Categories: Features

As Purim approaches, Sarah Newman explores the traditions and food enjoyed during this important festival in the Jewish year

Purim, which means ‘lots’ begins on Wednesday 23rd March (the Jewish calendar date of the 14th of Adar). The holiday, as told in the Book of Esther, commemorates the survival of Jews of Persia from persecution.

Haman, an advisor to King Ahasuerus, in the 4th century BCE told the King: “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 peoples, and they do not observe the king’s laws; therefore it is not befitting the king to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8)

The king went along with Haman, telling him to do as he pleased. Haman threw lots (hence the name of the holiday) to determine the date the Jews would be killed. Two people were significant to stopping the destruction of the Jewish population: Queen Esther, who lived in the royal court but hadn’t revealed her Jewish identity, and her cousin Mordechai, who knew of Haman’s plans and refused to adhere.

A dangerous task
Mordechai convinced Queen Esther to tell the king her true identity and Haman’s plans. She fasted for three days to prepare for such a dangerous task. Upon learning that his beloved Queen Esther was Jewish, the king instead destroyed Haman and his sons, saving all of the Jews.

The fun-filled and boisterous holiday has many rituals. The most important is to hear the reading of the Megillah of Esther (a megillah is a scroll). When Haman’s name is mentioned, everyone makes noise with groggers (Yiddish) or ra’ashan (Hebrew) to blot out his name.

It is customary to wear costumes on Purim for many reasons: one idea is that Esther hid her identity; another suggestion is that people are inspired by the part of the story of Purim when Mordechai dresses in the king’s garments; another is the emphasis on giving to the poor during Purim—by wearing costumes, the identities of those who are ashamed to accept charity are hidden.

On Purim, children and adults alike come to synagogue, school, work and parties in costumes. It’s fun to see whole families dressed up! After reading the story of Esther, communities will have a Purim ‘spiel’—a comedic, light-hearted show or skit about Purim.

Fruits, nuts and homemade treats
Food is central to the holiday. In the evening of Purim, before going to synagogue, it is common to have a celebratory meal (called a seudat Purim). It’s customary to give mishloach manot which means ‘sending of portions’, to friends and family (everyone is required to give at least one) which are gift packages filled with fruits, nuts and homemade treats. I enjoy getting together with friends to prepare foods and make the baskets.

In my community, people deliver mishloach manot to each other’s homes; I love to return home to a front door stacked with bags and boxes of goodies from friends and families. People will often create a theme for their package and personalise it with notes, foods made from their favourite recipes or other treats. Knowing that people will receive an overload of sugary treats, I often try to include as many fruits and nuts as possible in my baskets. 

The most common food eaten at Purim is called hamantaschen which in Yiddish means ears of Haman (in Hebrew the cookies are called oznei Haman and means the same thing). The triangular shaped cookies represent Haman’s ears or his triangular hat, and are light, flaky cookies filled with a sweet mixture.

Growing up, the cookies were usually filled with a sticky poppy seed paste, date paste or fruit jam. However, nowadays you can find hamantaschen filled with nearly every imaginable ingredient including Nutella, halva, cream cheese, peanut butter or chocolate.

Joy and happiness
Being filled with joy and happiness is a commandment of Purim. Thus, people often consume significant quantities of alcohol to the point that they cannot tell the difference when the story of Esther is read between arur Haman (cursed is Haman) and baruch Mordechai (blessed is Mordechai). In my community, everyone brings drinks and snacks to share during the megillah reading, which makes it into quite a noisy event!

The last component to the holiday is distribution of matanot l’evayonim, ‘gifts for the poor’. Despite the generally light-heartened nature of the holiday, there is a serious obligation to help poor people. People might donate to organisations or go out into their communities to give food or other needed items to homeless people.

A friend of mine organises our community to hand out large bags filled with essential items to homeless people. The entire community donates, shops for items, puts the bags together and delivers them to people living on the streets on Purim day.