Purim 101

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Where does the holiday of Purim come from? Why do Jews dress up on the festive holiday? Here's a quick guide to the holiday of Purim.

Purim, or the Feast of Lots, recounts the saving of the Jews from a threatened massacre during the Persian period (539-330 BCE).

 
The story is recounted in the Book of Esther, whose eponymous heroine plays the leading role in saving the Jewish people. Purim is traditionally celebrated with wild abandon and with the giving of gifts to friends and the poor.
 
History
 
Historians have looked in vain for any sort of non-biblical corroboration of the events of the Book of Esther. However, the tale of Purim purports to take place during a time when many Jews were living in Persia.
 
A young Jewish woman, Esther, rises to become the Queen of Persia under the tutelage of her guardian, and Jewish leader, Mordecai. But the Jews have enemies, and Haman, the grand vizier, plots the Jews' destruction.
 
Even though Esther has hidden her Jewish identity, Mordecai prevails on her to risk her life by revealing her true identity to King Ahashverus. At the same time, she denounces Haman's plot.
 
As a result, the Jews are able to turn the tables on their enemies, who are punished in place of their intended victims. 
 
The great talmudic leader Rabbi Akiva declares the Book of Esther to be divinely inspired. Some commentators believe this eventually led to the inclusion of Esther in the cannonized Hebrew Bible, despite the fact that God's name is not mentioned once in the book.
 
The Greek versions of Esther contain a number of additions — including God's name — not found in the Hebrew story.
 
At Home
 
Unlike other Jewish holidays, such as Pesach (Passover), Purim is the quintessential community holiday. Nonetheless, there are a number of activities that are centered in the home.
 
One of the favorite activities in preparation for the holiday is the baking of hamantashen, triangular filled pastries that are the traditional food at Purim time. Jews also generally adhere to the commandment of giving gifts to friends and the poor, and the preparation of mishloah manot baskets.
 
The centerpiece of Purim's home celebration is the seudah, a festive meal accompanied by alcoholic beverages.
 
In the Community

Purim is very much a community holiday. The centerpiece of the communal celebration is the reading of the Scroll of Esther, the Megillah, in synagogue.

Whoops, hollers and noise are made every time that Haman's name is mentioned — so no one can hear his name.

Another tradition is the Purim shpiel, a Purim play that often pokes fun at community leaders and members. Purim has often been called the Jewish carnival, and dressing in costume and taking part in a Purim carnival encourages engagement in activities that at other times of the year would be somewhat more restricted, such as drinking.

Themes and Theology

The overriding theme of Purim is the saving of the Jews from a mortal threat.

Even though God is not mentioned at all in the Book of Esther, from a Jewish perspective, God is the one who is pulling the strings of redemption behind the scenes.

It is a joyous holiday on which Jews are not just allowed, but encouraged, to just let go.

Most significant, however, is the paradigmatic nature of the story of Purim. The story in which a small and threatened Jewish community in exile is able to triumph over its foes is a powerful image for Diaspora communities throughout history and around the world. The story of Purim holds out the hope that no matter how bad the circumstances, things will turn out well in the end.