If you see kids running around in costumes next week, that’s because it’s Purim, a Jewish holiday.
Purim commemorates the story recounted in the biblical Book of Esther. A man named Haman hatched a plan to annihilate all the Jews in ancient Persia; he manipulated King Achashverosh to help carry it out. Little did he know that the king’s wife Esther was actually Jewish. She and her uncle Mordecai work together to stop Haman from succeeding.
“It’s the story of human ingenuity and human courage and human bravery,” says Rabbi Elaine Glickman, assistant executive director of Women’s Rabbinic Network.
But what are all the traditions around it? What’s the deal with the costumes? What are the typical foods eaten to celebrate? Here are all the details:
When is Purim?
This year it begins at sundown on Monday, March 6, and ends at sundown Tuesday, March 7. Dates vary each year but it’s usually around this time.
Is Purim a religious holiday?
Purim is different from some other Jewish holidays in that the laws of the Sabbath are not observed during the holiday. (Meaning even observant Jews will use their phones, drive cars, etc. during this holiday.)
The story of Purim is the only narrative story in the Bible where God’s name doesn’t appear. It seems to be the first time where humans choose their own destiny, mounting a campaign to try to save themselves and to try to protect their community.
“Everything seems to almost be by coincidence – where the miraculous is concealed,” says Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone, social media editor at Chabad.org.
“In many ways this represents the miracle of Jewish life,” he adds. “There are no grand moments in the day-to-day grind. Rather in the very mundane itself we can find the greatest miracle.”
Rabbi Benjamin Berger, vice president of Jewish education at Hillel International, previously told USA TODAY: “At the last minute, the story is flipped upside down, and the Jewish people are saved through the heroic acts of a particular heroine, Queen Esther, who realizes that she’s in the right place in the right moment in order to change the fate of the Jewish people.”
How do Jews celebrate Purim?
There’s usually a service for reading the megillah, the biblical Book of Esther written out on a scroll.
You won’t see this display of the holiday everywhere around the world, necessarily. “In every place where Jews are, we kind of adapt our custom sometimes to what the dominant culture is,” Glickman says.
In the U.S. children wear costumes (often depicting those in the story of Purim) and celebrate with parades and carnivals.
Kids are encouraged to say “boo” any time Haman’s name is said in the retelling of the story and to drown it out with noisemakers called “groggers.” Sometimes synagogues put on plays retelling the story too.
For some Jews it doesn’t end there: “We give gifts of food to friends, charity to the poor and eat a big festive meal,” Lightstone says.
What do Jews eat on Purim?
Hamantaschen – a three-cornered cookie meant to represent Haman’s three-cornered hat. The cookie usually includes some kind of fruit filling, but savory and other sweet options exist too.
What should you say to a Jew on Purim?
“Happy Purim” works! Pronounced like “poor-ihm.”
Should you think of Purim like a Jewish Halloween?
While “it’s a very understandable and very apt comparison” to refer to Purim as the Jewish Halloween, says Glickman, that may offend some.
“Purim is a deeply selfless celebration – one where gifts are given not only to friends, but to those most in need,” Lightstone adds. “It’s a celebration of life and finding the holy in even the moments of greatest concealment.”
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Contributing: Marina Pitofsky