Purim In A Nutshell

Purim is the holiday based on the legends told in the biblical book of Esther, which is sometimes read from a scroll (called a megillah). Here's a very brief sketch of the events in the story:

  • The story is set in Shushan, Purim.
  • King Ahasuerus becomes angry at his wife Queen Vashti, because she refuses to display her beauty to his friends. The king decides to dethrone her.
  • The king then holds a beauty contest to find a new queen. Mordechai (who happens to be Jewish) hears about this and convinces his niece, Esther, to participate.
  • Esther wins the contest and becomes the new queen.
  • One day, Mordechai is sitting by the palace gate and hears two of the king's servants plotting to kill the king. Mordechai reports this to Esther, who tells her husband (King Ahasuerus). As a result, Mordechai's name is recorded in the king's books for having saved his life.
  • Meanwhile, King Ahasuerus promotes Haman, one of his palace officials. All of the king's courtiers in the palace gate bow down to Haman, except Mordechai. Haman becomes enraged and decides to kill the Jews, since he knows Mordechai is Jewish.
  • Haman goes to the king and says that he would like to get rid of a group of traitorous people who follow different laws. He does not mention the Jews specifically, but that is the group to which he is referring.
  • Ahasuerus signs an order to kill all of the Jews.
  • Mordechai hears of this and communicates to Esther that she needs to help save the Jews.
  • Esther tells Mordechai to have all of the Jews of Shushan fast on her behalf for three days.
  • On the third day, Esther approaches King Ahasheurus and invites him to a feast. There, she is still too nervous to tell the king what is on her mind. So, she tells him she wants him to come to another feast the next day.
  • Meanwhile, when Haman leaves the feast, Mordechai again refused to bow down to him.
  • Mordechai goes home angry and tells his wife Zeresh about it. She says Haman should have Mordechai killed.
  • That night, the king can't sleep. He decided to read his book of records, and is reminded that Mordechai saved his life. King Ahasheurus decides to honor Mordechai and asks Haman what he would recommend for someone so wonderful. Without knowing who the king is talking about, Haman thinks he might be the one to be honored and says that person should be paraded around town on the king's horse. The king agrees and tells Haman to honor Mordechai by parading him around.
  • At the second feast, Esther finally tells the king that her people (the Jews) are to be killed.
  • When the king hears that Haman is behind this, he orders Haman to be killed in the way he had prepared for Mordechai.
  • Esther begs the king to reverse his decree ordering the Jews to be killed. Because the king cannot reverse his orders, he now gives the Jews permission to defends themselves.
  • The Jews go out and kill 75,000 people.
  • Haman dies on the gallows which he had built for the Jews.

Remember, that's a brief overview of what is actually a much longer story.

Here are some of the traditions associated with the holiday:

  • Giving tzedakah (charity) and gifts to those in need (and to friends!).
  • Eating hamantaschen (triangular cookies symbolic of a three cornered hat Haman supposedly wore). They are doughy cookies with poppyseed, fruit, or other fillings.
  • Often, synagogues do Purim plays - also known as Purimshpiels - where they retell the story.
  • Because Haman is a bad guy, people often boo and make noise (sometimes with noisemakers called groggers) when they hear his name.
  • Children often dress up in costumes for Purim.
  • Adults often get drunk on Purim. The idea is that by the end of the holiday, you are so drunk you don't know the difference between the good guy and bad guy.