Purim is the Jewish holiday of casting lots. Its name derives from pur, which is Hebrew for lot, because a thrown lot decided the date when Jews were going to be exterminated. In the Jewish calendar this holiday falls on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar (or on the 2nd day of Adar in a leap year). In the Gregorian calendar, Purim is a movable holiday celebrated in February or March.
The origin of this holiday is described in the Book of Esther (Megilat Ester in Hebrew). The events, which allegedly happened in the 5th century BCE in Susa, had four main protagonists: Persian King Ahasuerus, his Jewish wife Esther, her stepfather Mordechai, also a Jew, and Haman, the king’s minister. It all started when Mordechai, disobeying the king’s decree, did not bow down to Haman. This was enough to infuriate the Jew-hating dignitary and make him decide that all Jews in Persia should be exterminated. Haman selected the day when that would happen – 14th of Adar – by casting lots. When Queen Esther found out about the horrible plan, she courageously went to the king uninvited and convinced him to frustrate the ploy. The Jews were saved and Haman and his sons were hung. The festival of Purim has been celebrated since then in souvenir of this unexpected turn of events. It is the most joyful day in the calendar of Jewish rituals.
The crucial element of the celebration is when the Book of Esther, written on a special parchment (Megilla), is read publicly at the synagogue in the evening and then in the following morning. Every time that the name of Haman is mentioned during the reading, the audience boisterously hisses, stamps its feet and shakes rattles. Another prominent feature of the celebration of Purim is to send food gifts (mishloah manot) to friends and make charitable donations (matanot le-evionim) to people in need. According to the tradition, food gifts should include two types of food that can be eaten right away.
The last element of the celebration is the Purim meal (seudat Purim) – a lavish dinner at which inordinate consumption of alcohol is permitted. According to the tradition, one can keep drinking until the difference between blessed Mordechai and cursed Haman is blurred. Triangle-shaped cakes filled with poppy seed – known as Haman’s ears or Haman’s pockets – are a traditional Purim treat. Purim merry-making includes dancing, masquerades and playing out the story of Esther (Purimspiel in Yiddish).