views updated Jun 11 2018


PURIM (Heb. פּוּרִים), the feast instituted, according to the Book of *Esther (9:20–28), by *Mordecai to celebrate the deliverance of the Jews from *Haman's plot to kill them. Purim (Akk. pūrū, "lots") is so called (Esth. 9:26) after the lots cast by Haman in order to determine the month in which the slaughter was to take place (Esth. 3:7). Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar, and in Hasmonean times it was known as the "Day of Mordecai" (ii Macc. 15:36). The Jews of Shushan celebrated their deliverance on the 15th of Adar (Esth. 9:18), and this day became known as Shushan Purim. Out of respect for Jerusalem, it is said, the day is still kept by Jews living in cities which had a wall around them "from the days of Joshua" (Meg. l:1). Thus in present-day Israel Purim is celebrated in Jerusalem on the 15th, but in Tel Aviv on the 14th. In leap years Purim is celebrated in the second month of *Adar.

The chronological difficulties such as the identity of King *Ahasuerus and the absence of any reference in the Persian sources to a king having a Jewish consort; the striking resemblance between the names Mordecai and Esther to the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar; the lack of any reference to Purim in Jewish literature before the first century b.c.e.; the language of the Book of Esther, which suggests a later date – all these have moved the critics to look elsewhere than the account in Esther for the true origin of the festival. Various conjectures have been made (see *Scroll of Esther) but the problem still awaits its solution. In any event the festival had long been established by the second century c.e. when a whole tractate of the Mishnah (*Megillah) was devoted to the details of its observance, especially to the rules governing the reading of the Scroll of Esther, called in the rabbinic literature the megillah ("scroll"). Purim is a minor festival in that work on it is permitted, but it has been joyously celebrated in Jewish communitiesas a reminder of God's protection of His people. However, the widespread acceptance of the festival as only minor is reflectedin the popular Yiddish saying that as a high temperature does not denote serious illness neither is Purim a festival.

The main feature of Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther, the megillah, with a special cantillation. Megillot are frequently decorated, sometimes with scenes from the narrative. Since according to the midrashic interpretation the word ha-melekh ("the king"), when it is not qualified by Ahasuerus, refers to the King of the universe, some megillot are so written that each column begins with this word. It would seem that originally the megillah was read during the day, but eventually the rule was adopted to read it both at night and during the day (Meg. 4a). It is customary to fold the megillah over and spread it out before the reading since it is called a "letter" (Esth. 9:26, 29). The four verses of "redemption" (2:5; 8:15–16; and 10:3) are read in louder voice than the other verses. The custom of children to make a loud noise with rattles and the like whenever the name of Haman is read, in order to blot out the "memory of Amalek" (see Deut. 25:19; and Esth. 3:1 and i Sam. 15:8–9 for Haman was a descendant of Amalek) is ancient and still persists, though frowned upon as undecorous by some authorities. It is the practice for the reader to recite the names of the 10 sons of Haman (Esth. 9:7–9) in one breath (Meg. 16b) to show that they were executed simultaneously. The custom has also been seen, however, as a refusal by Jews togloat over the downfall of their enemies (C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (ed.), A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), 53). The Torah reading for Purim morning is Exodus 17:8–16.

The Book of Esther (9:22) speaks of "sending portions" (mishlo'aḥ manot – abbreviated to shelakhmones) to friends on Purim and of giving gifts to the poor. The rule is to send atleast two "portions" of eatables, confectionery, and so forth, to a friend and to give a present of money to at least two poor men. A special festive meal is eaten on Purim afternoon toward eventide. Among the special Purim foods are boiled beans and peas, said to be a reminder of the cereals Daniel ate in the king's palace in order to avoid any infringement of the dietary laws, and three-cornered pastries known as hamantashen ("Haman's ears"). There has been much discussion around the saying of the Babylonian teacher Rava (Meg. 7b) that a man is obliged to drink so much wine on Purim that he becomes incapable of knowing whether he is cursing Haman or blessing Mordecai. The more puritanical teachers tried to explain this away, but the imbibing of alcohol was generally encouraged on Purim and not a few otherwise sober teachers still take Rava's saying literally (see, e.g., H. Weiner: 9½ Mystics (1969), 207). The laws of Purim and the reading of the megillah are codified in Shulḥan Arukh, oḤ 686–97. Various parodies of sacred literature were produced for Purim, the best known of which, Massekhet Purim, is a skillful parody of the Talmud with its main theme the obligation to drink wine merrily and to abstain strictly from water. The institution of the Purim rabbi, a kind of lord of misrule, who recites Purim Torah, the frivolous manipulation of sacred texts, was the norm in many communities. Some have seen in all this an annual attempt to find psychological relief from what otherwise might have become an intolerable burden of loyalty to the Torah (Druyanow, Reshumot, 1 and 2). Under the influence of the Italian carnival it became customary for people to dress up on Purim in fancy dress, men even being permitted to dress as women and women as men. The *Adloyada carnival in Tel Aviv has been a prominent feature of Purim observance in modern Israel.

In the kabbalistic and ḥasidic literature much is made of Purim as a day of friendship and joy and as the celebration of God at work, as it were, behind the scenes, unlike Passover which celebrates God's more direct intervention. (God is not mentioned in the Book of Esther.) The "lots" of Purim are compared with the "lots" cast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8), what human beings call "fate" or "luck" being, in reality, only another manifestation of God's providential care. So highly did the kabbalists esteem Purim that they reported in the name of Isaac Luria that the Day of Atonement is "like Purim" (Yore ke-Furim).

While some Reform congregations abolished Purim, others continued to celebrate it as a day of encouragement and hope, some even arguing that it helped Jews to express their aggressive emotions and to sublimate their feelings of wrath and hatred (W.G. Plaut, The Growth of Reform Judaism (1965), 224).


N.S. Doniach, Purim (Eng., 1933); S. Zevin, Ha-Mo'adim ba-Halakhah (196310), 188–214; J.D. Epstein, Oẓar ha-Iggeret (1968); P. Goodman, Purim Anthology (1960), incl. bibl.; J.L. Fishman, Ḥagim u-Mo'adim (1944), 119–68: J.H. Greenstone, Jewish Feasts and Fasts (1945), 135–78; H. Schauss, Jewish Festivals (1938), 237–71.

[Louis Jacobs]


views updated May 18 2018


PURIM ("lots") is a minor Jewish festival (one in which work is not prohibited) that falls on the fourteenth day of Adar. It celebrates the deliverance, as told in the Book of Esther, of the Jews from the designs of Haman, who cast lots to determine the date of their destruction. According to some historians, the events recorded in Esther are fictitious, the festival probably having its origin in a Babylonian festival. But there is evidence that Purim was celebrated as a Jewish festival from the first century bce. Purim was observed also as a reminder to Jews that God often works "behind the scenes" in order to protect his people. Medieval thinkers found a basis for this idea in the absence of God's name in Esther, the only book in the Hebrew Bible in which the divine name does not appear.

The central feature of Purim is the reading of the Megillah (scroll), as the Book of Esther is called, in the form of a parchment scroll, written by hand and occasionally profusely illustrated. This public reading takes place on the night of Purim and again during the morning service in the synagogue. During this service the passage in the Torah concerning the blotting out of the name of Amalek (Ex. 17:816) is read because Haman was a descendant of Amalek. Based on this is the practice, frowned upon by some Jews, of making loud noises with rattles and the like whenever the name of Haman is mentioned during the reading of the Megillah.

Esther 9:22 speaks of sending portions to friends and giving alms to the poor. Hence the rabbinic rule is that each person must send a gift of at least two items of food to a friend and give at least one donation to two poor men. From the reference in Esther 9:17 to "days of feasting and joy," the rabbis further established the Purim festive meal, at which there is much imbibing of wine. A Talmudic statement has it that a man must drink until he is incapable of telling whether he is blessing Mordechai or cursing Haman.

As part of the Purim jollity, undoubtedly influenced by the Italian Carnival, people dress up, and children, especially, produce Purim plays in which they assume the characters mentioned in the Megillah. Rabbis objected to men dressing up as women and vice versa since this offends against the law in Deuteronomy 22:5, but Meir of Padua in the sixteenth century defended the practice as a harmless masquerade. In some communities it is the practice to appoint a "Purim rabbi" whose duty it is frivolously to manipulate even the most sacred texts.

The Jews of Shushan (Est. 9:18) celebrated Purim on the fifteenth day of Adar. To pay honor to Jerusalem, it was ordained that cities that, like Jerusalem, had walls around them in the days of Joshua should celebrate Purim on the fifteenth. Consequently, the citizens of Jerusalem today keep the festival and read the Megillah on Shushan Purim, the fifteenth of Adar, while for other Jews Purim is on the fourteenth of the month.

See Also

Purim Plays.


N. S. Doniach's Purim (Philadelphia, 1933) is a competent survey in English of the origins, rites, and ceremonies of Purim in which both the critical and the traditional views are fairly stated.

New Sources

Polish, Daniel F. "Aspects of Esther: A Phenomenological Exploration of the 'Megillah' of Esther and the Origins of Purim." JSOT 85 (1999): 85106.

Louis Jacobs (1987)

Revised Bibliography


views updated May 14 2018

Purim Ancient Jewish celebration of thanksgiving, held on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar (in February or March). It commemorates the deliverance of the Jews of Persia from a plot to destroy them. The story, which appears in the Old Testament Book of Esther, is read on this festival in all synagogue services. The gift of alms to the poor is obligatory, and the festival is associated with a carnival atmosphere.


views updated May 14 2018

Purim (Heb., ‘lots’). Jewish feast commemorating the deliverance of Jews, as recorded in the book of Esther. The feast is celebrated on 14 Adar; it was established by the 2nd cent. CE, and the Mishnah tractate Megillah discusses its observance.


views updated May 29 2018

Purim a lesser Jewish festival held in spring (on the 14th or 15th day of Adar) to commemorate the defeat of Haman's plot to massacre the Jews as recorded in the book of Esther. The name is a Hebrew word, plural of pūr, explained in the book of Esther (3:7, 9:24) as meaning ‘lot’, with allusion to the casting of lots by Haman to select the day on which the Jews were to be killed.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Pu·rim / ˈpoŏrim; poŏˈrēm/ • n. a lesser Jewish festival held in spring (on the 14th or 15th day of Adar) to commemorate the defeat of Haman's plot to massacre the Jews as recorded in the book of Esther.