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Customs of Purim

Book of Esther

The primary obligation related to Purim is to hear the reading of the Book of Esther. The book of Esther is commonly known as the Megillah, which means scroll. Although there are five Jewish holy texts that are properly referred to as megillot (Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and Lamentations), this is the one people usually mean when they speak of ‘The Megillah.'


It is customary to boo, hiss, stamp feet and rattle groggers (noisemakers) whenever the name of Haman is mentioned in the service. Haman, while the villain of the Purim story, represents far more than one regime's attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Haman is a descendent of the Jewish nation's arch enemy, the people of Amalek. Ever since the Amalakite's first unprovoked attack on the Jews, after their receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Amalek and their descendants have been identified as the classical champions of evil and the Jewish people's existential rival. The Torah commands us to “erase” any memory of the nation of Amalek. By making noise when Haman's name is mentioned during the Megillah reading, we are symbolically "erasing the name of Haman" and thereby blotting out the memory of all those who have tried to destroy us.

Groggers are not just for kids! You can bring your own groggers—pre-made ones, or really anything that will make a wonderfully irritating noise! If you have young kids, you can make your own groggers: fill a can or plastic cup with beans, glue on a handle, decorate, and you have a perfectly annoying noisemaker! Or perhaps, you just want to see Haman’s name wiped out forever? Write Haman on a piece of masking tape, stick it to the bottom of your shoe and spend the day stamping out Haman. Or, write Haman on your napkin, wipe your face or table with him and then toss him into the garbage. Be creative. When all of us immerse ourselves in the celebration of Purim, we live the important lesson that Jewish life incorporates the wide range of human emotional experience. Singing and dancing, costumes, fun and all around merrymaking are as integral to Judaism as charity, prayer and fasting.


We are also obligated to eat, drink and be merry. According to the Talmud (Megillah 7b), a person is required to drink until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai,” though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is! (However, anyone for whom drinking would endanger their health or the health of others is exempt from this obligation.)

Masquerading on Purim

It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to dress up in costume, to perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests.

Dressing up as characters found in the Scroll of Esther, including King Ahasuerus, Queen Vashti, Queen Esther, Mordechai, and the evil Haman has evolved into more elaborate and original costumes as well.

Costumes and masks are worn to disguise the wearers' identities. Mistaken identity plays an important role in The Book of Esther: Esther publically hid her cultural origins from the public; Haman was forced to lead Mordechai on horseback through the capital city Shushan. There is also important concept of hester panim, or “hidden face,” a reference to God's role in the Purim miracle. Although Jews believe that everything turned out in the end for the best as a direct result of divine intervention (that is, a series of miracles), the Book of Esther lacks any mention of God's name and seemingly appears to have been nothing more than a result of natural occurrences. In remembrance of how God remained hidden throughout the Purim Miracle, Jews dress up on Purim and many hide their faces.

The custom of masquerading on Purim was first introduced among the Italian Jews about the close of the 15th century under the influence of the Roman carnival. From Italy, this custom spread over all countries where Jews lived, except perhaps the Orient. The first among Jewish authors to mention this custom is Judah Minz (d. 1508, Venice). He states that since the purpose of the masquerade is only merrymaking, it should not be considered a transgression of the Biblical law regarding dress. Although some rigorous authorities issued prohibitions against this custom, the people did not heed them, and the more lenient view prevailed. The custom is still practiced today amongst religious Jews of all denominations, and among both religious and non-religious Israelis. In Israel there are Purim parades, and men, women, boys and girls celebrate publicly in costumes and masks, and have a crazy, wonderful time.


In addition, it is a mitzvah to send out gifts of food or drink, and to make gifts to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as shalach manot (‘sending out portions’). Matanot l’evyonim (‘gifts for the needy’) are to be given; whoever increases portions to friends is praiseworthy. One who makes the heart of the unfortunate to rejoice embodies God’s presence, as it is said: “To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” (Isaiah 57:15). It is a most important custom because it helps everyone to enjoy the celebration of Purim.

Other customs - Minhagim

Some present amusing divrei Torah. It is customary to visit the homes of one's Rabbis and teachers. One should start studying the laws of Pesach on Purim. It is correct not to engage in business or work on Purim. At the afternoon service before Purim it is customary to give three coins (preferable with the number ½ on them) to charity in memory of the three "half-shekels" given to the Temple.

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