Purim is a holy day based on the biblical book of Esther, known generally as the "Megillah" (scroll). Set in the Persian empire sometime in the 500s or 400s B.C.E., Esther is one of the only biblical books set in exile outside of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). The clueless king Achashverosh is duped by his adviser Haman to sign a decree to wipe out "a certain people" in his empire. Achashverosh does not realize that his new queen, Esther (Hadassah in Hebrew) is herself a Jew, who has kept her identity secret at the behest of her older cousin Mordechai. In the end, Esther and Mordechai save the Jews, destroy Haman, and ordain the holy day of Purim for all time. Purim is named for the Hebrew word pur, which means a "lot" -- the date Haman chose for the massacre of the Jews was chosen by lot, but instead that became the time of self-defense.
Read the book as an adult, and there are all kinds of interesting themes:
- the role of women
- the explanations of where violence against Jews originates
- hidden and revealed identities
- fate, destiny, and choice
- the presence or absence of God
- the topsy-turvy symmetry of the story -- everything story element at the beginning is reversed by the end in some way
- allusions to other biblical characters, such as Joseph
Purim is celebrated by:
- the reading of the Megillah from a scroll, written and unfurled like a royal proclamation
- mishloach manot -- giving food to friends
- matanot la'evyonim -- giving tzedakah for poor people
It is customary to dress up in costume. Traditionally during the day of Purim, there is a "Purim Se'udah", a feast with wine and spoofing on some theme. According to the Talmud, one is supposed to reach a state where one can't tell the difference between "blessed is Mordechai" and "cursed is Haman" -- either by drinking or by sleeping. (These customs all connect to an underlying theme of a topsy-turvy world, where things are not as they seem or should be. An anthropologist would say that we act out that theme by sublimating it, channeling it and expressing it in safe ways before returning to regular life and soon to the more serious holy day of Pesach.)
"Who Knows" -- a sermon of mine about the book of Esther as a paradigm for an uncertain world
Dr. Michal Guvrin, "Seriously Laughing to Death: Couples' Games and Masks in the Book of Esther"
Jewish Women's Archive essay on Queen Vashti
Dr. Carol Ingall, "Esther Among the Muggles"
Bible Raps video: Haman Song
My podcast on the middah (personal quality) of Simcha/Joy
Short (6-min) meditation from Laura Hegfield on joy
Other posts and writings on my blog about Purim