Purim is a happy holiday that lasts for only 1 day and happens on the 14th of Adar (a Jewish month) every year – most years this will be in March, but in some years it will be in late February. On Purim we remember the story of Queen Esther and how she saved the Jewish people – this story is told in the Book of Esther which in Hebrew is called Megillat Esther (‘the scroll of Esther’).
On Purim we read Megillat Esther in synagogue. Other things we do on Purim include wearing costumes or fancy dress, eating hamataschen, sending gifts of food (called Mishloach Manot) to other people, having a festive meal to celebrate, and giving gifts to the poor.
What is the story of Purim?
We read this in the Scroll of Esther in synagogue. Long ago, the Jews lived for a time in the land of Persia (today it is called Iran). The king (his name was Ahasuerus, pronounced A-chash-ve-rosh) decided to marry a new queen and chose a Jewish girl called Esther as his queen. Esther had a cousin, Mordechai (pronounced Mor-de-hai), who advised her not to tell the king that she was Jewish. The king had a prime minister called Haman who hated Mordechai, so Haman decided to get back at Mordechai by having the people attack the Jews (Mordechai was their leader). Haman chose the date when this would happen by casting lots (similar to using a dice) – the Hebrew word for ‘lots’ is purim and that is why the holiday is called Purim. Another problem for Haman was that the king liked Mordechai because Mordechai had once saved his life, and this made Haman very jealous of Mordechai. Mordechai found out about Haman’s plan to kill all the Jews. He got Esther to go to the king and tell him that she was Jewish and that Haman was planning to get all the Jews, including her, killed. The king was furious that Haman would dare to attack his queen. The Jews were saved and Mordechai was made prime minister instead of Haman.
How do we read the story of Esther?
We read the Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther) twice in synagogue on Purim – once in the evening, and again in the morning. Haman is the ‘bad guy’ in the story, and every time his name is mentioned we make a lot of noise in order to block out his name. Sometimes the person reading the story out loud also uses funny voices, for example he tries to sound like a woman when Esther speaks, or he neighs when he tells comes to the part of the story about a horse.
Reading the story is a mitzvah (something we are told to do), so we say a blessing for hearing the story before we start it, and another blessing after hearing it.
What else do we do on Purim?
There are a number of things we are supposed to do in addition to listening to the Scroll of Esther being read. These include:
- having a festive meal to celebrate Purim – this is usually done on the afternoon of Purim, towards the end of the day;
- giving money to charity; and
- sending gifts of food to other people. These food parcels are called Mishloach Manot משלוח מנות in Hebrew. There are some rules about Mishloach Manot, such as you are supposed to send them to at least 2 different people, and each food parcel is supposed to contain at least 2 different types of food.
Other things that people like to do on Purim include disguising ourselves in costumes (wearing fancy dress), and eating hamantaschen (special biscuits in the shape of a triangle and a filling). Some people say these biscuits are named after Haman because they are a triangle shape like the hat he wore.
2 prayers we say have an extra part called Al haNissim (‘for the miracles’) added in on Purim. These 2 prayers are the Amidah and the Birkat HaMazon or Grace After Meals. The extra part is called ‘for the miracles’ because we believe that even though God (HaShem) is not mentioned in the story of Purim, He performed a series of miracles (which looked like coincidences, but weren’t) which resulted in the Jewish people being saved.