What is Purim? The history and meaning of the Jewish holiday

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The Jewish celebration of Purim, the festival of lots, begins at sunset on Saturday, March 11, and lasts until nightfall on Sunday, March 12. Purim is a celebration of life that is sometimes referred to as "Jewish Halloween" or "Jewish Mardi Gras" for its costumes, festivals and indulgence in food and drink, though both terms vastly water down the religious significance and Jewish history of the holiday.

Purim often involves reading a story from the Megillah – the book of Esther – which details a biblical story of a genocidal anti-Semite who plots to wipe out the Jewish people but whose plan is turned on its head by the intervention of Esther, a young Jewish woman married to the king of Persia. There are several competing theories as to how the festival of Purim became tied to the biblical story of Esther, but the party rages on regardless.

The Story of Purim

In the biblical story of Purim, Haman is an inept, egotistical, and deeply anti-Semitic advisor to the King of Persia. After he becomes angered by a Jewish man named Mordecai who refuses to bow down to him, Haman devises a plot to exterminate all the Jews.

Haman gives an anti-Semitic speech to the king about how different the Jewish people are and offers the king money in exchange for permission to kill the Jews. The king takes the money and tells Haman he can do whatever he wants with the country. Haman immediately sends out an official order across the country to kill the Jews.

But Mordecai discovers Haman's plans and goes to his cousin, a young and beautiful woman named Esther who was a favorite in the king's harem, and asks for her help. Despite the fact that she could be put to death for seeing the king unsummoned, Esther agrees to visit him. After honoring the king with two feasts, Esther begs him to have mercy on the Jewish people who are being threatened by Haman's genocidal impulses. As a result, the king orders that Haman be hanged on the same gallows Haman had prepared to use for Mordecai, and the Jewish people defeat those trying to follow through on Haman's orders.

A child follows along a reading of the book of Esther, holding a toy gun to shoot whenever Haman's name is spoken.  Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

Purim customs

Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of Adar, the 12th month of the Jewish year, which usually occurs in March.

Prior to the party, though, there is a minor fast — the Fast of Esther — which parallels Esther's own fast leading up to her meeting with the king. On Purim, it's customary to listen to a reading of the book of Esther and to boo, hiss, stomp your feet and make as much noise as possible to drown out the every time Haman's name is said in the story.

A child holding a toy gun to shoot and "blot out" Haman's name while reading the book of Esther.  Menahem Kahana/Getty Images

It's also expected that observers share gifts of food and drink and to be charitable. Unlike other Jewish holidays, people are still expected to go to work and businesses generally remain open, but since the festival largely occurs on a weekend, celebrations are often massive ragers.

As the Jewish Chronicle notes, "Since no other book in the Bible mentions the word "feast" as many times, eating and drinking is integral to the festival." The Chronicle also highlights one tradition where people should drink until they "become confused between Haman and Mordecai" adding, "rabbis in recent times have been at pains to curb youthful excess and notices in Hebrew have been posted warning people not to go overboard with the alcohol."

The celebration

Snapshot of a Purim festival in Tel Aviv, Israel, 2016.  Jack Guez/Getty Images

Purim is celebrated all around the world, but in the United States it's sometimes referred to as the "Jewish Mardi Gras" for its overabundance of partying, drinking and eating — getting drunk on every element of life. Observers of Purim are expected to send gifts of food and drink and charity. Ashkenazic Jews eat triangular fruit-filled cookies called hamentaschen, which is intended to represent Haman's three-cornered hat.

Children dressed up in costumes watch a performance at the Purim festival in Tel Aviv, Israel, 2016.  Ariel Schalit/AP

Carnivals, plays, beauty pageants, costumes and having a real good time are all customary to the celebration of Purim. In Israel, Purim is one of the most widely celebrated festivals in the country because it attracts everyone — not just religious Jews — to partake.

Festival-goers dressed as zombies for the Tel Aviv Purim Zombie Walk, 2016.  Jack Guez/Getty Images

Festival-goers dress up in costumes and events usually span starting three days before the 14th of Adar (during the Fast of Esther). There's even an annual Tel Aviv Purim Zombie Walk, where people get dressed up like zombies and join in on the festivities.

Correction: March 10, 2017
A previous version of this article misstated how Esther presented her request to the king. She honored him with two days of feasts before asking that he spare the Jewish people.