What is Purim ?

Purim, also known as the "Feast of Lots" and the "Festival of Masquerades", commemorates the military victory of the Persian-Jews over Haman Ha-Agagi, a descendent of Amalek, the traditional enemy of the Jewish people, who was the vizier or prime minister of the Persian Empire, second in command to the king of Persia, and Haman's followers, on the 13th day and 14th day of the Hebrew/Jewish month of Adar (February / March) in either 483 B.C.E. (according to secular history, the year of the first Purim being first mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus) or in 356 B.C.E. (according to Jewish historians who correlated the date with the Hebrew/Jewish yearly date of 3405 that is recorded in the 2nd century C.E. rabbinical compilation known as the "Seder Olam Rabbah" ("Great Order of the World" in Hebrew, the oldest recorded chronology of Jewish history, written by Rabbi Yose ben Halafta).

The Jewish holiday of Purim is a minor Jewish holiday. It is minor in the sense that one is permitted to work on Purim and that the holiday of Purim was not commanded to be observed by G-d but rather, was declared by the prominent Persian/Jewish person Mordechai (or Mordehai) to be a festival to be celebrated yearly in every generation by all Jewish people. Major festivals - particularly the three major festivals in Judaism - are festivals that are commanded by G-d in the Hebrew Bible - specifically, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Bible) - to be celebrated yearly in every generation, and no work is permitted on the "full" festival days of the three major festivals (Pesach/Passover, Shavuot/Shavuoth/Shavuos, and Sukkot/Succoth); "full" meaning that all the laws of the festival apply on those days, including performing no work that is unrelated to the festival. Purim and Chanukah or Hanukkah are minor festivals; a festival in Judaism is generally defined as a joyous event in the history of the Jewish people that has been commanded - either by G-d in the case of the three major festivals or by biblical Jewish characters in the case of the minor festivals - to be commemorated yearly in every generation.

Why is Purim called the "Feast of Lots" ?

The word "Purim" means "lots" in Hebrew. Purim is called the "Feast of Lots" after the method of drawing lots that was used by Haman to determine the date for the destruction of Persian-Jewry. Day after day, month after month, was drawn until the "lot" ("pur" in Hebrew; plural form: "Purim") for the 13th day of the twelfth Hebrew/Jewish month of Adar was found to be the lot or pur that represented the date for the destruction of Persian-Jewry. In commemoration of the victory by the Persian-Jews over their enemies, the followers of Haman, on the 13th day and 14th day of Adar, in either 483 B.C.E. or 356 B.C.E., a festive meal was declared to be the central feature of celebrating Purim. Therefore, we have the festival of Purim also being known as the "Feast of Lots".

Why is Purim called the "Festival of Masquerades" ?

Purim is also known as the "Festival of Masquerades" because a central theme of Purim is that G-d is hidden throughout the Purim story. In other words, G-d planned that disasters would happen to the Persian-Jews, but at the same time the disasters themselves would lead to the salvation of the Persian-Jews through the miracles bestowed on the Persian-Jews by the hand of G-d. Since it was difficult to determine the difference between the reality of the disasters that seemingly existed independent of G-d and the existence of the disasters being a direct result of the hand of G-d which existed for the purpose of serving the will of G-d, the Purim story is an example of a situation where everything is not what it seems to be. From this lesson, a Purim custom developed which involved the wearing of a mask to illustrate this lesson.

Furthermore, there is a purpose in the Purim declaration in Megillah 7b of the Talmud to drink to the point where one cannot tell the difference between "Blessed be Mordechai" and "Cursed Be Haman" [but not, according to many rabbinical authorities, drink beyond the point where one cannot recite the Purim blessings and perform the other mitzvot ("commandments" in Hebrew) in order to properly observe or fulfill the celebration of the Purim festival; other rabbinical authorities say this statement means that one should drink until one falls asleep, since it is at that point that it is enough to make one forget the difference]. The purpose of this declaration or statement is the same as the purpose for wearing a mask on Purim: to demonstrate that in the Purim story, since everything is not what it appears to be, even the worst of events in reality serve the will of G-d. Just as we drink to the point where we cannot tell the difference between realistic events and miraculous events, which is an important theme throughout the Purim story, and we wear a mask on Purim to further illustrate this concept, we also re-enact the Purim story in plays called "Purim Spiels" or "Purim Shpiels" ("Purim plays" in Yiddish), which developed in the 15th century in Germany and were and still are practised widely in both Poland and Russia. In addition, since it is a mitzvah ("commandment" in Hebrew) to be joyous and festive on the festival of Purim, we hold parties - namely masquerade parties based on the characters in the Purim story - to fulfill this mitzvah for Purim, hence one of the names for Purim being the "Festival of Masquerades".

For more Purim information, check out our other Purim pages below:

Purim ECards - Purim E-Cards
Happy Purim - Traditional Purim Greetings
Purim 2007 Countdown Clock
Purim Humor
Purim Home Page

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