Why Is Purim Still Relevant Today?
Why is celebrating Purim relevant in the 21st century – or even at all? Sure, Purim was marked as the “holiday that would never be forgotten,” and celebrates the salvation of the Jewish nation, but it is also the rare holiday where God doesn’t take center stage in the story. The Megillah pores over every twist and turn of Esther and Mordechai’s actions, yet only hints at God’s involvement once – with an ambiguous reference at that. Is the Megillah suggesting that a little bit of glory goes to the characters, as well? Is this a clue that Purim celebrates our own contribution, alongside God’s?
This Purim video sets out to answer these questions, and in doing so, uncover a meaningful reason as to why Purim is perhaps even the most relevant holiday for our modern lives today.
What Is Purim About?
noun. pu·rim, Hebrew: פּוּרִים
The Jewish holiday of Purim celebrates a miraculous turn of events in which the Jewish people were saved from a threat of national genocide. It is arguably the most joyous day of the Jewish year.
Some of the beloved commandments and traditions of Purim include dressing up in costume; giving gifts and charity to the poor; reading Megillat Esther or the Scroll of Esther; and eating, drinking and singing with friends and family. It’s a topsy-turvy kind of day, accompanied by a fun, almost ecstatic atmosphere of joy and celebration.
The Book of Esther says that the name Purim (pronounced poo-reem) comes from the Hebrew word
But that’s just the surface level of the meaning of this holiday’s name. There are much deeper ways
A Deeper Explanation Of Purim
There’s a popular joke about Jewish holidays: “Our enemies tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!” While this quip may contain a kernel of truth, it misses the true meaning of the Purim holiday.
Purim isn’t just celebrating the survival of the Jewish people despite the threats of an enemy nation. It’s a holiday that celebrates God’s total involvement in our world, and the ways in which God intervenes on our behalf even through circumstances that appear to be very much the opposite. This can be seen throughout the whole Megillah.
The story of Purim takes place in the wake of the destruction of the 1st Temple, during a time of national exile. There’s a Jewish woman who’s basically a political captive and needs to keep her identity hidden. There’s a ruthless death sentence decreed upon the entire Jewish people with seemingly no hope to be saved.
But then there’s a miraculous turn of events in which every piece of the story plays a role in bringing about our national salvation. Esther’s role in the palace becomes the key to redeeming the Jews and bringing down Haman. Mordechai’s early revelation about the assassination plan and the King’s neglect in honoring him at that time become fuel against Haman’s status and pride. The very day that was meant to be a national holocaust became a day of triumph and celebration.
It’s the transformation of events, the way in which everything gets turned upside down, that is the true miracle that this holiday commemorates.
God’s name does not appear at all throughout Megillat Esther, but in the absence of God’s explicit presence, the story of Purim reveals God’s hidden involvement in our world that never ceases. This is the message and the promise of hope that this holiday carries, even in the 21st century.
What Is The Story Of Purim?
The full story of the miraculous Purim holiday is recorded in the Book of Esther.
Purim Background: Partying Like It’s 4th Century BCE
Our story begins with a party. (Doesn’t it always?) It’s the third year of King Achashverosh’s rule. Achashverosh is king over the Persians and the Medes. His empire is huge, spanning over 127 provinces. The party is a six-month extravaganza, filled with lots of drinking. Achashverosh orders his wife, Queen Vashti, to come before his guests and show off her beauty. Vashti refuses. Ego bruised and embarrassed before his dignitaries, the King orders that Vashti be killed. (Seems like he has some anger issues, no?)
The Bachelorette, Persian Edition
The king sends out a decree for all the beautiful women in the kingdom to be brought to him so he can choose a new queen. Enter Esther, a beautiful Jewish orphan being raised by her cousin, Mordechai. The King is impressed by her and chooses her to be his new queen. As per Mordechai’s orders, Esther keeps her Jewish identity hidden in the palace.
An Assassination Thwarted
Shortly thereafter, two of the royal courtiers, Bigthan and Teresh, plot to assassinate King Achashverosh. Mordechai overhears them and thwarts their plans. Bigthan and Teresh are killed, and Mordechai’s actions are recorded in the King’s official records. Foreshadow alert!
3 Days of Fasting, 2 Lavish Feasts, 1 Evil Plot
Enter Haman. One of the King’s officials named Haman gets a promotion and fancies himself very important. The King orders that everyone in the palace should bow down before him whenever he passes by. But Mordechai refuses, and Haman gets so agitated by this that he asks permission from Achashverosh to kill not only
Haman casts a lot (read:
Typically, a queen could not go before the king without being summoned on
On the third day, she approaches Achashverosh and he accepts her happily. (Phew!) Esther invites the king and Haman to a feast, presumably just to build up our suspense, because all she does at that feast is invite them to another feast, to take place the next night.
Achashverosh The Insomniac & The Mordecai Parade
Back to Mordechai….after the first feast with Esther, Haman is offended by Mordechai (again). At his wife Zeresh’s suggestion, he decides to build a gallows upon which to hang him. True love.
That night, Achashverosh can’t sleep. His official records are read to him and he sees that Mordechai was never rewarded for saving his life. (Remember the assassination plot?) Haman then appears in the middle of the night (apparently there’s more than one insomniac in the kingdom) to ask the King’s permission to hang Mordechai.
But before he can make his request, the King asks Haman, “what should be done for a man whom the king wishes to honor?” Haman thinks the King is referring to him (of course) and answers that the man should be treated like royalty: dressed in royal clothes and paraded around on the King’s horse while someone announces, “This is how the King treats a man he wishes to honor!”
Achashverosh likes this
At Esther’s second banquet, she reveals to Achashverosh and Haman that she is
There is a war in the Purim story, but it’s not exactly as Haman planned. Achashverosh cannot annul the previous decree, but he allows the Jews to send out a new decree stating that they may defend themselves.
The Jews are successful in battle, and on the 13th of Adar – the date that was set for their genocide – they kill their enemies throughout the empire. Jews in the capital city of Shushan fought on both the 13th and 14th of Adar, and only rested on the 15th of the month. This is the origin of Shushan Purim, which is still celebrated in Jerusalem today.
The End of the Purim Story
After the fighting ended, the Jews celebrated with feasting and merriment. Mordechai recorded all of these events and sent dispatches throughout the provinces of King Achashverosh, charging the Jews to observe the 14th (and 15th in walled cities) of Adar as a holiday.
Queen Esther sends out another letter confirming it, and thus the holiday of Purim was born. Achashverosh continues his powerful reign and gives Mordechai a distinguished position in his court.
Purim Traditions & Customs
Taanit Esther or the Fast of Esther
The day before Purim (13th of Adar – March 20th in 2019) is a day of fasting and public prayer that was instituted by Esther herself in the Megillah (9:31–32). The fast is observed from sunrise to sunset.
Some sources say that this fast commemorates Esther’s own fast that is recorded in the Megillah, while others maintain that it commemorates the fasting and repentance of the Jews when they went to battle with their enemies on the 13th of Adar. We dive into this intriguing discussion in our guide to Esther's fast. For a deeper understanding, watch our video on Taanit Esther: Why Fast Before The Happiest Day Of The Year?
Megillat Esther or the Scroll of
The Megillah that is used to fulfill the mitzvah on Purim must be written in accordance with Jewish law, using the appropriate type parchment and ink. As a holy scroll, many people keep their Megillah in a decorative Megillah case.
Purim Costumes: Why Do We Dress Up?
The custom of wearing costumes probably originated from the Italian Jewry in the 15th
There are a number of reasons for masquerading. Firstly, dressing up in costume adds to the overall joy and festive nature of the day. Secondly, it is a reference to God, who Himself was “disguised” throughout the Purim story in seemingly natural events.
לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת אוֹתָ֗ם יְמֵי֙ מִשְׁתֶּ֣ה וְשִׂמְחָ֔ה וּמִשְׁל֤וֹחַ מָנוֹת֙ אִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֔הוּ וּמַתָּנ֖וֹת לָֽאֶבְיוֹנִֽים...
They were to be observed as days of feasting and merrymaking, an occasion for sending portions to one another and gifts to the poor… (Esther 9:22)
Donating charity to the poor: This mitzvah can be fulfilled by giving either food or the monetary equivalent of a meal to two different poor people. But this is the bare minimum. If possible, one should strive to give more
Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Megilla and Chanukkah 2:17):
“It is preferable to spend more money on gifts to the poor than on one’s Purim banquet and presents to friends. For no joy is greater and more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. He who gladdens the heart of these unhappy people imitates God, as it is written: ...to revive the spirit of the humble, and to put heart into the crushed" (Isaiah 57:15).
Seudah – The Purim Feast
It is a mitzvah to eat a celebratory meal on Purim day, called a
Al HaNisim Prayer on Purim
The prayer Al HaNisim is added to the daily prayers and to the grace after meals. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the miracles that God performed for us at that time.
It is customary to eat triangular shaped pastries called Hamantaschen, which symbolize the Jewish victory over their enemy, Haman, who was said to have worn a triangular shaped hat.
The Cast Of Purim Characters
Achashverosh AKA Ahasuerus, Xerxes I or Artaxerxes II
There are various opinions as to the historical identity of King Achashverosh. Some identify him with Artaxerxes II, who ruled from 405–359 BCE, while others assume him to be Xerxes I, who ruled from 486–465 BCE. Yet another opinion tries to identify Achashverosh with Artaxerxes I, who ruled from 465–424
Esther AKA Hadassah
Esther is the heroine of Purim. She is also referred to as Hadassah, which means “myrtle tree.” The name Esther comes from the Hebrew word
Many believe that Hadassah was her given name and the name Esther was only attributed later since she concealed her true identity. Another possible reason is
Esther was Mordechai’s cousin and foster child. The Talmud suggests that she was Mordechai’s wife.
Mordecai AKA Mordechai the Jew
Mordechai is the hero
Some Rabbinic opinions hold that Mordechai was
Haman AKA Memucan (Maybe?)
Haman was a top royal official to King Achashverosh. He planned to kill all the Jews in Persia but his plans were foiled by Queen Esther and Mordechai. He was a descendant of Agag, king of the Amalekites, who are staunch enemies of the Israelites in the Bible.
The origin of
Zeresh was Haman’s wife. She was the brains behind Haman’s plan to hang Mordechai on the gallows. She and Haman had 10 sons, all of whom were hanged at the end of the Megillah.
Vashti AKA Queen of Persia
Vashti was the Queen of Persia, Achashverosh’s first wife, at the beginning of the Purim story. She refuses to come before Achashverosh at his party and, according to the Talmud, was killed for her infraction. There are many speculations as to her refusal. One account states that she had leprosy, and didn’t want to be seen. Another opinion relates that the angel Gabriel gave her a tail as punishment for her
According to Midrash, she was the daughter of King Belshazzar and great-granddaughter of King Nebuchadnezzar II. During her father’s rule, the Medes and Persians attacked. Her father was murdered and Vashti was kidnapped by King Darius of Persia. Darius gave Vashti over to his son, Achashverosh, to marry.
It is likely that she and Achashverosh did not get along from the start, as she was a royal in her own right and essentially his captive, and they did not speak the same language. After she refuses him, Achashverosh sends out a decree that the language of the husband
When Is Purim Celebrated?
Purim is celebrated on the 14th of Adar on the Hebrew calendar. The Jews were victorious over their enemies on the 13th of Adar, and rested and celebrated on the 14th – hence the holiday of Purim today. In 2020, Purim will be observed beginning in the evening of March 9th and will continue through the day of March 10th.
The Jews of the city of Shushan had an additional day of fighting on the 14th day and celebrated on the 15th, so Shushan Purim is celebrated on the 15th of Adar in certain cities (including Jerusalem). Shushan Purim – observed in Jerusalem and a few other select cities – will begin on the night of March 21st and continue through the day of March
Like all Jewish holidays, the festival begins at sundown and ends at nightfall of the next day.
Purim Start Date
End of Purim
|2020||March 9||March 10|
|2021||February 25||February 26|
|2022||March 16||March 17|
|2023||March 6||March 7|
|2024||March 23||March 24|
|2025||March 13||March 14|
Purim Facts & Trivia
Fact 1: The Book of Esther is the last of the 24 books of Tanakh to be canonized by the Sages of the Great Assembly.
Fact 2: The Book of Esther is the only book of the Bible, other than Song of Songs, that does not explicitly mention God.
Fact 3: Unlike other traditional Tanakh scrolls which are given two rollers, one for each hand, Esther is given only one roller on the left side.
Fact 4: Among the Dead Sea Scrolls, Esther is the only book of Tanakh not represented.
Fact 5: Many parallels can be drawn between Esther and the Book of Daniel.
Fact 6: Purim overlaps chronologically with the Book of Ezra.
Fact 7: An additional six chapters of Esther appear in the Septuagint. The additions
Purim Story Summary For Kids
Purim is a day full of joy and happiness – and lots of singing and dancing! Mishenichnas Adar Marbim Be-Simcha and LaYehudim Haitah
P is for Purim
Purim is so much fun! Feasts, costumes, storytelling – Purim has it all!
U is for Upside Down
Everything went topsy-turvy, V’nahafoch Hu, and instead of being destroyed, the Jews were victorious!
R is for Ra'ashan
Also known as a grogger, we use this to make noise during the Megillah reading to stamp out Haman’s name.
I is for Incognito
Incognito is just a fancy way of saying that someone is in disguise. In the Purim story, Esther hid her Jewish identity and today, we wear costumes!
M is for Mishloach Manot
A Riveting Read For Purim
Want to learn more about Purim? Check out Rabbi Fohrman’s book, “The Queen You Thought You Knew.” Rabbi Fohrman invites the reader to look at the Book of Esther with fresh eyes; to join him, as it were, on a guided adventure – a close reading of the ancient biblical text. In so doing, he reveals another Purim story; a richer, deeper narrative more suited perhaps, to the eyes of an adult than to a child.
As layers of meaning are gradually revealed, Esther's hidden story comes alive in a vibrant, unexpected way – offering the reader a fascinating and stirring encounter with the queen whose costume they wore as children. Rediscover the queen you thought you knew. Download the first chapter for free.
Your Guide To Purim
Ready to dig deeper? Whether you're familiar or new to celebrating Purim, there are many secrets to discover. Our Purim videos tackle the big questions by jumping into the shoes of each character and exploring the Torah. Through this introspection, we take a look at the deeper meaning behind why we celebrate Purim, thousands of years later.
Join our journey as we uncover how Purim applies to our lives and family celebrations today.
Discover more in our 101 Guides: