seen it explained so well. Reply

    DamoShawMaristSion Drouin Victoria November 13, 2017
    in response to Caye:

    Purim, more like Poo rim Reply

    Juanita USA July 20, 2017

    Thank you for the explanation of Purim. I've read the account in the book of Ester and wanted more information. Your site was very helpful and answered many questions for me. Reply

    Anonymous March 22, 2017

    Thank you This was very helpful and informative. :) Reply

    carolyn Carlisle March 13, 2017

    @Gary, I read that According to the the medieval commentator, Rashi, we should not erase or destroy God’s name and should avoid writing it. Reply

    Gary March 12, 2017

    Why do you not spell out God in this article? But hyphenate Him with G-d? Reply

    Issac NYC March 11, 2017

    Harry McNicholas, the king's decree was unable to be revoked (see Esther 8:8). (BTW the US Constitution is the same way. You need a new amendment to reverse a previous one.)
    The Jews didn't "whack anyone they didn't like," they killed those who are determined in the Bible to be inherently evil, who were not able to be rectified but had to be done away with. Reply

    Carolyn Carlisle pa U.S. March 11, 2017

    Just a thanks Thank you for sharing this information. I saw printed on my diary page today, (3/11/17), that it begins today at sundown. But they don't tell what these events they announce are all about. I'm glad you do! Reply

    jenny kuwait March 9, 2017

    The Kuwait story of the Gulf war ending in Purim is awesome, more so because we are from Kuwait Reply

    Morgan Lael Columbus, OH March 24, 2016

    Love the illustrations! Beautiful illustrations! It really makes the story come alive! Reply

    bigrobtheactor NYC is via March 20, 2016

    Amen. And hung his ten sons. May have been a bit of over-kill but who am I to judge? Reply

    David Lingren Urbandale March 6, 2016

    Harry McNichols,the king did not rescend his decree that Haman deceived him to make. In accent Persia, a King's decree could not be undone. This is why he could not bring back Queen Vashti after he had decreed that she should be banished. In the same way, he could not undo the decree he made about killing the Jews. To prevent the slaughter, he gave the Jews the right to defend themselves, which included attacking those who were anti-Semitic people in Persia. Reply

    Barbara Cid Carteret December 7, 2015

    This is a great story. Reply

    Anonymous Australia March 5, 2015

    Antisemitism Antisemitism is misunderstood as being anti-Jewish, but a semite is a person who speaks a semitic language, of which Hebrew is, but only one...
    a member of any of the peoples who speak or spoke a Semitic language, including in particular the Jews and Arabs. Reply

    Phillip Rubin Israel/ R Congo March 5, 2015

    Comparison Bibi (Esther) by speaking in detail to Congress (King of Persia) about the consequences of Iran Agreement ( Haman was planning in detail ) will probably make the world more aware and bring them to grips of the catastrophe that could occur on Israel and then the Jews in the rest of the world.
    We Jews at the end of the day stand alone and will have to defend for ourselves. Reply

    Anonymous USA March 4, 2015

    Netenyahu celebrates Purim in a very personal way Note that PM Netenyahu chose to address Congress on Purim, where he declared the right (and intention) of Israel to defend itself against the state of Iran. That message was aimed directly at 2 people: Iran's Ayatollah and our Muslim president, Barack Hussein Obama. Reply

    Harry McNicholas Salem March 4, 2015

    Hm if the Persian king rescinded the order to kill all the Jews, why would the Jews feel compelled to "kill all their enemies"? Sounds to me like a neat way to whack anyone you did not like. Reply

    Treasure F.E Nigeria March 4, 2015

    Wow this is great.I always learn new thing about the Jewish holiday, God is always faithful to His people. Reply

    Porus July 3, 2014

    So what happened. Why does antisemitism now rule Iran? Why do they now want to destroy our people? Too bad they can't be successfully reminded of our peaceful history at that time Persians were Zoroastrians. People in Iran are Muslims. Iran does not represent Persia. Reply

    Keith London UK March 2, 2014

    Megillah Esther The Book of Esther is unique because it doesn't specifically name G-d, He/She was working behind the scenes so we can masquerade at Purim in memory of the hidden dealings of the Creator, Purim chag sameach to everyone Reply

    G4U Mx February 26, 2014

    Purim Celebration Now Lavan decendants live in Iran, it is my perception that they are not affected by anti-semitism, as world turns on let's trust in G-d Almighty to keep the jewish people to accomplish their goals. Reply

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