This is the web-friendly version of our Take a Chance! Celebrate Purim booklet, which is also available in a print-friendly PDF format. For other resources, check out our Booklets for People in Interfaith Relationships.
Purim is a Jewish Halloween, a Jewish Mardi Gras and a secular New Year rolled into one. And it is not just a holiday for children who know immediately that anything with a costume will be fun. All Jews are commanded to be silly and celebrate the ancient victory against their adversaries by giving gifts of food to friends and to the poor.
When is the holiday of Purim?
Purim comes in the late winter or early spring during the twelfth month of the Hebrew calendar, Adar. Jews around the world have celebrated by dressing up as both the heroes and villains of the Purim story as they chase away their winter doldrums and acknowledge that Purim brings springtime.
What is the story of Purim?
The story of Purim is a story found in the Megillah, a one poled scroll of Esther, and it goes something like this:
Three to five hundred years before the Common Era, a large and prosperous Jewish community flourished in Persia. Mordechai, a Jew, was a trusted advisor in the court of King Ahasuerus. One day, the King banished his queen, Vashti, for refusing to appear naked before his guests, as he had commanded her. Esther, the niece of Mordechai was selected as the new queen by the king in a beauty contest.
When Mordechai refuses to bow down before the Grand Vizer, (because Jews are allowed to bow only to God), Haman plots to kill all the Jews in revenge.
Even though Esther has hidden her Jewish identity, Mordechai convinces her to risk her life by revealing the truth to the king. She not only does this, but she foils Haman's evil plot. The King commands that Haman be hanged on the scaffold built for Mordechai, who is then appointed Grand Vizier.
Long a favorite story because of the hope it has given to Jews who often have often been a minority living in a hostile majority culture, the Purim story speaks of identity and of a brave woman who risks everything for her people.
What does the word Purim mean?
Haman chose the 13th of Adar as the day he would massacre the Jews by drawing a lot (as in lottery) or pur. Purim is the plural of pur.
How is Purim celebrated?
Purim brings all kinds of silliness for the entire Hebrew month of Adar. You will often see buttons or posters with the words: Be Happy, It's Adar!
Jews are commanded to hear a public reading of the story of Esther from a small scroll wound around one pole called a megillah. The reading is performed with a distinctive melody on both the evening and morning of Purim. The story is often read by clergy and congregants in costume, using funny voices for the different roles There are numerous ancient customs, one of which is reciting the names of Haman's ten sons in one breath. Children and adults dressed in masks and costumes are reminded to make enough noise to blot out the name of Haman every time it is read from the scroll. Pots and pans, horns and drums are all good noisemakers. The best noise comes from wooden or metal Purim noisemakers called graggers.
Many congregations put on Purimshpiels—lively plays that place the Purim characters into Broadway plays or TV shows. These plays include spoofs of political figures and media personalities. Since the 10th century sarcastic, anti authoritarian performances, mockery, and dressing up have provided a forum for boundary crossing on issues of gender, sexuality, authority and relations with the secular world. Some synagogues raise funds for charities with carnivals, costume parties and Las Vegas nights, since gambling and drinking to excess, generally forbidden by Jewish law, are encouraged on Purim.
The Talmud instructs us to drink until we are unable to tell the difference between blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman.
Traditional Purim foods are sweet. Ashkenazi or Eastern European Jews make a three cornered pastrycalled hamentaschen ("Haman's pockets"). Originally filled with poppy seeds, children prefer them with jams or even chocolate. Sephardic Jews make, Orejas de Haman ("Haman's Ears") which are fried pieces of dough made with orange blossom water and orange peel. The dough is shaped to look somewhat like an ear; it's then fried, drained, and drizzled with rich sugar syrup.
It is commanded to share sweets with friends and neighbors through the custom of shalach mones—a Yiddish term meaning "sending portions." This reverse trick or treat where families prepare goodie bags is a sweet way to share our holiday with others. We are also commanded to send gifts to the poor, matanot l'evyonim.
Celebrating Purim With Children
Purim is a favorite holiday for children. Synagogues and Jewish Community Centers sponsor carnivals, costume contests and parades. Jewish day schools and preschools create masks and noisemakers. Attending a Purim event annually can be something the children look forward to all year.
There are, however, serious lessons hidden within the silliness. The story of Purim teaches that the world is a changeable and sometimes dangerous place for Jews, and that in order to survive, Jews have to take risks and stick together. The Book of Esther presents children with the model of a Jewish heroine who is not only a beauty queen but a real human being, a person who, despite her fears, acts to help her people.
Older children know that, despite the happy ending of the Purim story, the victory did not last; many "Hamans" far more terrible have risen up against the Jews. And yet, the message is still relevant; we are still here telling the story. The ultimate triumph belongs to the living.
Purim Fun For Children
- Make masks and crowns using glitter, feathers, metallic paper, plastic "gems," etc.
- Create a cast of stick puppets to act out the Purim story.
- Make hamentaschen and have a bake-off with friends, or buy hamentaschen from several different bakeries and have a tasting.
- Make a three-cornered Purim plate for hamentaschen.
- Give each child a new gragger every year and keep them in a special Purim box.