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2017-03-10

A freylekhn Purim! !א פריילעכן פורים

Purim is the most joyful Jewish holiday. It is celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar, generally in February or March. In 2017 of the Gregorian calendar, it will be celebrated on 12 March.

The holiday commemorates the events described in the Book of Esther. In the 5th century BC, Persian official Haman got angry with a Jew named Mordechai, who refused to bow down to him, so he decided to kill all the Jews living in Persia. He chose the date for the killing, the 14th of Adar, by casting lots, or פור pur in Hebrew (hence the name of the holiday). The extermination was prevented by Mordechai's daughter Esther, who begged the Persian king to change the tragic decision.

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A poster advertising a Purim party organised in the Jewish People's Library in Łuków, 1930, credit: National Library of Poland   

Purim has been celebrated since the 1st century AD, and was initially referred to as the Mordechai Day. The holiday is preceded by a one-day fast held to commemorate Esther's fasting before her visit to the king. Another imperative is to give alms to at least two people in need and offer small gifts to friends and neighbours. They mostly consist of food and drink: sweets, fruit or alcohol.

During Purim, the Book of Esther is read out in synagogues twice from a special parchment scroll. In Orthodox synagogues, women come down from the women's section and listen to the text together with men. When Haman's name is mentioned, the faithful make noise stamping their feet, turning the graggers and shouting. This is because the names of the wicked ones should be blotted out.

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Students of the Poniewież yeshiva during a Purim ball, photo by I. Friem, Panevėžys (Poniewież) / Association of the Jewish Historical Institute of Poland   

This is followed by a Purim dinner which reminds people of the fact that Jews were saved during a feast prepared by Esther. The participants eat Haman's "ears", or hamantaschen, which are triangle-shaped cookies with poppy seed or jam filling. Tradition has it that one can drink until they confuse the words “blessed be Mordechai” with “cursed be Haman”, or until they stop seeing the difference between good and evil.

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A poster advertising a Purim ball in Lublin in 1926, credit: National Library of Poland   

Purim games take the form of carnival, with the characteristic festive "building of an upside-down world". The Purim feast is accompanied by a masquerade, with men being allowed to wear women's dresses and women – men's clothes.

Religious school students write dissertations that explain the principles of faith in absurd ways and criticise their teachers and rabbis.

Purim spiel, a separate literary genre, has also developed. Purim spiels are comic dramatisations of Biblical stories. In the past, Purim spiel troupes went from home to home, giving short performances and asking for money or food. With time, these short performances became the foundation of the modern Jewish theatre. 

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