By Debbie Goodman, Director of Jewish Life and Learning

The celebration of Purim is unique and illustrates the “upside down” nature of the holiday. The Purim story recounts a plot to destroy the Jewish community of Persia in ancient days that was prevented and brought about a complete reversal of fortune for the Jewish community. The unusual customs of Purim can be in part attributed to this unexpected and indeed happy outcome of the Purim story.

The Book of Esther (Megilat Ester or “the megillah”) is read on Purim and tells the story of the Persian King Ahasueros, who chooses Esther from among all the women in the kingdom to be his new queen.  The evil Haman, an official in the king’s court, wants to destroy all of the Jews of Persia when Mordecai, a Jew and a relative of Esther’s, refuses to bow down to him even though it is contrary to the king’s decree. Mordecai and Esther manage to plot a plan of their own to reveal Esther’s identity to the king so that the Jews will be saved and at the same time to put an end to Haman and his hateful intentions. The plan is a great success and the anticipated destruction and sorrow becomes a time for joy and celebration. The story of Purim has been very popular throughout Jewish history for the hope and encouragement it provides to a Jewish community that was often a minority in a hostile majority culture.

The major communal celebration of Purim centers around the reading of the Book of Esther in the synagogue to the accompaniment of noisemakers or graggers that are used when the name of Haman is recited (so that his name cannot be heard), cheers for Mordecai and Esther, and a general atmosphere of disorderly and excessive behaviors which are in opposition to what is expected the rest of the year. It is customary on Purim to dress up in costume as well.

We read in Megilat Ester that Purim should be an occasion for “feasting and gladness, and of sending portions to one another, and gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:22) The custom of mishloach manot—sending portions to one another—is a wonderful communal feature of Purim which involves preparing treats for friends and neighbors and personally delivering them to one another on Purim day. And like many other Jewish holidays, a specific act of righteousness (tzedakah) is associated with Purim—gifts to the poor (mattanot le’evyonim). The fulfillment of this mitzvah (commandment) can be done in many different ways, and it is common today to give food to food banks that often run low this time of year when the demand is so high.

Even though Purim is a time of celebration and merriment, we are reminded that the underlying ideas of Purim are very serious and frightening. We continue to encounter prejudice, hatred, and intolerance in our world and it is our responsibility to educate and become educated ourselves and to work to eliminate these behaviors in every way possible. We are mindful of the complex messages of Purim in the midst of the celebration and even excess that is unique to this holiday.

Key words and phrases for Purim

  • Gragger—literally, “noisemaker.” Graggers are used during the reading of the megillah. When the reader speaks the name of Haman the congregation tries to drown out the evil name using noisemakers and booing.
  • Hamantaschen–Yiddish for “Haman’s pockets,” also known as “oznay Haman” meaning “Haman’s ears.” A triangular cookie with a filling (typically jam or poppyseed) inside, traditionally eaten on Purim.
  • Matanot l’evyonim—literally, “gifts to the poor.” It is a commandment to give to the poor on Purim.
  • Megillah—the Scroll of Esther, a book of the bible read during the holiday of Purim. Megillah scrolls are often illuminated.
  • Mishloah manot —literally, “sending portions to one another.” A phrase taken from the Megillah that commands the Jewish community to give small packages of food or gifts to friends on the day of Purim.
  • Seudah—literally, “feast,” there is a commandment to have a festive meal, or a seudat mitzah, on the day of Purim. Wine and liquor are traditionally served at the festive meal.
  • Shpiel—literally, “play” or “skit.” A Purim shpiel is a humorous and dramatic presentation of the events outlined in the book of Esther.
  • Taanit Esther—literally, “the fast of Esther.” A fast from sunrise to sunset on the day before Purim, it commemorates the fast that Queen Esther and the Jews of Shushan undertook.
  • Tzedakah—literally, “righteousness,” and also refers to acts of kindness and giving to others.   It a commandment to give tzedakah to those in need on Purim.

The glossary is taken from The site has a wealth of Purim resources and materials and links to other sites as well.

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