Significance: Remembers the defeat of a plot to exterminate the Jews
Observances: Public reading of the book of Esther while "blotting out" the villain's name
Length: 1 day
Customs: Costume parties; drinking; eating fruit-filled triangular cookies
In the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on its
thirteenth day ... on the day that the enemies of the Jews were expected to
prevail over them, it was turned about: the Jews prevailed over their
adversaries. - Esther 9:1
And they gained relief on the fourteenth, making it a day of
feasting and gladness. - Esther 9:17
[Mordecai instructed them] to observe them as days of
feasting and gladness, and sending delicacies to one another, and gifts to the
poor. - Esther 9:22
Purim is one of the most joyous and fun holidays on the Jewish calendar. It
commemorates a time when the Jewish people living in Persia were saved from
The Book of Esther
The story of Purim is told in the Biblical book of
Esther. The heroes of the story are Esther, a beautiful young Jewish woman
living in Persia, and her cousin Mordecai, who raised her as if she were his
daughter. Esther was taken to the house of Ahasuerus, King of Persia, to become
part of his harem. King Ahasuerus loved Esther more than his other women and
made Esther queen, but the king did not know that Esther was a Jew, because
Mordecai told her not to reveal her identity.
The villain of the story is Haman, an arrogant, egotistical advisor to the
king. Haman hated Mordecai because Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, so
Haman plotted to destroy the Jewish people. In a
speech that is all too familiar to Jews, Haman told the king, "There is a
certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the
provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other
people's, and they do not observe the king's laws; therefore it is not
befitting the king to tolerate them." Esther 3:8. The king gave the fate of the
Jewish people to Haman, to do as he pleased to them. Haman planned to
exterminate all of the Jews.
Mordecai persuaded Esther to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people.
This was a dangerous thing for Esther to do, because anyone who came into the
king's presence without being summoned could be put to death, and she had not
been summoned. Esther fasted for three days to prepare herself, then went into
the king. He welcomed her. Later, she told him of Haman's plot against her
people. The Jewish people were saved, and Haman and his ten sons were hanged on
the gallows that had been prepared for Mordecai.
The book of Esther is unusual in that it is the only book of the Bible that
does not contain the name of G-d. In fact, it
includes virtually no reference to G-d. Mordecai makes a vague reference to the
fact that the Jews will be saved by someone else, if not by Esther, but that is
the closest the book comes to mentioning G-d. Thus, one important message that
can be gained from the story is that G-d often works in ways that are not
apparent, in ways that appear to be chance, coincidence or ordinary good luck.
Modern Echoes of Purim
The Pesach (Passover)
seder reminds us that in every generation, there
are those who rise up to destroy us, but G-d saves
us from their hand. In the time of the Book of Esther, Haman was the one who
tried to destroy us. In modern times, there have been two significant figures
who have threatened the Jewish people, and there are echoes of Purim in their
Many have noted the echoes of Purim in the Nuremberg war crime trials. In the
Book of Esther, Haman's ten sons were hanged (Esther 9:13); in 1946, ten of
Hitler's top associates were put to death by hanging for their war crimes
(including the crime of murdering 6 million Jews). An 11th associate of Hitler,
Hermann Göring, committed suicide the night before the execution, a
parallel to the suicide of Haman's daughter recorded in the
Talmud (Megillah 16a). There are rumors that
Göring was a transvestite, making that an even more accurate parallel. One
of the men seems to have been aware of the parallel: on the way to the gallows,
Julius Streicher shouted "Purim Fest 1946!" See:
Execution of Nazi War Criminals. It is also interesting that, in the
traditional text of the Megillah (Book of Esther), in the list of the names of
Haman's sons, the letters Tav in the first name, Shin in the seventh name and
Zayin in the tenth name are written in smaller letters than the rest. The
numerical value of Tav-Shin-Zayin is 707, and these ten men were hanged in the
Jewish year 5707 (the thousands digit is
routinely skipped when writing Jewish years; there are no numerals for
thousands in Hebrew numbering). They were not hanged on Purim, though -- they
were hanged on Hoshanah Rabbah.
Another echo of Purim is found in the Soviet Union a few years later. In early
1953, Stalin was planning to deport most of the Jews in the Soviet Union to
Siberia, but just before his plans came to fruition, he suffered a stroke and
died a few days later. He suffered that stroke on the night of March 1, 1953:
the night after Purim (note: Jewish days end at sunset; you will see March 1 on
the calendar as Purim). The plan to deport Jews was not carried out.
A story is told in Chabad (Lubavitcher
Chasidic Judaism) of that 1953 Purim: the
Lubavitcher Rebbe led a Purim gathering and was
asked to give a blessing for the Jews of the Soviet Union, who were known to be
in great danger. The Rebbe instead told a cryptic story about a man who was
voting in the Soviet Union and heard people cheering for the candidate,
"Hoorah! Hoorah!" The man did not want to cheer, but was afraid to not
cheer, so he said "hoorah," but in his heart, he meant it in Hebrew: hu ra,
which means, "he is evil"! The crowd at the Rebbe's 1953 gathering began
chanting "hu ra!" regarding Stalin, and that night, Stalin suffered the stroke
that lead to his death a few days later.
Purim Customs and Observances
Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, which
is usually in March. The 13th of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the
extermination of the Jews, and the day that the Jews battled their enemies for
their lives. On the day afterwards, the 14th, they celebrated their survival.
In cities that were walled in the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated on the
15th of the month, because the book of Esther says that in Shushan (a walled
city), deliverance from the massacre was not complete until the next day. The
15th is referred to as Shushan Purim.
In leap years, when there are two months of Adar,
Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar, so it is always one month
before Passover. The 14th day of the first Adar
in a leap year is celebrated as a minor holiday called Purim Katan, which means
"little Purim." There are no specific observances for Purim Katan; however, a
person should celebrate the holiday and should not mourn or fast. Some
communities also observe a "Purim Katan" on the anniversary of any day when
their community was saved from a catastrophe, destruction, evil or oppression.
The word "Purim" means "lots" and refers to the lottery that Haman used to
choose the date for the massacre.
The Purim holiday is preceded by a minor fast, the
Fast of Esther, which commemorates Esther's three days of fasting in
preparation for her meeting with the king.
A traditional grager. Click to hear it
The primary commandment related to Purim is
to hear the reading of the book of Esther. The book of Esther is commonly known
as the Megillah, which means scroll. Although there are five books of
Jewish scripture that are properly referred
to as megillahs (Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations),
this is the one people usually mean when they speak of The Megillah. It is
customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle gragers (noisemakers) whenever
the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. The purpose of this custom is to
"blot out the name of Haman."
We are also commanded to eat, drink and be merry. According to the
Talmud, a person is required to drink until he
cannot tell the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai,"
though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. A person certainly
should not become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or get
seriously ill. In addition, recovering alcoholics or others who might suffer
serious harm from alcohol are exempt from this obligation.
addition, we are commanded to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make
gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as
shalach manos (lit. sending out portions). Among Ashkenazic Jews, a common
treat at this time of year is hamentaschen (lit. Haman's pockets). These
triangular fruit-filled cookies are supposed to represent Haman's
three-cornered hat. My recipe is included below.
It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays
and parodies, and to hold beauty contests. I have heard that the usual
prohibitions against cross-dressing are lifted during this holiday, but I am
not certain about that. Americans sometimes refer to Purim as the Jewish Mardi Gras.
Purim is not subject to the sabbath-like restrictions on
work that some other holidays are; however, some
sources indicate that we should not go about our ordinary business on Purim out
of respect for the holiday.
Recipe for Hamentaschen
This is a sugar cookie-style recipe, which is a common homemade style. In
stores or at synagogues, you will often see a bigger, more yeasty style, but I
don't have a recipe for that.
I recently made some changes to the recipe that make it easier to measure (2/3
cup butter? really?), easier to roll and less prone to pop open in the oven
(but still just as tasty!). The new recipe makes almost twice as much batter
(40-50 hamentaschen using a 3-1/4 inch cutting tool), but I used to double the
original recipe anyway. Below is the ingredient list for this new recipe,
alongside the original recipe for anyone who has used it before and wants to
stick with it.
I use a mixer to make the batter these days. I used to mix it by hand. You may
need to adjust the flour amount slightly if you mix by hand.
- 3/4 cup butter or margarine
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 2 eggs
- 2 tbsp. orange juice (the smooth kind, not the pulpy)
- 2 cups white flour
- 1-1/2 cups wheat flour (DO NOT substitute white flour! The wheat flour is
necessary to achieve the right texture!)
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. dried orange peel (2 tsp. if fresh)
- Various preserves, fruit butters and/or pie fillings.
- 2/3 cup butter or margarine
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup orange juice (the smooth kind, not the pulpy)
- 1 cup white flour
- 1 cup wheat flour (DO NOT substitute white flour! The wheat flour is
necessary to achieve the right texture!)
- 2 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- Various preserves, fruit butters and/or pie fillings.
Blend butter and sugar thoroughly. Add the egg and blend thoroughly. Add OJ and
blend thoroughly. Add flour, 1/2 cup at a time, alternating white and wheat,
blending thoroughly between each. Add the baking powder, cinnamon and orange
peel before the last half cup of flour. Refrigerate batter for an hour or two
(preferably overnight for the original recipe). Roll as thin as you like. I
roll it between two sheets of parchment paper dusted with flouer for best
results. Cut out 3 or 4 inch circles. I use a 3-1/4 inch diameter drinking
glass as a cutting tool. Set aside the excess dough for the next batch and flip
the circles before filling to make it easier to fold when the time comes.
a dollop of filling in the middle of each circle. Fold up the sides to make a
triangle, folding the last corner under the starting point, so that each side
has corner that folds over and a corner that folds under (see picture at
right). Folding in this "pinwheel" style will reduce the likelihood that the
last side will fall open while cooking, spilling out the filling. It also tends
to make a better triangle shape.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 15-20 minutes, until golden brown but before the
filling boils over!
Traditional fillings are poppy seed and prune, but apricot is my favorite.
Apple butter, orange marmalade, pineapple preserves, and cherry pie filling all
work quite well. I usually use grocery store brand fruit preserves, and of
course the traditional Simon Fischer brand prune lekvar. I have also made some
with Nutella (chocolate-hazelnut spread); I find it a bit dry that way, but
some people like it. The Nutella was less dry when I mixed it with marshmallow
fluff, and a recent mix of Nutella and cherry preserves got rave reviews at the
The number of cookies this recipe makes depends on the size of your cutting
tool and the thickness you roll. I am currently using a 3-1/4 inch cutting tool
and roll to a medium thickness, and I get 40-50- cookies out of the newrecipe
(more like 25-30 with the original).
Wheat-Free, Gluten-Free Variation
If you are on a wheat-free diet for wheat allergies or a gluten-free diet for
celiac-sprue, substitute 3 cups of
flour and 1/2 cup of
flax seed for the white and wheat flour (for the original recipe: 2 cups of
buckwheat and 1/2 cup f flax). Reduce the baking powder to 1 tsp. The resulting
hamentaschen will have an unusual pumpernickel color, but they taste great! I
have family and friends with celiac, so I make a batch of this substitution
every year, and get great reviews.
Make sure the buckwheat flour you use is wheat-free/gluten-free! Sometimes
buckwheat flour is mixed with white or wheat flour. The Hodgson Mill buckwheat
and flax linked above are gluten-free and have reliable
List of Dates
Purim will occur on the following days of the secular calendar:
- Jewish Year 5775: sunset March 4, 2015 - nightfall March 5, 2015
- Jewish Year 5776: sunset March 23, 2016 - nightfall March 24, 2016
- Jewish Year 5777: sunset March 11, 2017 - nightfall March 12, 2017
- Jewish Year 5778: sunset February 28, 2018 - nightfall March 1, 2018
- Jewish Year 5779: sunset March 20, 2019 - nightfall March 21, 2019
For additional holiday dates, see Links to Jewish
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