The Story of Purim and Purim Celebration
Purim is the most festive of Jewish holidays, a time of prizes, noisemakers, costumes and treats. Purim takes place on the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, the twelfth month of the Jewish calendar usually falling in March. Purim celebrates the salvation of the Jewish people, in the year 3405 from Creation (356 bce), from Haman's plot "to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews, young and old, infants and women, in a single day."
The Story of Purim is based on the Megillah, The Biblical Book of Esther. The events commemorated by the Megillah took place in the ancient Persian Empire , in the fifth century BCE, under the reign of King Achashverosh (also known as Ahasuerus and Ahashuerus).
Achashverosh had bestowed a great deal of power upon Haman (his prime minister) and decreed that everyone should bow before Haman. But Mordecai refused to bow before any man because Jews are not to bow before anyone but G-d, thus infuriating the vain Haman. Not content to just punish Mordechai, Haman wanted to destroy the entire Jewish people in Persia . Haman argued before Achashverosh that "one people, scattered and divided in all provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of all peoples" ought not be allowed to exist. Endorsed by an emperor whose dominion extended from India to Ethiopia , Haman's decree boded the physical destruction of every Jew alive on the face of the earth at that time. Haman cast lots (or Purim) to determine the day of annihilation and built a gallows especially for Mordechai. .
Upon learning of the plot, Mordechai tore his clothes, wore sackcloth and ashes, and walked through the city crying loudly. Mordechai rallied the Jews to repentance, and gathered 22,000 Jewish children with whom he prayed and studied Torah to pray for G-d's mercy. He also sent word to his cousin, Esther, who had been chosen by Achashverosh as his queen several years earlier, to appeal to the king. Mordechai recounted the details of the evil decree and instructed Esther to intercede on the Jews behalf. Esther agreed to appear before the King and instructed Mordechai to organize a three-day fast for all the Jews on her behalf. At great risk to her own life because she had been keeping secret that she was Jewish, Queen Esther engineered Haman's downfall at a private banquet to which she invited the king and the minister.
At Esther's banquet she revealed Haman's villainous plot and the secret that she was also Jewish. She asked the King to "grant me my soul and my people." Ahashverosh consumed with anger ordered that Haman be hanged on the gallows intended for Mordechai. Esther also had Achashverosh make another decree empowering the Jews to defend themselves against those who sought to destroy them.
On the 13th of Adar--the day selected by Haman's purim (lottery)--numerous battles were fought throughout the empire between the Jews and those who attempted to carry out Haman's decree (which was never actually revoked). The following day, Adar 14, became a day of feasting and rejoicing in celebration of the Jews' victory over their enemies.
Mordechai and Esther instituted that these two days should be observed for posterity as the festival of Purim, Adar 15 in walled cities, and Adar 14 in unwalled towns by public readings of the story of the miracle as recorded in the "Scroll of Esther," sending food portions to friends, giving gifts of money to the poor, and enjoying a festive meal accompanied with inebriating drink (recalling the fateful wine-party at which Esther turned Achashverosh against Haman).
The megillah lists four ways to celebrate Purim: reading the megilla, giving charity, giving gifts of food, and the festive meal.
To celebrate the miraculous events of Purim, listen to the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther) twice: once on Purim eve and again on Purim day. At certain points in the reading where Haman's name is mentioned, it is customary to twirl graggers (Purim noisemakers) and stamp one's feet to "drown out" his evil name.
Concern for the needy is a year-round responsibility; but on Purim it is a special mitzvah to remember the poor. Give charity to at least two, (but preferably more) needy individuals on Purim day. The mitzvah is best fulfilled by giving directly to the needy. If, however, you cannot find poor people, place at least several coins into a charity box. As in the other mitzvahs of Purim, even small children should fulfill this mitzvah.
On Purim we emphasize the importance of Jewish unity and friendship by sending gifts of food to friends. On Purim day send a gift of at least two kinds of ready-to-eat foods (e.g., pastry, fruit, beverage), to at least one friend on Purim day. Men should send to men and women to women. It is preferable that the gifts are delivered via a third party. Children, in addition to sending their own gifts of food to their friends, make enthusiastic messengers.
Eat, Drink and be Merry! Purim should be celebrated with a special festive meal on Purim Day, at which family and friends gather together to rejoice in the Purim spirit. It is a mitzvah to drink wine or other inebriating drinks at this meal.
To commemorate the prayer and fasting that the Jewish people held during the Purim story, we fast on the day before Purim. The fast begins approximately an hour before sunrise until nightfall (approximately 40 minutes after sunset).
At Purim people hold parties, perform plays, wear costumes, present beauty contests, and give gifts of food and drink. Adults are also expected to drink until they can't tell the difference between the phrases "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai." Triangular fruit-filled cookies, called hamentaschen, said to resemble Haman's three-cornered hat, are especially popular. Purim celebrations often feature children's costume parades and carnivals. These lighthearted activities have a serious side, recalling the heroism of individuals and the organized resistance to oppression of the Jewish people. During Purim, it is fun to pay tribute to heroes of the past and present by dressing up like them.