Thank you to Rabbi Daniel B. Syme for the answers.
What is the story of Purim?
King Ahasuerus, a great ruler of Persia, once gave a banquet for his subjects. When Queen Vashti refused to entertain the guests, she lost her crown (and possibly her head as well). A beauty contest was held to select Vashti’s successor. The winner was a Jewish woman, Hadassah, whose Persian name was Esther. Brought to the king’s court by her cousin Mordecai, she became the new queen.
It was Mordecai’s custom to sit at the gate by the palace. One day, he overheard two men, Bigthan and Teresh, planning to kill the king. He reported it to Esther and the plot was filed, but the king was not made aware of what Mordecai had done for him. About the same time, Ahasuerus made Haman the Agagite prime minister of Persia. This was a position of great power, and all who saw Haman were supposed to bow down before him. When Haman passed by the gate to the palace, however, Mordecai refused to bow, since Jews pay homage only to God. Haman was furious and decided to destroy all the Jews of Persia in revenge. He drew lots (purim) to fix the date, then convinced the king, through bribery and anti-Semitic slander to sanction his evil plan. Mordecai told Esther of the decree, and she decided to go directly to Ahasuerus to save her people. This was very dangerous, for anyone who went to the king without being summoned faced immediate execution. Still, Esther went and invited the king and Haman to a dinner that she would prepare. Both the king and Haman accepted.
That night, the king could not sleep, so he had one of his servants read to him from the book that chronicled the events of the kingdom. For the first time, Ahasuerus learned about the assassination that Mordecai had thwarted and decided to reward him. Haman was asked how a man whom the king wished to reward might be honored. The prime minister imagined that he was to be honored and thus described an elaborate parade in which the man, dressed in royal robes, would be led through the city on horseback. The king was thrilled with the idea and commanded Haman to lead Mordecai through the city in just such a procession.
Haman angrily carried out the king’s order and arrived at Esther’s dinner party more determined than ever to exterminate the Jews. But it was not to be. Esther revealed that she was Jewish, that Haman planned to destroy her people, and begged Ahasuerus to reverse the order of genocide.
It was too late to cancel the edict. Too many Persians were already preparing to attack Jewish communities. But a new decree went out, empowering the Jews and their friends to fight and defend themselves.
Haman was hanged on the very gallows he had prepared for Mordecai. Mordecai was named the new prime minister. The Jews defeated their attackers and were saved. And the fourteenth of Adar was set aside as a day of feasting and joy, a time for giving gifts to friends and charity to the poor, a time for remembering how the Jewish people had resisted and defeated a villain who sought their annihilation.
How do Jews celebrate the holiday of Purim?
Reading the story of Esther and making noise when Haman’s name is read:
The story of Purim is contained in the Scroll of Esther, M’gillat Esther, which is read on Purim.
Every Jew has, at one time or another, yelled, screamed, sounded the grager (a noisemaker, from the Polish word meaning “rattle”), or banged a pot or pan at the mention of Haman’s name. The custom has fascinating biblical origins. Exodus 17 describes a bitter battle in the wilderness between the Israelites and the soldiers of King Amalek. Although Israel prevails, the Torah records God telling Moses: “Write this for a memorial in the book… I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heavens” (Exodus 17:14). In Deuteronomy 25:19, this curse on Amalek is repeated: “You shall blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget.” The sense of the passage is clear. God is telling the Children of Israel that the descendants of Amalek will always be their enemies and thus to “blot them out.”
Indeed, history proved that to be true. Many years later, Agag, then king of Amalek, became a bitter foe of the Jewish people, a slaughterer of women and children. In fact, King Saul was dethroned for sparing Agag’s life after Israel’s military victor over the Amalekites. The prophet Samuel executed Agag, and the name of Amalek was “blotted out.”
Now, turning to Esther 3:1, we see that Haman is identified as “the son of Hammedatha the Agagite,” in short, a direct descendant of Amalek! It is reasonable to assume that the author of Esther either deliberately forged a bond between Amalek and Haman so as to accentuate Haman’s evil character. Remembering the ancient injunction to “blot out” Amalek’s name, the Jews proceeded to do just that – not by violence, but through noise. The customer of “blotting out” the name of Haman was thus born and endures today.
Purim borrowed freely from the pagan carnivals of ancient times, especially from the later Roman carnivals. Beginning about the fifteenth century, European Jews adapted the gala costumes and processions of these carnivals for Purim. Dressed in colorful masks and attire, children would march through the town, with tiny Mordecais, Esthers, and Hamans, parading in joy from street to street.
Most congregations today carry on that custom through Purim carnivals, costume contests, and other similar events. Children in the State of Israel celebrate Purim in grand fashion. Many cities in Israel hold Purim parades in the main streets. If you’re ever in Tel Aviv on Purim day, you’ll see hundreds of beautifully costumed youngsters in a display of Jewish self-affirmation that is impossible to forget.
Purim plays, or Purim shpiels, originated about the fifteenth century in Germany. Some of these slapstick spoofs became classics in the communities where they were first performed, and many of the original manuscripts have been preserved. Jews of today often write their own scripts, which are just as humorous and enjoyable as creations of the past.
Are Jews really supposed to get drunk on Purim? According to the Talmud, yes. The exact quotation is: “On Purim, one should drink until he can no longer tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and “blessed be Mordecai’” (M’gillah 7b). This runs counter to normative Jewish teachings, which generally condemn intoxication as unseemly. But Purim was exempted from the usual rules. The custom of allowing excessive drinking was probably a result of Purim’s biblical status as a mishteh (literally, “feast” but also meaning “drink”). The rabbis monitored the seeming permissiveness carefully, but so long as individuals did not become abusive or destructive, Purim was a time when almost anything was permitted.
The there-cornered pastry, filled with poppy seeds, apricots, or prunes, has become an essential element in Purim’s joy.
Hamantashen originated in Europe. The term derives from two German words, mohn (poppy seed) and taschen (pockets). The association with Purim was solidified by substituting the name of Haman for mohn. Some hold that the hamantashen symbolize the three-cornered hat that Haman wore.
There are actually many foods that came to be associated with Purim, but hamantashen emerged as the most popular delicacy.
Sending gifts and giving charity:
Esther 9:22 enjoins the Jews to “make days of feasting and gladness, and of sending gifts to one another (mishlo-ach manot), and gifts to the poor.” It is typical of Judaism that, even during a holiday of revelry, we remember others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. It is customary to send a gift of two items or more to at least one friend and to give a single gift to at least two poor people. Even the poorest Jew is expected to share with others. Thus we learn that tzedakah (literally meaning justice or righteousness but commonly used to signify charity), at all times and in all places, is a religious duty.