Purim: Esther, Pastries and Celebrations

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Purim parade in Israel

Purim (“Feast of Lots”) is held on the 14th day of Adar, the fifth month after Tishri (in March). It commemorates the rescue of the Jews in Persia from extermination, as ordered by the Persian leader Haman, by Queen Esther and her uncle Mordechai in 480 B.C. Purim means “Lottery,” and was thus named because Haman chose the date by pulling a name from a hat. (Esther 3:7) Purim is celebrated on the 14th and 15th days of Adar, the twelfth month of the Jewish Calendar. Adar usually falls in March, and has traditionally been a time of joy, hope and good luck for the Jewish people.

Purim celebrates the unwillingness of the Jews to compromise their religious principals by bowing to secular authority. It has traditionally been observed with the reading of the Book of the Esther in a synagogue, accompanied by noisemakers, the eating of Haman’s ear (fried, triangular cookies filled with poppy seeds, apricots or prunes) and bringing plates of goodies to neighbors and family members. In Israel, school is closed but most businesses remain open.

Purim is preceded by a minor fast, which commemorates Esther's three days of fasting in preparation for her meeting with the king. Eating different kinds of seeds - sunflower, pumpkin, nuts is also popular and commemorates Esther eating only seeds while she lived in the King's palace.” On Purim itself, however, Jews are commanded to eat, drink a lot and celebrate. Almsgiving is also a very important Purim tradition. The Book of Esther is read in the synagogue and the congregation use rattles, cymbals and boos to drown out Haman's name whenever it appears. [Source: September 13, 2012, BBC]

Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: The Book of Esther is read in the synagogue on the night of Purim and on the next morning. During the reading it is customary for the congregation to "blot out" the name of Haman, held to be a descendant of Amalek (Exod. 17:8–16) and the forefather of those bent on destroying the Jewish people, by shouting raucously, pounding their feet, and rattling noisemakers. In general a carnival mood prevails, and many people, including children, dress in costumes. [Source:Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, Encyclopedia.com]

Websites and Resources: Virtual Jewish Library jewishvirtuallibrary.org/index ; Judaism101 jewfaq.org ; torah.org torah.org ; Chabad,org chabad.org/library/bible ; BBC - Religion: Judaism bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica, britannica.com/topic/Judaism; Yivo Institute of Jewish Research yivoinstitute.org ; Jewish Museum London jewishmuseum.org.uk ; Jewish History: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Aish.com aish.com ; Jewish History Timeline jewishhistory.org.il/history Jewish History Resource Center dinur.org ; Center for Jewish History cjh.org ; Jewish History.org jewishhistory.org

Purim Story

Purim in Tel Aviv, 1948

According to the BBC: ““The 14th day of Adar is the day that Haman chose for the extermination of the Jews. In leap years, when there are two months of Adar, Purim is celebrated in the second month of Adar, so it is always one month before Passover. In cities that were walled cities at the time of Joshua, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of the month, because the Book of Esther says that in a walled city, deliverance from the massacre was not completed until the next day. [Source: BBC |::|]

“It's a mitzvah that Jewish people should eat, drink and be merry at Purim. According to the Talmud, a person is required to drink until they cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordecai', though opinions differ as to exactly how drunk that is. A person certainly should not become so drunk that he might violate other commandments or become seriously ill. |::|

“In addition, Jews are commanded to send gifts of money, food or drink, and make donations to charity. The sending of gifts of food and drink is referred to as 'sending out portions.' In Israel, Purim baskets containing an assortment of sweets, cookies, bagels, wine, nuts and fruit are sold. A common treat at this time of year are 'Haman's pockets', sometimes called hamantashen. These triangular fruit-filled cookies represent Haman's three-cornered hat. Pastries in the shape of different animals and heroes of the Megilla, and Kreplach - meat wrapped in dough and folded into a triangle - are also popular. |::|

Purim Celebration

Purim is a festive occasion when people drink, dance and play jokes to celebrates the biblical story of the Jews’ escape from a plot to kill them by Haman, minister to the Persian king. In Israel, Purim has evolved into a Jewish version of Carnival or Halloween in which children dress up in costumes, men dress up like women, and adults get so drunk they can’t distinguish between the words “curse of Haman” and “bless Mordechai.” It is he only time of the year that Jews are encouraged to get roaring drunk. It is not uncommon for Jews to dress up like Muslims. Gifts of food called shalah manot are distributed, which include fruit, cookies and, a stuffed pastry called hamantashen.

According to the BBC: “Purim is one of the most entertaining Jewish holidays. It is customary to hold carnival-like celebrations on Purim, to perform plays and parodies, and to hold beauty contests. Purim is not subject to the restrictions on work that affect some other holidays; however, some sources indicate that Jews should not go about their ordinary business at Purim out of respect for the festival. Americans sometimes refer to Purim as the Jewish Mardi Gras.[Source: BBC |::|]

“The main commandment related to Purim is to hear the reading of the Book of Esther. The Book of Esther is known as the Megillah, which means scroll. Although there are five books of Jewish scripture that can be called megillahs - Esther, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations - The Book of Esther is the one people usually mean when they speak of the Megillah. It is read both on the eve of Purim and also on Purim itself. If Purim falls on the Sabbath, the Megillah is read on the Thursday evening and Friday morning before Purim. |::|

“At Purim Jews read the story of Esther in the synagogue. It's usually an entertaining and rowdy occasion. The synagogue is crowded with men, women, and children. Some wear their best Sabbath clothes, but many dress up in colourful costumes and masks. The Purim story features a villain called Haman, and everyone in the synagogue boos, hisses, stamps their feet and uses noisemakers (called graggers) and cymbals whenever the name of Haman is mentioned during the service. The purpose of this custom is to blot out the name of Haman. Originally, when Haman's name was read, the congregation would shout "Cursed be Haman" or "May the name of the wicked rot!" But nowadays any noise will do. Children in particular enjoy dressing up as the characters found in the Book of Esther, including King Xerxes, Vashti, Queen Esther, Mordecai and Haman.” |::|

Purim and the Story of Esther

20120504-Esther Triumph_of_Mordecai.jpg
Esther and the Triumph of Mordecai
The story of Purim is told in the Book of Esther in the Bible and set in Shishan, the winter capital of Persia. . Through her bravery, Esther is able to thwart an attempt to exterminate all the Jews living in Persia at that time. King Akshashversus (also known by the Greek name Xerxes). ultimately saves the Jews but otherwise is a a villain for the way he treats women and his willingness to initially go along with a plot have all the Jews killed for no good reason. |::|

“In one version of the story Esther was a beautiful Jewish woman who lived there with her uncle Mordechai, who had adopted her. Esther had no mother or father, and Mordecai had brought her up as if she was his daughter. King of Persia.The leader of Persia was Emperor Akshashversus. After dismissing his wife Vashto because she refused to follow his orders and dance naked in front of his male guests, the emperor selected Esther as a new wife. She had been a member of his harem. Akshashversus didn’t know she was Jewish. Shortly after she became queen, she warned the emperor of a plot to kill him after being told of the plot by Morechai. Akshashversus was grateful.

Haman, one of the king’s favorite ministers and a fanatical anti-Semite, became enraged when Mordecai refused to bow to him and decided to vent his anger on all the Jewish people in Persia. He asked for and received permission from Akshashversus to exterminate the Jews on the false charge of treason. Esther 3:8 reads: ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your realm. Their laws are different from those of every other people's, and they do not observe the King's laws; therefore it is not befitting for the King to tolerate them.’ Haman told the King that he would pay for the extermination. |::|

Mordechai pleaded with Esther to plead with Akshashversus for help but she could only communicate with the emperor if he called her. If she called him she risked being put to death. After fasting for three days she appeared in the inner court. There Akshashversus asked her what she wanted. She said she wanted to invite the emperor to a banquet. He agreed. That night he couldn’t sleep and asked that book of records be read to him. From the records he learned that it was Mordechai who uncovered the assassination plot and saved his life. At the banquet, Esther pleaded with the emperor to spare the Jews.

Akshashversus decided that the Jews must be saved. But changing a ruling was impossible because it would mean the emperor wasn’t infallible. Instead, Akshashversus supplied weapons to the Jews who defeated troops loyal the Haman. Haman, his top aides and 10 of his sons were hung on gallows that had been prepared for the Jews.

Meaning of the Purim Story

According to the BBC: “The book of Esther is the only book of the Bible that does not contain the name of God. In fact, it includes virtually no reference to God. The festival of Purim and the story of Esther can be interpreted in many ways. The most obvious interpretations are these: 1) God ensures that good wins in the end: although the villainous Haman seems to be getting his way at first, in the end he is defeated. 2) God is always there, even when unseen: this interpretation comes from the fact that God is never mentioned in the Book of Esther, but is clearly there, in the faith, trust, and loyalty of the Jews. 3) God plans ahead: God makes Esther Xerxes's queen in order to provide the way in which the Jews will be saved from death - even though the events which will threaten the Jews have not yet occured. [Source: BBC |::|]

Esther in a Rembrandt painting

“There are a number of negative messages for women in the Book of Esther: 1) Women are property: King Xerxes believes he has the right to parade his wife before the diners at an all-male feast that he has organised. 2) Women's wishes are secondary: nor are the wishes of the women given any respect - taking part in the selection process is compulsory for the women concerned. 3) Male authority must be preserved: when Queen Vashti disobeys the King, who wants her to display her beauty before his male guests, this is seen as an attack on male authority in every sphere. The Queen is deposed (and probably done away with) to ensure that the tradition of male superiority is not damaged, and that wives are reminded that they must obey their husbands. |::|

“4) Women are no more than animals: the search for a new queen to replace Vashti is conducted with as much humanity as might have gone into selecting a new mare for the King's stables. Character, intellect and wisdom count for nothing, only the physical matters.What the King wants is a beautiful virgin. The whole search is conducted like a beauty contest; even down to the contestants having to spend a year in a beauty parlour first. The chosen women then each have to spend a night with the King, to see if he enjoys them. |::|

“5) Women are unimportant: even as Queen it's clear that Esther lives entirely on the King's terms. She goes to him when he calls her - but if she goes uninvited, he can have her put to death. The King ignores her needs: he doesn't want her all that often, perhaps once a month; her own needs are unconsidered. On a political level women are downgraded since at the end of the Book of Esther, the author ignores the Queen's achievements, and concentrates on praising Xerxes and Mordecai. |::|

“On the positive side: 1) Women are brave: both Vashti and Esther display considerable courage in difficult and oppressive situations. 2) Women can exercise power: in Chapter 9 of the Book of Esther, the Queen is referred to as 'writing with full authority' to confirm a decree, and it also says 'Esther's decree confirmed these regulations about Purim', thus indicating that she had considerable authority.” |::|

Hamantaschen — Traditional Purim Pastries

The traditional snack of Purim is Hamantaschen, a triangular-shaped pastry with a filling in the middle. The most popular fillings are apricot, chocolate, strawberry, raspberry, and fig. The story goes that hamantaschen are based on Haman's famous triangular hat, or his ears. Either way, it's to signify the victory over Haman. Drinking is also important. In the Talmud — the primary basis of rabbinical law — Jewish people are instructed to drink so much that they forget the difference between good and evil. [Source: Gabbi Shaw, Business Insider, March 7, 2023]

On the pastry's history, Shmil Holland, an Israeli historian and cook, told the New York Times, "We start to hear about a pastry called montash in the 16th century in Germany. “The meaning in German was mohn — poppy seeds — and tash — pocket. When the Jews fled Germany for Eastern Europe in the late Middle Ages,” he said, “they took the poppy seed pastry with them but added the Yiddish prefix ha.” The word then became hamantash, which sounded like “Haman’s pocket.” (In the United States it’s known as Haman’s hat.) “That’s the way this pastry became the typical sweet for Purim,” he added, “and the poppy seeds the ultimate stuffing.” But in Israel they are called, in Hebrew, oznei Haman, and in France, oreilles d’Aman — Haman’s ears. Supposedly, Mr. Holland said, Haman was so crestfallen when he was forced to confess his plot to the king that his ears were folded, resembling triangles. [Source: Joan Nathan, New York Times, March 15, 2011 ~]

:In 17th-century Bohemia and Czechoslovakia, Mr. Holland said, a prune filling, which was sometimes cooked for days, was added. Sometimes the flaky dough that Mr. Holland learned from his Polish grandmother was swapped for supple yeast dough and filled with a savory buckwheat filling with onions. Tradition can have a tremendous pull, despite the appeal of the latest trends. “Even with all the different fillings we make,” Mr. Scheft said, “the most popular is still poppy seed, perhaps from nostalgia.”“ ~

Modern Versions of Purim Pastries

Hamantashen‎, Purim tricorner pastries

Joan Nathan wrote in the New York Times, “Customers at Lehamim Bakery in Tel Aviv were already eagerly reaching for a dozen varieties of delicate hamantashen two weeks ago. Israelis have become crazy about the tricorner pastry that is as closely linked to Purim, which begins on Saturday evening, as matzos are to Passover. Fillings of poppy seeds, nuts and dried fruits used to be as exciting as these Eastern European sweets got. But at Lehamim, marzipan, sour apple, dates with sweet red wine and cinnamon, halvah, and chocolate chip cream pop out of their tops. Other bakeries have such unconventional fillings as amaretto, meringue with cream, marshmallows, strawberries and orange jam, and pistachio with rosewater. [Source: Joan Nathan, New York Times, March 15, 2011 ~]

“In part this playfulness can be explained by Israel’s Mardi Gras-like fervor for Purim, for which flour and fillings are used up before being removed from the home before Passover starts next month. Another reason is the globalization of Israeli food, which inspires this generation of Israeli bakers to compete for ways to tweak tradition for a more sophisticated clientele. “I have never seen customers like in Israel,” said Uri Scheft, the baker and an owner of Lehamim, a kosher bakery with the most modern baking equipment from Europe. “I listen to what they want, always new things.”“Our customers are always asking us for different kinds of hamantashen,” he added. The bakery uses butter in its dough, unusual for a kosher bakery, and makes about a dozen types, like one with spelt flour filled with sugar-free preserves, and savory quichelike versions stuffed with potatoes and sesame seeds or feta cheese and beets. His triangles are also tinier than usual. ~

“As Mr. Scheft, 48, showed me around his immaculate bakery, young American, Ethiopian, Israeli, Arab and Russian bakers cut discs of the thin sheet-rolled dough by hand. They topped them with a dollop of the assorted fillings before pinching the dough into triangles with an opening on the top, so that some of the filling remained visible. Like so many Israelis in the past 20 or 30 years, Mr. Scheft studied abroad, in his case at bakeries in France and Denmark. “I learned short pastry dough with almonds inside in France,” he said. “It is tastier than a typical dough.” In France, though, few Central and Eastern European bakeries remain, as almost half of Paris’s Jews are Sephardic. “I put out only a few hamantashen the weeks before Purim,” said Florence Kahn, owner of a celebrated Eastern European bakery in the Marais that bears her name. “I like to whet my customers’ appetites so that they remember that the holiday is coming.” ~

“Parisians gingerly picked her heartier, more traditional hamantashen. Unlike their counterparts in Tel Aviv, Mrs. Kahn and other Eastern European Jewish bakers don’t stray from tradition, remaining loyal to the golden standard of poppy seeds, nuts and dried fruit fillings like prune and apricot. “

Is Purim Jewish Halloween?

Purim is known as the holiday when Jewish people dress in costumes and some have called it "Jewish Halloween" because it involve some drinking as well as dressing up. "The real lesson of Purim is that appearances are not everything and that God oftentimes operates behind the scenes and we can't always directly perceive the intervention in our lives," Rabbi Joshua Maroof told The Washington Post.

According to Business Insider: There are traditionally four tasks, or "mitzvot" (Hebrew for commandments) that are part of celebrating Purim: 1) Listening to two public readings of the Book of Esther (the Megillah, in Hebrew); 2) Sending gift baskets of food, candy, etc. to your friends and family, called "mishloach manot" in Hebrew; 3) Giving to the poor; 4) Eating a "festive meal." [Source: Gabbi Shaw, Business Insider, March 7, 2023]

And while Halloween is concerned with saints, spirits, and knocking on strangers' doors to receive candy, Purim is a little more complex. The reason Jewish people dress up on Purim is ... well, actually there's no one reason. There are a few theories, though. According to Chabad, Jewish people dress up for one of four reasons. First, to hide themselves, much like God hid himself during the events of Purim. Unlike many other biblical miracles that involve parted seas and burning bushes, the miracle of Purim is very grounded: One woman stood up for her people and saved them.

Some other explanations: Since Jewish people were hiding their religion during the events of Purim and God was hiding his intentions, the Jewish people still mask their true identities in Purim; because part of Purim is handing out charity, people dress up in different clothes so that poorer people don't feel embarrassed; or because part of the Purim story was the king dressing up Mordecai in his clothes to honor him, Jews now dress up to celebrate that. Also, of course, Halloween is all about getting candy, while Purim is all about giving it away. One of the most famous snacks on Purim is the hamantaschen. See Below

Purim Helped Spread Covid-19 in Israel and Police Had a Hard Time Containing the Parties

During Purim in 2021, mass gatherings took place in Jerusalem in violation of coronavirus restrictions. Associated Press reported: “Authorities had been concerned about a repeat of 2020 when Purim celebrations helped fuel an initial wave of the coronavirus in the earliest days of the global pandemic. The government urged people to celebrate at home in 2021, and police attempted to block traffic from entering Jerusalem and declared strict limits on public gatherings. [Source: Associated Press, March 1, 2021]

“But the restrictions were not able to prevent street parties as well as mass prayer celebrations in ultra-Orthodox areas, which have repeatedly flouted safety rules. With traffic clogged at the entrance of Jerusalem, Israeli TV stations showed videos of ultra-Orthodox families walking along the side of the highway into the city.

“The holiday was celebrated nationwide over the weekend, with Jerusalem celebrating a day later than the rest of the country. Similar safety violations took place in both secular and religious areas of the country. The celebrations have threatened to undercut Israel’s successful vaccination campaign. The country has vaccinated most of its adult population, but younger Israelis in their teens, 20s and 30s have been slow to get inoculated.

Reuters reported:, Israel, which began emerging from its third national lockdown, reimposed night curfews for the long Purim weekend and limited access to Jerusalem. Purim parties were banned, with fines for anyone hosting them. That led to spontaneous street parties in Tel Aviv. Police commander Ziv Saguy said they were giving out 200 fines an hour. Long traffic jams formed on the road to Jerusalem as police tried to stop large groups of reaching the holy city for the festival. Some people ditched their vehicles and walked up the highway instead.Some ultra-Orthodox have also defied state-ordered closures of schools and synagogues, touching off clashes with police. [Source: Reuters, March 1, 2021]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Wikipedia, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Library of Congress, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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