There are four mitzvahs that every Jew must do on Purim, as outlined in the Book of Esther:

  1. Listen to the Megillah being read on the eve of Purim, and then again the following day.
  2. On Purim day be sure to give charity to at least two poor people.
  3. Give a gift of at least two foods to at least one friend (men give to men, and women give to women).
  4. Enjoy a festive meal.

Read: Purim How-To Guide

Beyond the bare bones requirements, a wealth of customs have grown around this joyous day. Here are some, ranging from the well-known to the more obscure.

1. Spin Your Gragger

There is an ancient and widespread custom that when the name of Haman is mentioned during the Megillah reading, those present (especially children) spin graggers (ratchets), bang, shout, stamp their feet and generally make a ruckus. This custom is recorded in the writings of Rabbi David Abudraham (14th century Spain), who writes that an earlier custom involved children writing Haman’s name, or drawing a picture of him, on wood or stones to bang together to “erase” his representation.

Read: The Origins of the Gragger

2. Eat Foods With Seeds

A favorite Purim treat is the hamantasch, a three-cornered pastry stuffed with sweet filling. In its purest form, the hamantasch is filled with poppy seeds. Why seeds? They recall the devotion of Daniel (and later, Esther) who subsisted on seeds while living in royal surroundings to avoid eating anything non-kosher.1

Read: The History of the Hamantasch

3. Drink (Responsibly)

The sages say that a person should drink on Purim to the point that they “don’t discern between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’”2 Some adults take this quite literally and drink so much wine that they lose awareness of their surroundings. Others take a more moderate approach and drink just enough that they are tired and fall asleep.3 Obviously, this does not apply to anyone who may become ill or act inappropriately when intoxicated.

Read: Drinking on Purim

4. Masquerade

Photo: Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaimperl.com

A favorite Purim custom, which has been lovingly kept for more than 500 years, especially among children, is to dress up on Purim. In Chabad, we are particular only to dress up in costumes with positive lessons or as characters we wish to emulate.4 While reasons abound, one simple explanation for this custom is to avoid embarrassing the poor who are collecting money on Purim. Since everyone is dressed up, no one knows who is who.

Read: Why We Dress Up on Purim

5. Hold a Purim Shpiel

Photo: Chaimperl.com
Photo: Chaimperl.com

For days and weeks before Purim, many are busy practicing purim shpiels, performances that may include drama, song, dance, and lots of jokes. In very Jewish neighborhoods, you can see roving Purim shpielers going door to door to perform their shtick, often while collecting funds for worthy causes.

Read: The Zeide’s Purim Play

6. Say Purim Torah

In some communities, one person is appointed “Purim jester” to provide levity and merriment during the Purim meal. This jester may include in his repertoire something known as “Purim Torah,” in which silliness and scholarship mesh into a dizzying blend of witty (and sometimes absurd) exegeses.

Read: Classic Purim Torah

7. (Don’t) Jump Over Fires

In Talmudic times5 it was customary to light a bonfire on Purim inside a pit, and children would amuse themselves by leaping from end to end, over the fire. This was called a mashvarta. This custom, which does not appear to be current and is not cited in the Code of Jewish Law, should not be attempted without proper safety precautions (and parental consent).

8. Hang/Burn/Batter Haman

An apparently related custom was to create an effigy of Haman, the villain of the Purim saga, and then hang him (as was actually done after Esther unmasked his scheme to destroy her people, the Jews). Over the years, and in various countries, an array of colorful customs developed as to the exact treatment of this Haman doll. In some places it was shot with arrows, others burned it (in the abovementioned fire) or otherwise creatively destroyed it.

Read: The End of Haman

9. Fast the Day Before

The day before Purim (or on the Thursday before, when Purim is on Sunday), is known as Taanit Esther, “The Fast of Esther.” It is customary to fast, commemorating Esther’s fasting and prayer to G‑d that He save His people.6

Read: The Fast of Esther: What, Why, and How

10. Give Three Half-Coins to Charity

On the afternoon of Taanit Esther, it is customary to give three coins, each one to be half of the local denomination (such as half dollars, half shekels etc), to charity. This recalls the mitzvah to donate a half silver shekel toward the Temple treasury annually at this time of year. Since 50¢ coins are relatively rare, many synagogues provide them for people to purchase and donate before allowing the next person to do the same.7

Read: How and Why We Give a Half Shekel

11. Visit a Nursing Home

Fifth-grader Amira Sherman, right, enjoys the intergenerational time at the senior center.
Fifth-grader Amira Sherman, right, enjoys the intergenerational time at the senior center.

Maimonides eloquently wrote that a holiday feast is only holy when it is shared with those less fortunate.8 On Purim, many families make it part of their day to visit a nursing home or hospital where they can do the Purim mitzvahs and otherwise bring joy to the residents, many of whom may otherwise miss out of the festivities. Extra points for visiting in costume, with as many kids as possible.

More: 15 Purim Facts Every Jew Should Know