The Laws of Purim

| Purim By :  Isaac Klein Posted On Feb 11, 2013 | A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice


“The Jews ordained and took upon themselves and upon their descendants… that these days of Purim should not cease from among the Jews, nor the memory of them perish from among their descendants… to observe these days of Purim at their appointed time” (Esther 9:27-31).

The festival of Purim is based on the story in the Book of Esther. While scholars have had difficulty in identifying the time and the characters of the story, there is no doubt that Jewish tradition and the Jewish people have accepted the event as authentic, and the celebration of Purim as based on a firm foundation. Unlike Hanukkah, which is post-biblical and is not even mentioned in the Mishnah, Purim is based on a book of the Bible; a tractate of the Mishnah and Talmud is devoted to it as well.

Purim attained great popularity because it reflected the perennial problem of the Jewish people–animosity against the Jew. Haman’s accusation–“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples…” (Esther 3:8)–has been repeated in every age. The celebration of Purim serves to strengthen our people, enabling them to face such accusations with dignity and courage, and inspiring them with the hope of final victory over their enemies.

Elaborating on this point Professor Kaplan says: “Out of the reaction of the Jews in the past to their status as a minority everywhere in the Diaspora there evolved a remarkable philosophy of life or system of spiritual values. It is remarkable not only for its influence in sustaining the courage of the Jew in desperate situations, but for its inherent worth. Being in the minority, Jews were expected to accept the life-pattern of a conquered people. They were expected to adopt the standards imposed on them by the majority, with good grace, if they could, or with sullen resentment, if they must. They did neither. Instead they formulated a philosophy of life which prevented the conquest from being consummated” (The Meaning of God, p. 363).

The corollary of this is not that we face hatred with faith and courage, but rather that we find meaning in the minority status that so often makes us the target for the slings and arrows of our enemies. “It is therefore necessary,” says Professor Kaplan, “as it is appropriate, to make of the Feast of Purim, and of the special Sabbath preceding it, an occasion for considering anew the difficulties that inhere in our position as ‘a people scattered and dispersed among the nations.’ It is important that Jews know the nature of these difficulties in order that they may the better equip themselves to meet them. Those days should make Jews conscious of the spiritual values which their position as a minority group everywhere in the diaspora should lead them to evolve, and of the dangers which they must be prepared to overcome, if they expect to survive as a minority group” (ibid., pp. 361-62).

It is perhaps for this reason that the rabbis said that even when all the other festivals are abolished, Purim will remain (Midrash Mishle 9:2).

The Observance of Purim

The Sabbath preceding Purim is called Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. It is one of the arba parshiot preceding Pesach, discussed in unit 7 in connection with Pesach. Its association with Purim is based on the tradition that Haman was a descendant of the tribe of Amalek. Furthermore, Amalek and Haman had in common the desire to annihilate the Jewish people, and both were frustrated in their designs.

The day before Purim, the thirteenth of Adar, is a fast day. If Purim is on a Sunday, the fast day is observed on the preceding Thursday (O.H. 686:2).

The four statutory public fasts will be discussed later (see next unit). They are observed in memory of the tragic events connected with the destruction of Jerusalem and the loss of the Jewish state. The Fast of Esther is a statutory public fast of a similar nature, but it is connected with another calamity that threatened the existence of the Jewish people. The precedent for this fast is found in the Book of Esther. When Mordecai informed Esther of Haman’s plans, she asked him to proclaim a three-day fast (Esther 4:16). It is in memory of this that we fast on the day before Purim (O.H. 686:1).

Noting that the fast proclaimed by Esther was not on the thirteenth of Adar, some authorities offer a different explanation. When the children of Israel gathered together on the thirteenth of Adar to defend themselves against their enemies, they were in a state of war, and preparations for war always included a public fast (see O.H. 686 in Mishnah Berurah 2; Ziv Haminhagim, p. 275, no. 7).

A modern commentator suggests that the Jews fasted on the thirteenth of Adar because they were so occupied with defending themselves that they had no opportunity to eat (Rabinowitz, Hol Umo’ed, p. 72; Munk, World of Prayer, 2:311).

Since the fast of the thirteenth of Adar is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, the rabbis were lenient about its observance (O.H. 686:7 in Rama; Ziv Haminhagim, p. 275).

The primary observance connected with Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther, usually called the megilla (Scroll). It is read twice: in the evening, after the ‘Amidah of Ma’ariv and before alenu; and in the morning after the Torah reading (B. Meg. 4a; O.H. 687:1).

The Megillah is read from a parchment scroll that is written the same way a Torah is written–i.e., by hand, and with a goose quill (O.H. 690:3). If there is no such scroll available, the congregation may read the Book of Esther from a printed text, without the accompanying benedictions.

The Megillah is chanted according to a special cantillation used only in the reading of the Book of Esther, If no one is present who knows this cantillation, it may be read without the cantillation, as long as it is read correctly (Qitsur Shulhan ‘Arukh 141:18). It may be read in the language of the land (O.H. 690:9). In practice, however, reading the Megillah in any but the original language is to be avoided (‘Arukh Hashulhan, O.H. 690:16). Today in particular, when we seek to emphasize the use of the sacred tongue whenever possible, we should not encourage any deviation from the prevailing practice.

Before the reading, the scroll is unrolled and folded to look like a letter of dispatch, thus further recalling the story of the great deliverance (Maimonides, Hil. Megillah 2:12). The reading is preceded by three benedictions and followed by one (O.H. 692:1). The three before the reading are sheasa nesim, al mekra megila, and shehechianu. The benediction following the reading is harav et revnu.

The Megillah must be read standing and from the scroll, not by heart (O.H. 690:1, 7). During the reading four verses, termed “verses of redemption” (pesuke g’ula), are said aloud by the congregation and then repeated by the reader. The verses enumerating the ten sons of Haman (Esther 9:7-10) are said in one breath to signify that they died together (B. Meg. 16b). Another reason has also been suggested: We should avoid the appearance of gloating over their fate, even though it was deserved (Vainstein, Cycle of the Jewish Year, p. 135).

It is a widespread Purim custom for the listeners at the Megillah reading to make noise, usually with special noisemakers called graggers, whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. This is an outgrowth of a custom once prevalent in France and the Provence, where the children wrote the name on smooth stones, then struck them together whenever Haman was mentioned in the reading so as to rub it off, as suggested by the verse, “the name of the wicked shall rot” (Prov. 10:7; Abudraham Hashalem, p. 209; O.H. 690:17 in Rama). In some places this practice is discouraged because it makes it difficult for worshippers to hear the reader (ibid. and also in Mishnah Berurah, n. 59 and n. 57 thereto of Sha’ar Hatsiyun).

The Megillah should be read in the synagogue in the presence of a minyan. If a minyan is not available it may be read even for one individual (O.H. 690:18). Those who cannot attend services in the synagogue may read the Megillah at home (Rama on O.H. 690:18).

Shushan Purim

“But the Jews that were in Shushan assembled together on the thirteenth day thereof, and on the fourteenth thereof; and on the fifteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness. Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting” (Esther 9:18-19).

From these verses the sages derived the view that Purim was celebrated on the fifteenth of Adar, as in Shushan, in cities that had been walled since the days of Joshua (M. Meg. 1:1; O.H. 688:4 and in M.A. 4). In the towns of the Ashkenazic diaspora this is academic because there are no cities that ancient (Levush, O.H. 688:4). In Jerusalem, however, Purim is observed on the fifteenth of Adar. There are also cities which are in a doubtful category, such as Jaffa, Safed, Akko, Tiberias, and Lydda; in these the Megillah is read on both the fourteenth and the fifteenth of Adar. On the fifteenth it is read only at night and without the accompanying benedictions (Shanah Beshanah 5727, p. 59; O.H. 688:4).

Purim Services

The services on Purim are the same as on other weekdays except for the following variations, al hanesim is added before v’al kulam in the ‘Amidah and before v’al hakol, in the Birkat Hamazon (O.H. 693:2, 3); Tahanun is not said at Minhah the night before, in the morning, or in the evening (O.H. 693:3, 697:1); lam’natseach is also omitted (O.H. 693:3).

The Torah is read in the morning, with three people given ‘aliyot. The reading is from Exodus 17:8-16, beginning with v’yavo Amalek (O.H. 693:4).

The rabbis sought to understand why Hallel is not recited on Purim (O.H. 693:3). The Talmud explains that the redemption represented by Purim was not complete. True, the Jews were saved from the annihilation plotted by Haman, but they still remained subject to Ahasuerus (B. Meg. 14a), whereas after the redemption commemorated by Pesach they ceased to be subjects of Pharaoh, and after Hanukkah they were no longer subject to Antiochus (Levush, O.H. 693:3; O.H. in M.D. 2). Moreover, the reading of the Megillah performs the function of Hallel (Levush, O.H. 693:3). The Talmud also explains that Hallel is not said for events that took place outside the land of Israel (B. Meg. 14a).

Shushan Purim is celebrated as a semi-holiday; Tahanun is not said, and one should not fast, give a eulogy, or say tseduk hadeen (O.H. 696:3, 697:1).

During a leap year, it is the usual practice to do all things that must be done during the month of Adar during First Adar, in conformity with the principle that “one must not pass by precepts” (B. Pes. 64b). Purim, however, is celebrated only during Second Adar (M. Meg. 1:4). The Talmud suggests that since Purim and Pesach both celebrate the deliverance of Israel, they should occur close to one another (Levush, O.H. 697). First Adar is not neglected completely, however. On the fourteenth and fifteenth of First Adar, Tahanun is omitted, no eulogy is said, and fasting is not permitted (B. Meg. 6b; O.H. 697:1). It is therefore called Purim katan (‘Arukh Hashulhan, O.H. 697:2).

Opinions differ as to whether a person who is sitting Shiv’ah should continue to observe Shiv’ah on Purim (O.H. 696:4). The prevalent practice is for mourners to come to the synagogue, sit on a regular chair, and wear their shoes. As on the Sabbath, however, they should observe d’varim shebtsenah, and the day of Purim counts as one of the days of Shiv’ah (Rama on O.H. 696:4; Hayyei Adam 154:36).

There is also a difference of opinion regarding weddings on Purim. Some authorities oppose them on the principle of ein m’arvin smcha b’semcha , “we do not mix one joyous occasion with another,” (B. Mo’ed Qatan 8b, 9a; O.H. 696:8 in M.A. n. 18; ‘Arukh Hashulhan 696:12; Maharam Schick, O.H. 345). Others permit them (O.H. 696:8 in Sha’arei Teshuvah, n. 12; Tur, O.H. 698 in Belt Yosefand Hayyei Adam 154:39). The weight of opinion is with the latter position.

Purim Customs

“And Mordecai wrote these things, and sent letters unto all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Ahasuerus both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month of Adar, and the fifteenth day of the same, the days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness and from mourning unto a good day; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:20-22).

This order by Mordecai provides the basis for all the practices ordained and adopted in connection with Purim, with the exception of the reading of the Megillah.

The “feasting and gladness” are expressed by the s’udat Purim, an especially festive meal held in the afternoon before sundown (O.H. 695:2). In order to heighten the joy at this meal, the rabbis even allowed an unusual amount of levity. Well known is the statement in the Talmud: “Rava said: A person should be so exhilarated [with drink] on Purim that he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai'” (B. Meg. 7b). The later authorities tried hard to lessen the exuberance of this command. Since they could not condone intoxication, they suggested that the passage means that one may drink more than he does usually (O.H. 695:2 in Rama). It was also ingeniously suggested that the numerical values of “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai” are the same; to be unable to discover this does not require a very high degree of intoxication. (See Abudraham Hashalem for other interpretations. The most rational is the one quoted from Ba’al Haminhagot. According to him, there were responsive readings where the responses to the reader were “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.” Naturally it was necessary to know when the one was called for, and when the other. Again, one did not have to be highly intoxicated to confuse the responses.)

The permissiveness in regard to imbibing on Purim was explained on the ground that imbibing was very much involved in the story of Purim. Vashti fell from grace when “the heart of the king was merry with wine” (Esther l:10), which resulted in Esther becoming the queen. When Esther became queen there was a similar banquet (Esther 2:18). Haman’s downfall started with the drinking of wine (Esther 7:1, 2; O.H. 695:2 in M. D., note 1).

It was customary in Eastern Europe for youngsters at the s’udat Purim to be disguised in costumes and to sing humorous Purim songs or render humorous dramatic recitations, usually of their own composition. Each country and each generation, dating back to talmudic times (B. San. 64b), had its own form of merrymaking.

In European countries, where a carnival with parades, pantomimes, and masquerades took place at about the same season of the year, the celebration of Purim was influenced by the customs of the environment. Consequently, on this day plays were produced representing scenes from the events related in the Megillah, and at times also from other biblical stories. The amateur players were known as Purim Shpielers (Waxman, Judaism, p. 74). Sometimes women were dressed in the garb of men, and vice versa. This would normally have been forbidden, but it was permitted in the case of Purim since the object was merrymaking (Responsa of R. Yehudah Mintz, 16, quoted in Mateh Mosheh 1014; also O.H. 696:8 in Rama; see also Maimon, Hagim Umo’adim, pp. 121-23).

In America, not counting the reading of the Megillah, the celebration of Purim found its widest expression in the religious schools. It is in the schools that we have Purim plays, carnivals, masquerade contests, and Queen Esther crownings. Some adult organizations also have Purim masquerade balls and parties.

In Israel, Purim, like Hanukkah, has experienced a great revival, with emphasis on the national theme. One specific innovation is the adlayada. It is an elaborate, well-organized parade with floats, bands, marchers, costumes, and dancing in the streets and squares of the city (Wahrman, Hagei Yisra’el Umo’adaw, p. 126).

Another practice is that of mishloach manot (O.H. 695:4). Families, especially the women, exchange gifts of foods and pastries.

The custom of giving gifts to the poor on Purim has become a casualty of our modern system of organized charities. In ages past, it was ordained that on Purim people were to be extra generous, giving to all who asked without question (O.H. 694:1, 3). It is still customary in many congregations to put collection plates on a table in the vestibule of the synagogue. The contributions are called machatzit hashekel money, in memory of the half-sheqel that was collected in ancient days around Purim-time for the upkeep of the Temple in Jerusalem.

The only special food for Purim is hamantashen, a three-cornered pastry filled with poppy seed (the original name was muntashen–mun being the Yiddish word for “poppyseeds”). In Hebrew this pastry is called azne haman, based on the older name Haman Ohren or, in Italian, Orrechi d’Aman (Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Purim”). In old illustrations Haman is pictured wearing a three-cornered hat, and this may have given rise to the three-cornered pastry.

The many community and family Purims of Jewish history are a unique development connected with Purim. These private holidays were instituted to commemorate great deliverances experienced by individual communities or families. They were celebrated with festivities, and often with the reading of a scroll telling the story of the deliverance (for examples of these scrolls, see Ginsburger, “Deux Pourims Locaux”; on local Purims, see Roth, “Some Revolutionary Purims,” and “Supplement,” Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Purim”; Hagim Umo’adim, p. 161).

The festival of Purim offers Jews a powerful lesson, teaching them not to despair even when dangers are most threatening and persecution most cruel. Its festivities cheered the Jew in his darkest moments and assured him that deliverance was at hand. No wonder that the sages took literally the Book of Esther’s promise that “these days of Purim shall not disappear from among the Jews, nor the memory of them perish from their descendants” (9:28), and therefore said: “All the festivals will cease, but the days of Purim will not cease” (Midrash Mishle 9; see also P. Meg. 1:6). 

Excerpted from:
A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Isaac Klein (Supplement by Rabbi Joel Roth)
The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York and Jerusalem, Copyright 1979, 1992