What is Purim?

An illustration of Purim icons, including noisemakers, masks, hamentaschen, a Star of David, and a scroll.

Purim, pronounced poor-im, is a joyous one-day Jewish festival that honors an event detailed in the biblical Book of Esther. It takes place in the springtime, on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, which usually occurs around March. The festival celebrates bravery, courage and the importance of doing the right thing—and is a jubilant affirmation of Jewish survival.

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The history of Purim  

Purim commemorates the story of Queen Esther of the Persian Empire rising up against hate, honoring her Jewish heritage and protecting her people.

The story begins between the fourth and fifth centuries when King Ahasuerus of Persia chooses Esther to be his queen. Esther’s cousin, Mordecai, instructs her to keep her Jewish identity a secret as this information could endanger her life. In fact, the king’s prime minister and top advisor, Haman, is a power-hungry and wicked man who, Esther soon learns, is plotting a massacre to annihilate all the Jews in the kingdom.

When Mordecai gets wind of Haman’s evil plan, he immediately contacts Esther and they decide to work together to stop Haman. Mordecai encourages Esther to come forward and reveal her Jewish identity to the king in order to save their people.

Although approaching the king unannounced—or revealing her true identity—could be punishable by death, Esther takes the risk and tells the king the truth. She pleads with him to intervene in Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews.

The king is outraged and puts a halt to Haman’s plan and sentences Haman to death. King Ahasuerus even names Mordecai his top advisor. Soon after, there is a battle against those who wished to aid Haman in destroying the Jews and the Jews emerge victorious.

Purim celebrates the courage and bravery it took for Queen Esther to come forward and how the good actions of a few can affect many.

Traditional Purim celebrations  

Costumes and performances
Kids and adults alike don clever costumes and dress up as characters from the Purim story, including King Ahasuerus, Queen Esther, Mordecai or Haman. Masks and costumes—and masquerading in general—are used in part as a nod to Queen Esther’s early concealment of her Jewish identity.

Jewish communities also celebrate Purim with carnivals and parades and perform skits, songs and plays (Purim spiel) that reenact and pay tribute to the events that occurred so long ago. During these retellings of the Purim story, audience or congregation members use noisemakers called groggers to “blot out” wicked Haman’s name each time it is uttered.

Joyous feasts and symbolic foods
It’s customary to enjoy a fun feast with friends and family and to share Purim gift baskets (mishloach manot, “sending portions”) full of breads, sweets, fruits, nuts or wine with friends or neighbors.

Some of the most popular Purim treats are hamantaschen, which translates to “Haman pockets” in Yiddish. The structure is said to be a symbol of the hat Haman wore. Hamantaschen are triangular-shaped shortbread cookies with sweet or savory fillings in the center. Popular fillings include poppy seeds, fruit jams, prunes, apricots, chocolate, cherry…the options are endless (and delicious).

Meaningful Purim traditions  

Charitable giving (matanot la’evyonim)
The Book of Esther calls on Jews to donate meals or money to those in need during Purim to build friendship and goodwill and ensure all who wish to celebrate Purim with a feast have enough to do so.

Retelling the story  
Reading the Book of Esther (Megillat Ester) during synagogue services on the eve of Purim is considered a mitzvah, or a commandment and good deed.

The Fast of Esther
It is customary to fast the day before Purim from dawn to dusk to represent the fasting Esther did in the days prior to approaching the king. The fast is said to allow for soul-searching, which builds strength.

Purim greetings

  • Chag Purim Sameach (KHAHG poor-im sah-MEY-akh), meaning “Happy Purim!”
  • Chag Sameach (KHAHG sah-MEY-akh), meaning “Happy Holiday!”