Purim 2021: what is the Jewish festival, the story behind it, how it is celebrated - and how to say Happy Purim

Food and drink are the pillar stones of Purim celebrations, and songs are sung as observers feast on hamantaschen cookies

Jewish school children gather and sit in fancy dress during a schools' annual Purim event (Photo: Shutterstock)
Jewish school children gather and sit in fancy dress during a schools' annual Purim event (Photo: Shutterstock)

From sunset on 25 February until nightfall on the 26th, Jews around the world are celebrating Purim.

Purim is a holiday which commemorates the saving of the Jewish people from Haman, an official of the First Persian Empire who planned to kill all the Jews.

His genocidal scheme was thwarted by Mordecai and his cousin, a Hebrew woman known as Esther after she became queen of Persia; the story of Purim is recounted in the Book of Esther, a book in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh.

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    A traditional food served during Purim are hamantaschen, a triangular biscuit similar to a shortbread, typically filled with a sweet centre (Photo: Shutterstock)

    It’s one of the lesser known Jewish holidays among those who do not practice the religion.

    Here is everything you need to know about it.

    How is Purim celebrated?

    According to the Scroll of Esther, those celebrating Purim "should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor."

    As part of the festivities, wrapped gift baskets of food and drink known as mishloach manot are exchanged with friends and family, and making charitable donations to the poor is encouraged.

    A traditional food served during Purim are hamantaschen, a triangular biscuit similar to a shortbread, typically filled with a sweet centre such as jam or caramel.

    The holiday is centred around the Seudat Purim, a festive meal held typically in the evening, where the wine flows and merriment is high.

    Drunkenness is practically encouraged – particularly among men – during the Seudat, a tradition attributed to a statement in the Talmud (the source of Jewish religious law) attributed to a rabbi named Rava.

    Rava said that a person should drink on Purim until they can "no longer distinguish between arur Haman ('Cursed is Haman') and baruch Mordechai ('Blessed is Mordecai').”

    Other customs include wearing masks and costumes, and public celebrations and parades, although these practises are thought to have been introduced in fairly recent history among the Italian Jews at the end of the 15th century.

    During the holiday of Purim, the story is also read aloud twice: once in the evening and again the following morning.

    When is Purim in 2021?

    Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the Hebrew month of Adar, the twelfth and final month of the Hebrew calendar.

    It is celebrated on this date as it marks the day following the victory of the Jews over their enemies, though in cities that were protected by perimeter walls at the time of the story, it is celebrated a day later, though only Jerusalem and a few other cities still observe the holiday on the later date.

    Since Adar only roughly coincides with the month of March, the date on which it falls – in the eyes of the Gregorian calendar at least – differs, as the two calendar’s differing month lengths mean they do not line-up exactly..

    In 2021, Purim began at Sunset on Thursday 25 February, and will come to a close at nightfall on Friday 26 February.

    What do you say on Purim?

    A common greeting on Purim is to say either “Chag Purim Sameach” (in Hebrew), or “Freilichin Purim” (in Yiddish).

    Both phrases roughly translate as ‘Happy Purim’, though a more exact translation of the Hebrew wording would be, ‘Happy Purim Holiday’.