Purim 5782: fasting, Megillat Esther, and celebration

Written by: Lauren Colgan
Purim is a very joyous festival; falling each year on 14 Adar, it is a time for fancy dress, socialising, eating, and also drinking alcohol! The most important part, however, is the reading of the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther), which is to be heard twice during Purim.

Copperplate engraving by Caspar Jacobsz Philips (1732-1789), a Dutch history of architecture and engraver. The figure shows the scene of a Purim ball with Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam. JHI Collection, CBJ


The story in short

Purim is a happy time, but the beginning of the Purim story is anything but. It started in the 4th century BCE, when the Persian Empire extended over 127 nations – most of the world. All the Jews were under the rule of the king, King Ahasuerus (Achashveirosh, likely the one known as Xerxes I). He put his wife to death due to not following his orders, and needed a new wife. A girl called Esther caught his eye. She was Jewish, unbeknownst to the king. Ultimately, albeit reluctantly, she became the new queen, but went to great lengths to hide her real identity from everyone, her new husband included.

Haman, a known anti-Semite, became grand vizier of the empire. A man called Mordechai, who was Esther’s cousin, as well as leader of the Jews, refused to bow down to him. This angered Haman greatly, and he then subsequently convinced Ahasuerus to exterminate the Jews, 13 Adar being the date ultimately chosen by a drawing of lots by Haman. His plan was to kill all Jews, young and old, men and women, in one day. “Purim” means “lots” in Persian, hence the name of this Jewish holiday.

purim_ams_2_zw.jpg [497.84 KB]
Colored copperplate depicting the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. The synagogue was built in 1675 by the architect Elias Bouman. The copperplate engraving shows the celebration of Purim. In the foreground, a large group of people in colorful robes. At the back, there is a monumental Aron Kodesh in the form of a baroque double wardrobe. Copperplate engraving by Jacques Chéreau (1688–1776) in Paris on Rue Saint-Jacques. JHI collection, CBJ

The brave Mordechai convinced the Jews to fast, repent, and pray for 3 days, at the request of the queen Esther. After this fast, Esther asked the king and Haman to join her for a wine feast. When the good food and wine had been consumed, Haman left, satisfied. He saw Mordechai, who still refused to bow to him, which made his blood boil with rage. He went home and planned to ask the king to hang Mordechai. Meanwhile, King Ahasuerus couldn’t sleep, and asked his servants to read him the court records. They read about how Mordechai saved the king’s life when two of his chamberlains plotted to kill him, an incident which had happened shortly after Esther had become queen. The king was dumbfounded as he completely forgot that Esther had told him that Mordechai saved his life. “Was he rewarded for this great act?”, the king asked, and was informed that he wasn’t. It was at this moment that Haman entered the king’s courtyard to request that Mordechai be hanged.  

Before Haman could utter a word, the king asked him, “What would you do for a man whom the king wishes to honour?”. Haman was ecstatic – he was sure the king was talking about him, but in fact, it was about Mordechai. Haman began to talk about dressing the man in finest royal garments, letting him mount the royal horse, proclaiming the news in the streets for all to hear, “This is the man who the king wishes to honour! All of this is what is done for him!”. King Ahasuerus thought this was a great idea, so he told Haman, “Go and get the garments and the horse, and do so for Mordechai the Jew!”. Haman couldn’t believe it – he had no choice but to comply.

Queen Esther then joined the king for a second feast in the palace; it was all part of her plan, as it was at this feast that the amazing Esther revealed her precious Jewish identity to the king. She explained how her people had been cruelly treated and killed, exclaiming that it was Haman who planned to destroy the Jewish nation. The king was furious, and ordered Haman to be hanged.

Haman was killed, and Mordechai became grand vizier in his place. It seems like a happy-ever-after from this moment on, but in fact it was far from it. The king had issued Haman’s decree to kill the Jews on 13 Adar, and it couldn’t be evoked. A new decree was therefore written, to allow the Jews to defend themselves in the battle. The Jews did just that, and were winning. Queen Esther asked the king for one more day to fight, so on 14 Adar, more enemies were destroyed, and the Jews rested. On 15 Adar, Jews worldwide celebrated this outstanding victory, this miracle.1

Jewish leap year: Adar II

In the Hebrew calendar, there are leap years in order to ensure that certain holidays fall at a specific time, to synchronise the lunar cycle. This year – 2022 in the Gregorian calendar (5782 in the Jewish calendar) is a leap year. When this happens, the month of Adar appears twice, called Adar Aleph (or Adar Rishon) and Adar Bet (Adar Sheni), respectively. When this happens, Purim is celebrated during Adar II, Adar Bet. Adar Aleph is considered the extra month. This occurs seven times in every 19-year cycle.

The day before: Ta’anit Esther

The day before Purim is a fast day, which is commonly known as Ta’anit Esther – the fast of Esther. This is to commemorate the fast that Esther, Mordechai, and the rest of the Jews took upon themselves, which was one of the first major steps to the triumph against Haman and other anti-Semites. It was a very hard time that eventually led to great joy and relief, and those feelings can be, in a modest way, replicated during Ta’anit Esther, to remember what the Jews went through at that time, and, although Purim itself is a happy holiday, it is important to remember that it wasn’t easy to get to that point of joy. If Purim falls on a Sunday, the fast is moved to the Thursday before Purim, so the fast doesn’t collide with Shabbat, as it is prohibited to fast on Shabbat.

This fast is considered a minor fast, and lasts from alot ha-shachar (sunrise) until tzeit ha-kochavim (sunset). Like all fasts within Judaism, it is not allowed to eat or to drink. Although the fast ends at sunset, it is traditionally not broken until after the reading of the Megillat Esther. Then, the Jews can eat seudah (festive meal).

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Purim Szpil issued by participants of the Jewish Teachers' College, Vilnius, 1924.
In the photo, Bund members: I. Twupianski, Goldberg, I. Man, Rozenberg, Botke, G. Kac-Sztark. JHI collection, CBJ

The Four Mitzvot

During Purim, there are four mitzvot (commandments) that Jews are expected to fulfil. They are: the reading of the Megillat Esther (Mikrat Megillah), the festive meals on Purim (Seudat Purim), giving gifts (Mishloach Manot), and giving gifts to the poor (Matanot l’Evyonim).

Both men and women are obligated to read the Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) twice on Purim – hearing it being read fully is also a way to fulfil the obligation. It’s very important to hear every word properly. It is best that the Megillat Esther be read publicly, and in the synagogue. It is acceptable, however, to read the Megillat Esther at home.  

The first festive meal usually commences shortly after reading the Megillat Esther on Purim night, and consists of many types of foods, including the well-known, traditional Hamantaschen, a triangular-shaped cookie with a filling inside, often of poppy seeds. In Yiddish, Haman here can refer to Haman himself, or poppy seeds (from the Yiddish word mohn), while tash means ‘pocket’. This explains their distinct, ‘pocket-like’ shape. At this meal, the Jews eat bread, among many other foods, and drink wine and other alcohol. During Purim day, two other meals are eaten. These feasts are known as Seudat Purim.

On Purim, we give small gifts known as Mishloach Manot. The gifts given to friends consist of at least two ready-to-eat foods, such as cookies, prepared meat, often fish, spreads, fruits, or other snacks and drinks. Even a poor person is obligated in this mitzvah; if they cannot directly buy things, they can exchange their food with a friend.  It is best to deliver these gifts by messengers instead of personally. This mitzvah should be performed during the daytime3. It is said that on Purim, “The Mitzvah of Mishloach Manot and the giving of gifts to the poor [...] are prescribed in order to recall the brotherly love which Mordechai and Esther awoke among all Jews. When there is inner unity among Jews, even the wrongdoers among them become righteous.”4

Purim and the Megillat Esther

The reading of the Megillat Esther, or Book of Esther, is a crucial part of Purim. To fulfil the mitzvah, it’s necessary to hear it in full twice during the holiday; during the reading, there should be as little distraction as possible in order to hear every word properly. It is customary to read aloud the Book on Purim evening in the synagogue on the bimah, in funny voices. Whenever the name ‘Haman’ is read, everyone makes as much noise as possible for a few seconds in order to drown out his name, and the reading is continued. The names of Haman’s 10 sons should, if possible, be read in one breath. There are blessings recited before and after reading the Megillat Esther, during which everyone in attendance should stand, and in between which no one should speak, to hear the Megillat Esther properly. If one did not hear every word, the mitzvah has not been completed properly.

Fancy dress and drinking – why?

On Purim, it is customary to wear some kind of fancy dress attire. Many miracles of Jewish holidays were overt in nature, such as Pesach, Chanukah, etc. However, the one in the story of Purim was connected with disguise. The entire tale is full of incredible bravery, fear, and eventually, joy. The miracle that happened seems obvious, but so much happened in the meantime that we don’t initially see it. We wear costumes as an ‘allusion to the nature of the Purim miracle.’5 Also, we dress up to commemorate Mordechai dressed up in King Ahasuerus’ royal garments. The point is, dressing up on Purim is so much fun!

Drinking alcohol on Purim is another big thing, but absolutely not the most important part of the holiday. The point is to drink, if one wants, to the point of great happiness, not to become intoxicated. It’s known that you should drink to the point of ‘mixing up Mordechai and Haman’ (but not more), as Rabbi Rava said: it is one’s duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman’ (cursed be Haman) and ‘baruch Mordechai’ (blessed be Mordecai) (Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b)6. None of this means, though, that it is obligated to drink alcohol.

On Purim night, after the Megillat Esther is read, some people take part or watch the Purim shpiel, a skit about the Purim story. This is done in homes with family and/or in the synagogue.

Purim is a really fantastic time that Jews always very much look forward to throughout the year. It’s important to keep in mind though, why in fact we celebrate Purim in the first place, and what we can take from the Megillat Esther today.




[1] Taken and adapted from Megillas Esther, translated and adapted by Mendel Weinbach, Feldheim Publishers Jerusalem-New York, 1971, pp 11-76.

[2] Laws and Practices of Purim 5776, Shlomo Zuckier, oujlic.org, retrieved 17.01.2022.

[3] Purim and its Mitzvot, OU staff, 26th June 2006, ou.org, retrieved 27.01.2022.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Why Do We Dress Up on Purim?, Dovid Zaklikowski, chabad.org, retrieved 22.02.2022.

[6] Megillah 7b, Sefaria.org, retrieved 22.02.2022.

Lauren Colgan