Purim is one of the happiest and most joyous holidays in Jewish tradition. On the days leading up to Purim, and especially on Purim itself, Israel is filled with a happy and lighthearted atmosphere. The streets are full of children in costumes, the stores sell brightly colored accessories for the holiday and there are parties everywhere. Adults often join in the fun and wear costumes as well.
The source of this holiday is in the Biblical Book of Esther, which recalls the story of how Persian Jewry was saved from Haman, chief minister to Persian King Ahashuerus, who had been plotting to kill all the kingdom’s Jews (the time frame of this story is estimated as between the destruction of the First Temple and the building of the Second Temple, in the late 6th century BCE). The date on which Purim is observed, the 14th of the Jewish month of Adar (usually in March), in keeping with the date Haman had determined for all the Jews to be killed. Purim celebrations continue through the following day, which is called Shushan Purim.
One of the unique aspects of the Book of Esther is that the story revolves around the heroism of a woman – Esther, who saved the Jewish people and turned the day of the evil decree into a historic holiday.
Costumes - This custom of wearing masks and costumes developed in the Middle Ages, apparently influenced by local Mardi gras holidays. Small children take special interest in this aspect of the holiday, and can be seen in the streets wearing their costumes.
Gifts of fancy foods – It is customary to prepare gift baskets and send them to friends and neighbors.
Haman’s ears - a traditional Purim delicacy: triangular pastries (resembling ears) filled with poppy seeds and various other sweet fillings.
The Reading of Book of Esther - On Purim evening and on the morning of the holiday, the Book of Esther is read aloud in the synagogue. The reading of Esther is a very happy social event: at each mention of the wicked Haman, who has become synonymous with all those who bear ill will toward Jews, the congregants and especially the children, try to drown out his name by shaking special noisemakers.
The Fast of Esther - The day before Purim is a fast day, commemorating the fast by Esther and all of Persian Jewry before Esther approached King Ahasuerus to plead for her people. Unlike the fasts of the Day of Atonement and the Tisha B’Av, but similar to other minor Jewish fasts, the Fast of Esther starts at dawn and ends at sunset.
Holiday meal - After the fast there is a holiday meal with games and other amusements that lasts late into the evening. It is a religious obligation to get drunk to the point of not knowing the difference between the hero of the Purim story and the evil Haman.