The History of Purim

The original story of Purim happened in the Jewish year of 3405, about 2300 years ago. Jewish morale was then at an all-time low. The Holy Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed seventy years earlier, the Jews were exiled to Babylon and then to Persia, and the Land of Israel lay abandoned in ruins and desolation.

Conquered and dispersed throughout Persia (today's Iraq and Iran), many Jews had lost faith in ancient prophecies, and were awed and impressed by alien kings, palaces and parties. They lacked appreciation of their glorious past, and saw no hope ahead in the future.


At this vulnerable point in Jewish history, a vicious enemy arose to pursue his evil and destructive plan. Descending from the infamous Jew-hating tribe of Amalek, Haman rose to become the Persian Prime minister, and devised a scheme to solve "the Jewish problem" once and for all. Haman plotted to annihilate every Jewish man, woman and child throughout the world, in a single day. A shrewd and devious manipulator, Haman sought and received the Persian King's approval for his wicked plan.

Mordechai and Esther

The horrible plan almost worked, were it not for the intervention of Esther, the heroine, and Mordechai who served as an advisor to King Ahasuerus.

Feeling the pain of his people, Mordechai sensed the impending danger. Wearing sackcloth and ashes, he went to the gates of the palace, crying aloud through the streets. He rallied his brethren to return to G‑d and the ways of Torah and Mitzvot.

By Divine Providence's arrangement of exceptional circumstances, Mordechai's niece, Esther, had been selected to be Queen. Mordechai urged her to go to the King and plead with him to save her people. Esther originally hesitated and feared to go, but the grave situation gave her no choice.

Before approaching the King, Queen Esther accepted on herself a three day fast of prayer and penitence, calling on all Jewish people to follow her example. She then went to the palace and invited the king to a party to discuss matters. After an initial meeting with the king and Haman, Esther arranged for yet another high level meeting the following day.

That night, the restless King happened to be reading his old memoirs. As the pages of memoirs turned, he discovered a forgotten episode, how Mordechai the Jew had once saved the king's life from two plotting courtiers who had wanted to poison him. The King immediately ordered Haman to pay public tribute to Mordechai by dressing him up with the royal garments and parading him high on the Royal horse through the streets of the Capital.

Haman soon met his final downfall. He was pointed out by Queen Esther as the arch villain who planned to destroy the King's Jewish citizens. An angry King Ahasuerus ordered that Haman be hung on the very same gallows that he had prepared for Mordechai.


The Purim Story, recorded in the Megillah scroll, expresses the courage and self-sacrifice of Queen Esther and Mordechai, and ultimately by all the Jewish people. Throughout that whole year, not even a single Jew chose to leave his people by converting out, even if that could have saved his life.

The strange but fortunate turn of events aroused the Jews to return to their heritage and unite with their traditions, faith and observance. They felt strengthened and rallied together to rise up against their enemies who had wished to destroy them. This happened on the 13th day of the month of Adar, the very day that was chosen by Haman to execute his "final solution."

By finding their way back to tradition, the Jews eventually returned to the Holy Land to rebuild the Second Temple. The Megillah vividly described how "The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, joy and exultation," so shall it be to us. And may we, too, merit to see the full and Final Redemption, speedily in our days.


The Megillah

To relive the events of Purim, we listen to the reading of the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) both at  night and during the day.

To fulfill our obligation, it is very important to listen very carefully, and hear every word of the Megillah, for each word is crucial. When Haman's name is mentioned, we twirl "graggers" (noisemakers) and stamp our feet to stamp out his evil name. This custom comes from the Biblical command to "eradicate the name of Amalek," the first enemy who attacked the Jews immediately after the Exodus.

In Those Days, In Our Time

The Talmud states:

A Person who reads the Megillah 'backwards (in the wrong sequence) has not fulfilled his obligation." Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidus, explains this Talmudic statement to mean that we must not read the Megillah 'backwards,' as a once-upon-a-time story of the ancient past, without realizing that the Purim events are relevant, current and contemporary. Such an attitude misses the whole point, for we read the Megillah not just about our ancestors in the past, but what we should do now in the present.

Food Gifts

On Purim we recommit ourselves to Jewish love, the sense of unity that saved the day. We express our feelings of friendship and goodwill by sending gifts of food to friends. We send a gift of at least two kinds of ready-to-eat foods to at least one friend on Friday March 9, during the daytime. It is pr oper that men should send to men, and women to women. Children should be encouraged to participate in this Mitzvah, and the more the merrier. These gifts packets should be sent through a third party, as it is called "Mishloach Manot" (the sending of food gifts).

The three cornered Hamantashen pastries, filled with prune, poppy seed or jam, are a Purim favorite. Their shape is said to resemble Prime Minister Haman's official hat.


It is customary to dress up in costume and to masquerade, for 'one should rejoice on Purim until he doesn't know the difference between Haman and Mordecahi.' An esoteric reason explains that Israel's true inner identity had been covered externally when they strayed from Torah, which initially brought about Haman's evil decree.

Gifts to the Poor

Giving to charity is a year-round duty, but it has added significance on Purim. The best way to fulfill this important Mitzvah is to give charity directly to at least two poor persons during the day of Purim. If it is not possible to deliver the contribution personally, the money can be placed in a charity box (Pushka) for later distribution.

The Purim Meal

Eating a festive meal during the Day of Purim expresses our holiday spirit. Three cornered Hamantashen pastries filled with poppyseeds, prune, apricot or other jams are a favorite. We celebrate joyfully with family and friends, and toast a joyous L'chaim! Because this year Purim is on a Friday it is preferable to start the Purim Dinner before noon, or early afternoon, so as not to detract from the upcoming Shabbat Dinner at night.


The Fast of Esther

To commemorate the day of prayer and fasting that the Jews observed before fighting for their victory, we fast before Purim on Thursday March 8. The fast begins 72 minutes before sunrise and lasts until 40 minutes after sunset.

The Half Shekel

During the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, every Jew donated a coin called a "half shekel" as his personal participation in the Temple services. It is customary today to contribute the equivalent of a half shekel (three half-dollar coins) to a charitable cause.

Special Prayers

On Purim, we recite the "Al Hanissim" prayer, thanking G‑d for His miracles of deliverance, during the Amidah (Silent Prayer) of the evening, morning and afternoon prayers. We also include the "Al Hanissim" when we say Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals.

During the morning service in the synagogue, we also hear a special reading from the Torah Scroll describing the war with Amalek, before the Scroll of Esther is read.