By Shoresh Guest Blogger: Michael Mikhailovsky
The Jewish festival of Purim celebrates Esther and Mordechai’s salvation of the Jewish
people of Persia from Haman who wanted to kill all the Jews in his Empire. Purim, also called
The Festival of Lots and the Feast of Esther, is the most joyful of all the Jewish holidays.
The story of Purim took place more than 50 years after the First Jewish Temple was
destroyed in 586 BCE by the Babylonians.
The Jews became subjects of King Achashverosh of Persia, whose Empire covered the area of 127 countries, from India to Ethiopia. Three years
after King Achashverosh came to power, he held a party to celebrate, lasting 180 days, for all
the subjects of his Kingdom. After this, he held a smaller party lasting one week, for the
residents of his capital city Shushan. In the women’s quarters of the palace, Queen Vashti, the
wife of Achashverosh, held a party for the women of Shushan. On the seventh day of this party,
King Achashverosh was “merry with drink”, and ordered that Queen Vashti appear before the
men, so that the King could show off her beauty. Queen Vashti refused, so after the advice of a
royal counsellor named Memuchan, King Achashverosh ordered that Vashti be put to death.
After Achashverosh’s anger had subsided, he was lonely without a wife. His royal counsellors
suggested that he hold a beauty pageant. The most beautiful girl would therefore become the
The leader of the Jews of the time was Mordechai. His cousin, a girl named Esther, was
orphaned when she was young. Mordechai was Esther’s foster parent. Esther did not want to
be Queen, but she was taken away by force to Achashverosh’s harem (a separate apartment in
the palace for women), to prepare for the beauty pageant. While the other ladies were getting
their hair styled and makeup done, Esther did nothing. Nevertheless, Achashverosh liked Esther
the most, and Esther became Queen of Persia. Mordechai heard that opponents had attempted
to kill the King; he reported it and the traitors were hanged.
A man named Haman was promoted to be Prime Minister of Persia. He did not like the
Jews. King Achashverosh ordered all his subjects to bow whenever Haman walked by. Haman
would wear an idol attached to his neck. Mordechai, being Jewish, refused to bow. Haman got
very upset and decided to take revenge against the Jews by planning to exterminate all of
them, and the Jews would not be allowed to defend themselves. He drew lots (“pur” in Persian)
to find the day for this. The day Haman had selected by lottery was the 13 th day of the Hebrew
Haman wanted to kill the Jews. He gave King Achashverosh a lot of money in exchange
for being allowed to do this evil act. Achashverosh did not like the Jews either, but told Haman
to keep the money. Haman then encouraged the non-Jews to kill all the Jews on the next 13 th of
Adar. When Mordechai heard this, he began to mourn. Mordechai urged Esther to go to the
King to plead to him to save her people. Esther said that she could not go without an invitation
and without the King extending his golden sceptre, because if she went, she would be put to
death. Mordechai warned her that if she kept silent, she would not be saved. Only after this did
Esther agree to go to the King. However, first Esther and Mordechai led the Jews in Shushan to
fast and pray for three days and nights as an act that would help protect the Jews.
After fasting, Esther put on royal clothes and went to see King Achashverosh, and he did
extend his golden sceptre. Esther asked the King if he could come to a small feast with Haman.
King Achashverosh and Haman came to Esther’s small feast. The King asked Esther what she
would like. Esther asked to have another small feast the next day where she would make a
special request. Haman thought the party was only for him. Mordechai stood in the King’s gate,
and still refused to bow to Haman. At home, Haman’s wife and advisors told Haman to ask the
King if he could put Mordechai to death. That evening, the King had trouble sleeping. He asked
his servants to read to him his Royal Chronicles (lists of activities). They read about how
Mordechai uncovered the assassination attempt on the King. The King asked if Mordechai was
honoured for this deed. The servants said he was not. This revelation to the King became the
hidden miracle of Purim of how the Jewish people were saved. The King was so grateful to
Mordechai–he honoured him with royal clothing and a white horse, and the King began to
favour him. After this meeting, Haman hurried to Esther’s second small feast. Esther pleaded
with King Achashverosh for her people and revealed Haman’s evil plan to kill all the Jews. The
King was very upset, and when he heard that Haman had built gallows for killing Mordechai he
ordered that Haman be hanged on them instead. Mordechai became Prime Minister of the
King. Achashverosh gave Mordechai and Esther permission to write a law that opposed
Haman’s evil plot so that the Jews have the right to defend themselves.
On the 13 th day of the Hebrew month Adar, the Jews went to war against their enemies
and won. On the 14 th day of Adar, the whole Jewish community celebrated. On the 15 th of Adar,
the Jews of Shushan rested and celebrated.
Mordechai and Esther established the holiday of Purim. It is named after the Persian
word “pur”, which means “lottery”—referring to the day Haman chose to destroy the Jews but
was hanged instead, and giving Purim one of its other names –The Festival of Lots. The global
Jewish community celebrates on the 14 th day of Adar, which is the day after the great battle
recorded in the Book of Esther. In walled cities like Shushan, for example Jerusalem, Purim is
celebrated on the 15 th day of Adar, because in the capital city of Shushan there were a greater
number of Jew-haters so the fighting continued for two days (the 13 th and 14 th of Adar) and they
could not rest and celebrate victory until the 15 th day.
The Fast of Esther is usually held on the day before Purim from dawn to nightfall, to
commemorate the fasting that the Jewish people undertook to pray to Gd and ask for their
There are special customs associated with the joyful holiday of Purim. The first is
listening to the reading of the Megillah or the Book of Esther, which tells the story of Purim.
The Megillah is read twice during Purim – once on the first evening of Purim and again on Purim
day. Listening to the Megillah is especially important for children; in order to protect the Jews
from people like Haman, Jewish children must hear the story of Purim. During the reading of
the story, noisemakers called “graggers” are used every time Haman’s name is read to drown
out the sound of the villain’s name, and children really enjoy this fun part of the holiday.
Another custom is to send simple charity gifts or gifts of food to at least two poor people. These
gifts are called Matanot LaEvyonim and they fulfill the idea that Jews are strongest when they
are united. Another custom is to send simple gifts of food to at least one person. These gifts
are called Mishloach Manot.
There is also a traditional Purim Feast called Purim Seudah. The Purim feast starts on
Purim day, before sunset, and extends through the evening. Chicken soup with triangular meat-
filled dumplings called kreplach are traditionally eaten. The most traditional Purim food is a
small triangular pastry called a Hamantasch (Hamantashen is the plural). Kreplach and
hamentashen, both with their hidden fillings inside, represent the hidden nature of the Purim
miracle. This pastry also recalls the villain Haman’s three-pointed hat, triangular ears, and
pockets which were full of bribe money. Another explanation is that Queen Esther gained
strength from her ancestors—the three patriarchs of Jewish history—Abraham, Isaac, and
On Purim children and some adults dress-up in fun costumes, such as Mordechai and
Esther. The wearing of costumes symbolizes G-d’s hidden influence in saving the Jews in the
Purim miracle. It also recalls how the Jews had to mask their identities from Haman. Esther also
masqueraded as a non-Jew and dressed up as a Queen, and hid her strength until she had to
save the Jewish people. It is also fun – it is a Mitzvah to be happy on the joyous holiday of Purim
and in the month of Adar.
To make Purim more enviro-friendly and to fulfill the Mitzvot of Purim, some
Using reusable containers for simple food gifts (Mishloach Manot). Using cloth bags for
the gifts. Giving gifts of organic fresh fruit, dried fruit and juices. Exchanging Purim costumes
with Jewish neighbours/friends for different costumes or reusing old costumes. Making
costumes out of recycled materials. Bringing unopened food gifts to a local charity or food
bank. Giving simple food gifts to Jewish community centres. Queen Esther had concealed her
Jewish identity by only eating vegetarian meals in the palace, because the meats were not
kosher. This part of the story, and the condition of animals in modern “factory farms”, has
inspired some modern Jews to eat a vegan diet with no animal food products. Organic,
sustainable honey from Shoresh’s Bela Farm can be a sweet festive gift of food (Mishloach
Manot) to family and friends.