The Essence of Purim: Customs, Costumes, and Cuisine

Purim, known in Hebrew as פּוּרִים, is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the salvation of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from a plot to annihilate them, as recounted in the Book of Esther (מגילת אסתר, Megillat Esther). This event is believed to have taken place during the reign of King Ahasuerus (traditionally identified with Xerxes I) in the 5th century BCE. Celebrated annually on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (late winter/early spring), Purim is marked by public readings of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), wearing of costumes and masks, giving of mutual gifts of food and drink (mishloach manot), giving charity to the poor (matanot la’evyonim), and a festive meal (se’udat Purim). It is a time of joy and celebration, where the norms of daily life are often inverted to commemorate the reversal of fortune detailed in the story. The holiday has a carnival-like atmosphere, with participants often partaking in plays, parades, and parties.

Key Traditions of Purim

Mishloach Manot (Sending of Portions)

Exchanging gifts of food and drink among friends and family is a central tradition of Purim, embodying the holiday’s spirit of community and sharing.

Matanot La’Evyonim (Gifts to the Poor)

Donating to the needy is a key Purim mitzvah, ensuring everyone can partake in the day’s feasting and joy.

Se’udat Purim (Purim Feast)

A festive meal is enjoyed, often with wine, symbolizing the feast held by Esther and marking the celebration’s climax.

Reading of the Megillah

Public recitation of the Scroll of Esther recounts the story of Purim, with listeners often using noisemakers to drown out Haman’s name.

Wearing Costumes and Masks

Dressing up celebrates the hidden miracles of Purim and the hidden aspects of the Purim story, where Esther conceals her Jewish identity.

Drinking Wine

Drinking to celebrate Purim is traditional, recalling the role of wine in the Purim story and enhancing the festive joy.

Giving of Henna

In some Sephardic and Mizrahi communities, applying henna is a Purim custom, symbolizing fertility, joy, and protection.

Public Celebrations and Parades (Adloyada)

Large public celebrations and parades, such as the Adloyada, are held, contributing to Purim’s carnival-like atmosphere.

Eating Hamantaschen

Eating triangular pastries known as Hamantaschen (“Haman’s pockets”) is a beloved Purim tradition, with various fillings like poppy seed or jam.

The Fast of Esther

Many observe a fast day preceding Purim, commemorating Esther’s fast before pleading with King Ahasuerus to save the Jewish people.

Shpiel (Purim Play)

Performances and skits that humorously retell the Purim story, often involving community members.

Best Movies Set During Purim

One Night with the King (2006)

Tells the story of Esther, who becomes queen and saves the Jews from annihilation.

For Your Consideration (2006)

A comedy film that includes a Purim subplot, showcasing the cultural aspects of the holiday.

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)

Though not directly about Purim, this film captures themes of Jewish persecution and mystical salvation akin to the Purim story.

Ushpizin (2004)

An Israeli film that, while set during Sukkot, captures the spirit of Jewish celebration and could be analogous to Purim’s themes of divine intervention and joy.

Esther and the King (1960)

An earlier cinematic portrayal of the Purim story, focusing on the courage and cleverness of Queen Esther.

The Book of Esther (2013)

A biblical drama that retells the story of Esther, highlighting the themes of faith and providence central to Purim.

Purim: The Lot (2014)

A short film that explores the themes of Purim and the historical context of the holiday.

Esther Kahn (2000)

While not directly about Purim, it explores the life of a Jewish actress, touching on themes of identity and self-discovery relevant to the holiday.

Most Important Works of Literature About Purim

The Book of Esther

The biblical story that is the basis for the Purim holiday, detailing the heroism of Esther and Mordecai.

The Scroll of Esther (Megillat Esther)

A traditional text read on Purim, recounting the story of the holiday with emphasis on its miraculous aspects.

“Purimspiel” – Traditional Purim Plays

Scripts and songs for theatrical performances that retell the Purim story, often with humor and satire.

“The Days of Awe” by S.Y. Agnon

A collection of stories and essays that includes reflections on Purim and its customs.

“The Purim Anthology” by Philip Goodman

A comprehensive collection of Purim stories, history, and interpretations from various sources.

“Esther’s Children: A Portrait of Iranian Jews” by Houman Sarshar

Includes chapters on the history of Purim and its particular significance to Iranian Jews.

“The Last Jew” by Noah Gordon

A novel that, while not exclusively about Purim, incorporates elements of Jewish history and tradition, including Purim.

“Behold Your Queen!” by Gladys Malvern

A novelized version of the story of Esther, aimed at young adults but enjoyable by all ages.

Featured image: Wikimedia

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