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Writing Jewish Characters: Purim

Updated: Jan 5


Welcome back to Writing Jewish Characters! Today we’re discussing Purim.

Purim, similar to Hanukkah, is a minor holiday that has gotten elevated due to being fun for both kids and adults. The no work rules (as discussed in this post) do not apply.

Purim gets its name from the Hebrew word for “lots” - as in a lottery, not as in many. This is because, in the story of Purim, Haman (the bad guy) drew lots to decide which day he was going to kill all the Jews. The day he picked was this one. Yeah, this holiday very much fits the old saying of “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

Purim falls on the 14th of Adar, unless it’s a leap year. If it’s a leap year (see my discussion of the Jewish calendar), Adar is the month that gets duplicated. So instead of having one Adar, you have Adar I and Adar II, and in that case, Purim falls on the 14th of Adar II, with an even more minor observance of Purim Katan (little Purim) on the 14th of Adar I. These dates can fall between February 23rd and March 25th, with Purim Katan approximately a month earlier when it happens, which means it generally falls in late February.

(As for why Adar is the month that gets duplicated, I’ve heard a number of conflicting answers. The most common seems to be that since holidays are counted in months from Nissan, adding a month anywhere else would change what month those holidays fall in. In a sense, Adar is the last month of the year even though in another sense it’s not, and you add stuff at the end. It also may have had to do with trying to make sure Passover happens specifically in the spring.)

Ta’anit Esther

The day before Purim we have a minor fast day called Ta’anit Esther, or the fast of Esther.

Following the usual rules of fast days (see this post), this is a sunrise to sundown fast, and a fairly relaxed one.

This happens because, in the story of Esther, she fasted for three days and nights before going to the king to plead for the lives of the Jewish people. To remember that, we fast during the day leading up to Purim…assuming it doesn’t fall on Shabbat. Therefore, Ta’anit Esther, which usually should be on the 13th of Adar, can occasionally fall two days earlier on the 11th of Adar so it doesn’t interfere with Shabbat. It therefore falls between February 21st and March 24th. All minor fast day rules apply.

Purim

Purim is a very fun holiday. The main observance is to listen to the Book of Esther, or the Megillah, all the way through. This is called the Megillah (scroll) even though Megillat Esther is only one of five megillot that we read on various days. But if you hear someone referring to ‘the’ Megillah, it’s this one.

It’s usually read in synagogues either or both of the evening and morning of Purim, with the evening often being the more adult-oriented holiday and the morning often being the more kid-oriented one.

When the megillah is read, everyone uses groggers (noisemakers) and boos whenever Haman’s name is said, since we’re supposed to drown out his name.

Groggers come in all shapes and sizes, and can be made of wood, metal, or plastic - or possibly other materials, though those are the most common. A lot of Jewish families own them, but synagogues will also give them out right before the Megillah reading. I’ve occasionally seen people use maracas if they didn’t have actual groggers. Stomping and shouting are both also acceptable.

If you’re an adult on Purim, it’s actually considered a mitzvah (good deed or commandment depending on the context, we’ll discuss this in more detail elsewhere) to get drunk on Purim. In fact, you’re supposed to get so drunk you can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai, who not only have completely different names, but are also the bad guy and one of the heroes of the story, respectively. Purim even falls on St. Patrick’s day every once in a while, so…this can be interesting.

Your characters may or may not drink to excess, but if they like alcohol or are in college, this is definitely a time to write that into your story.

Kids obviously don’t drink, but they do participate in other ways - the booing, for one. For kids, a lot of the fun comes in dressing up. This holiday is often called the Jewish Halloween and it’s not an inaccurate comparison. This is the holiday where Jews dress up. A lot of more religious Orthodox Jews won’t celebrate Halloween, but they will celebrate Purim. (Which is interesting, since some of the traditions possibly originate in another Christian tradition -- Carnival, which is around this time of year.)

And who can say no to hamantaschen? The traditional food of Purim, hamantaschen, also called Oznei Haman (Haman’s ears), are meant to represent either Haman’s triangular hat or his triangular ears, depending on who you ask. They’re dough circles filled with various yummy things (poppyseed is the oldest variant, followed by fruit preserves, but stuff like chocolate and nutella are becoming more common), folded into a triangle shape, and baked.

If your characters are buying their hamantaschen instead of making them, they will most likely find packages that come in either raspberry, apricot, prune, a combination of those three, poppyseed, or chocolate. Specialty stores may have more options, but those are the most common. If they make them at home…well, they can use anything they want.

On Purim, we also give mishloach manot, which are bags of food/other fun stuff that are given between friends. They generally include hamantaschen and either wine or grape juice, plus other snacks/toys.

This is also a big tzedakah (charity) day - we’re supposed to give money and gifts to the poor.

As for not actually prescribed but still common things, a lot of synagogues will do a Purim carnival, which is basically a bunch of carnival-type games where kids can play and win prizes. Most of the time kids come in costume. This can be done during the day after the morning Megillah reading or on another date (usually a Sunday for ease of scheduling).

Also common is a Purim Spiel, in which a group of actors will put on a comedic skit or play that in some way relates back to Purim, or at least Judaism. This is often hilarious - for instance, the one I attended last year spoofed Hamilton and Disney with Jewish-related songs, and I laughed so hard I cried. This can be done either before, after, or during the Megillah reading (usually the evening adult-oriented one) or on another date.

Common at colleges/universities is the latke-hamantaschen debate, in which various people (often professors) debate which is better, the latke or the hamantaschen.

They will use their field of study to make their point - such as a math professor, for example, who discusses the inherent perfection of the triangular hamantaschen as opposed to the shapeless latke, or a law professor who points out that the Supreme Court has cited latkes but not hamantaschen, so therefore they are superior. Latkes and hamantaschen are (naturally) served afterwards.

All in all, due to its fun-ness, Purim, like Hanukkah, is a holiday that’s become more popular than it technically warrants. It’s a big deal at schools and colleges, and synagogues find it fun. Your adult characters may not do a lot for it (this year I’ll probably just eat a hamantaschen since I’m working and not taking off), but if your character has kids or is a kid, you’ll definitely want to mention this holiday.

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#judaism #jewishholidays #jewishcharacters #writingjewishcharacters #purim #taanitesther #fastofesther