Purim is a ‘fun’ festival with serious messages which can be observed at many levels.
It is unique in Jewish festivals in that it takes place outside of the land of Israel, in Persia, contemporary Iran. There is no historical proof that the events as described in the biblical Book of Esther, actually happened, but they certainly could have done, and incidents of anti-Semitism throughout Jewish history are all too common. God is not mentioned directly in the Book of Esther.
King Ahasuerus, ruler over Persia and Media, had banished his wife Vashti for her refusal to obey him and appear at a banquet. He selected as his new wife, Esther, ward of Mordecai, but she did not reveal that she was Jewish. Mordecai then refused to bow down to Haman, Ahasuerus’ chief minister, as he would bow only to God. Haman was so incensed by this that he demanded the king’s authorisation for the killing of all the Jews of the realm. Lots were cast to decide the day for the action, and the lot fell on the 13th of Adar. The Persian word for ‘lots’ is said to be Purim. Mordecai told Esther that she must intervene on behalf of all Jews, and, this led to the saving of the Jewish people, and the hanging of Haman on the gallows built for Mordecai, and Mordechai replacing Haman.
Purim is celebrated by the reading of Megillat Esther, the scroll containing the book of Esther, and ‘greggers’ (rattles, noisemakers) are shaken whenever Haman’s name is mentioned. It is a time for fun, with fancy dress, Purimspiels, (plays and skits), the eating of Hamentaschen, osnei Haman, (‘Haman’s ears or pockets’, triangular pastry cakes with a variety of fillings, though most often poppy seed), and the giving of gifts and tzedakah.
Purim happens at the end of winter, and its timing is normally similar to the start of Lent in the Christian calendar. The carnival aspect of Purim has some parallels with Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras events, and probably has pagan origins. There was some discomfort about Purim in the world of Reform and Liberal Judaism, particularly because of the events at the end of the story which records that the original decree could not be revoked, but the Jews were to defend themselves, and records large numbers of dead. Nevertheless, it is understood as a ‘story’, and as a way of marking many such stories in Jewish history. The day itself must be fun, though the special readings for the preceding Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, also give us time for its serious aspects.
The Movement for Reform Judaism does not consider this text to constitute the definitive answer on this subject. We believe that Judaism is a living, evolving faith and, as such, there is no 'final word' on Jewish texts, traditions and thought.