There are myriad traditions, customs, and practices associated with the holiday Purim, and while the history of the holiday is well documented in other nodes (particularly Haman), a summary of the typical festivities has been heretofore absent.

Half-A-Shekel
On the afternoon before the 14th day of the Hebrew month Adar, Jews donate a symbolic sum to a charity in the synagogue. The custom is to donate three coins, each of whose value is half of the base denomination in the country. In the United States, half-dollars are donated, while in Israel, half-shekels are used. This custom harkens back to traditions of tithing and census taking during the existence of the Great Temple, when every Jew was required to donate one half of a shekel yearly, serving to cover expenses for cattle and sacrifices (as well as forming a basis for an informal census of the Jews, since a direct census was forbidden). Talmudic scholars - in a rather labyrinthine display of inductive reasoning whose logic still escapes me - have found that this mitzvah helped defend the Jews from the evil intentions of Haman. Resh Lakish said in the Talmud, "It was known to the Almighty that Haman would someday pay shekels for royal permission to destroy Israel. He therefore anticipated the shekels of Haman with the shekels of Israel." As with much Talmudic commentary, this connection continues to baffle me. Notably, this custom does NOT replace the donations to charity or gifts to the poor on Purim itself.

Purim Masquerades and Costumes
The tradition of masks, costumes, masquerades, and celebratory strange dressing is a relative newcomer, only becoming firmly entrenched by the 1500's. In modern times, it is mostly children who dress in costume on or before Purim. The dress-up aspect adds to the carnival nature of the holiday, and throughout the world Jewish children can be seen arriving at school or shul dressed as Mordechai, Esther, or any number of Biblical characters. It has become acceptable to dress in any costume, however, and non-Biblical ones are quite common. The use of costumes and masks is highly symbolic, and according to many, serves to illustrate the phrase from the Scroll of Esther, "And it was turned about." Haman, expecting to be paraded through the streets and honored by the King is instead humiliated, ridiculed and hung. The Jews, expecting genocide and annihilation, are instead victorious. Mordecai, father of Esther, is honored instead of killed. Things are not as they appear. Additionally, many biblical scholars find that the themes of hiddeness are essential to an understanding of Purim. Esther herself keeps her Judaism hidden from the King. The Scroll of Esther is the only biblical text which does not contain the name of God, and the events of Purim seem to unfold randomly. To many Jews, it is only in hindsight that the hand of God is seen in the events, and his will and purpose seem hidden behind masks throughout.

The Fast of Esther
In the story of the origin of Purim, Esther risked approaching her husband, King Ahashveurosh, uninvited, so as to plea for him to rescind Haman's decree of genocide upon the Jews. She asked the King for a special audience at grave risk to her life, for those who entered the King's court without being summoned could be put to death. In her preparations for such an endeavor, Esther requested that the Jews of the walled city of Shushan fast and pray for three days. In memory of this event, Jews observe a fast day in Esther's memory on the 13th day of Adar.

The Reading of the Megillah
The Book of Esther is read aloud from a single scroll. It is read on the eve of Purim. The Megillah, as it is known, is chanted in the synagogue before the entire congregation, though some read it in their homes before friends and family. The Megillah is considered a sacred scroll and preceded by three Hebrew blessings. There are four passages of particular note (2:4, 8:15, 10:3, 6:1), and as they are encountered, the reader sings them after they are said aloud by the entire congregation. To listen to every word of the Scroll of Esther is a mitzvah.

The Purim Shpiel
See shpiel for more information.

The Purim Carnival
The Purim carnival is a tradition extending throughout Europe during the Diaspora. Carnivals, fairs, masquerades, and balls were held to commemorate the survival of the Jews, the death of Haman, the blessedness of Esther and Mordecai, and the need for religious and cultural unity in the face of assimilation. The city of Tel Aviv began a massive Purim parade and carnival in 1912, featuring elaborate floats, marching bands, costumed adults and children, dancing, music, and drinking. The parade is known as the Adloyada, from the Biblical phrase "...and you should drink until you don't know the difference between 'Cursed is Haman, Blessed is Mordecai.'" The Hebrew phrase 'Ad lo yada' is translated as 'you don't know'. Which leads us to our next tradition....

Drinking
Drinking to excess on Purim is a matter of great debate amongst Talmudic scholars and sages. For the most part, drunkenness is quite frowned upon and considered un-Jewish. However, the Talmud differs from this standard quite strangely by stating, "...and you should drink until you don't know the difference between 'Cursed is Haman, Blessed is Mordecai.'" Alcohol is consumed during the feast of Purim, and is supposed to bring out that which is hidden within. Specifically, Jews are to remember the difference between the hedonistic consumption during the six months of feasting under King Ahashveurosh (at the beginning of the Scroll of Esther), and the celebratory drinking designed to bring out the hidden joy and gladness within while increasing unity with God. This drinking is considered a mitzvah.

Graggers and Noisemakers
Gragger is Yiddish for noisemaker. Making noise during Purim festivities is seen as far back as Talmudic times, when children would explode saltpeter in bonfires while burning effigies of Haman. The noise is considered to be a way of eradicating the evil of Haman, for his name is so heinous that the very sound of it should be drowned out. And so during the reading of the Megillah, noisemakers are rattled and shook each time Haman's name is mentioned. Some prefer to "Boo" and "Hiss", while others make animal sounds. Whenever the name of Haman is uttered, the room erupts into a cacophony of hoots, honks, screeches, clacks, and howls. However such displeasure is expressed, it is only to be done when Haman's name is mentioned, for to do otherwise would interfere with the mitzvah of the reading of the Megillah.

Giving Gifts (Mishloach Manot)
The minimum requirement of this Purim mitzvah is to give two pieces of prepared food to one person. In the evolution of the Purim festivities, the gifts have become more elaborate. Fun, flair, and creativity reign. Purim baskets are commonly sold in Israel, though many find homemade treats more personal.

Tzedakah
The tzedakah comprises the fourth of the mitzvot of Purim. The word means charity, and like all the mitzvot, is not optional. This mitzvah is expressed through charity to the poor on Purim, and it is there is a tradition to never refuse tzedakah to anyone on that day. While the minimum value of each gift is two cents, and one is required to give tzedakah to at least two poor people, it is considered inappropriate to give less than the amount spent on the Purim meal. Furthermore, it is stipulated that the gifts to charity cannot go to a charitable organization or enterprise, but must instead be given directly to the poor.

Pu"rim (?), n. [Heb. p&umac;r, pl. p&umac;r&imac;m, a lot.]

A Jewish festival, called also the Feast of Lots, instituted to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from the machinations of Haman.

Esther ix. 26.

 

© Webster 1913.

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