What is Purim?

Purim reminds us of the capriciousness of life, the recognition of the reality that no matter how hard we work to control our lives. There is more chaos than order in this world. Amazingly, Judaism tells us to respond to this terrifying reality simultaneously with revelry and with a renewed commitment to social change. We can’t control history, but we must control how we treat humanity.

There are four primary mitzvot with which we observe the Purim holiday. Three of them are taken straight from the 9th chapter of the Book of Esther:

“These days in which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes, and the same month that had been one of grief and mourning was transformed into one of joy and celebration. They made these days of feasting and merrymaking, sending food to one another, and giving gifts to the poor.” (Esther 9:22)


So every year on Purim, we:

1. Have a festive meal.
With anyone in your pod, this year.

2. Send mishloah manot, sweet treats to our loved ones.
Did you get yours from IKAR this year? It’s one of the perks of membership!

3. Give matanot l’evyonim, tzedakah to those in need.
Our mishloah manot package has tools to help with this as well!

And then, the last mitzvah of Purim is the telling of the story itself, which we do by:
4. Reading the Megillah, once at night, and once again during the day.

Megillat Esther – often called simply ‘The Megillah’ – tells a story set in Shushan, the capital of Ancient Persia (circa 5th century BCE). The witless, bumbling, narcissistic King Ahashverosh has thrown a week-long drinking party for members of the royal court, and the only rule is: no limits.

(Are you getting the vibe here?)

Reeling from too much wine, the king orders Queen Vashti to parade herself in front of his friends (wearing nothing but a tiara, the story goes). Vashti, God bless her, has the self-respect to refuse – but it costs her the crown (and maybe her life?).

In search of a new queen, King Ahashverosh holds a beauty contest. Women from all over the country are assembled at the capital, and it turns out that the most beautiful woman in all the land is a nice Jewish girl named Esther. (Who knew?!) The king takes her as his new queen, but on the advice of her Uncle Mordekhai, she does not reveal that she is a Jew.

Meanwhile, Uncle Mordekahai gets into some trouble when he refuses to bow down to one of the king’s advisors, the villain of our story: Haman. (Booooooooo!) Haman, outraged, retaliates by convincing the king to let him exterminate all the Jews because, he says, “their ways are different from any other people,” and they will never be fully loyal to the King. That’s all King Ahashverosh needs to get onboard with genocide, and he gives Haman permission to kill all the Jews.

Faced with this imminent threat, Mordekhai suddenly changes his tune on Esther’s hidden Jewish identity. You must reveal yourself, he tells her, and convince the king to save our people. “Who knows?” he says in a nod to fate, “maybe you are in the position you’re in for just for this reason!”

Now let’s be clear, Esther is being asked to do something very dangerous here. Just remember what happened to the last queen who confronted this king! But Esther is just the hero this moment needs. She summons her courage and risks her life for her people.

Well, it worked, or we wouldn’t be here telling the story today. Ahasverosh is compelled to save the people of his beloved queen. But he doesn’t just call off the order to kill the Jews; he instead grants them permission to defend themselves and take revenge on their enemies. And – to our great shock

– that’s exactly what they do. Not only do the Jews hang Haman and all his sons, they put thousands of their enemies to the sword.

And so our story ends as it began: with a big ol’ party. The day the Jews of Shushan survived genocide becomes a day of celebration for generations to come– feasting, sending sweet treats (mishloah manot) to friends and giving generously to those most in need (matanot l’evyonim).

But we are left, in very Jewish fashion, with more questions than answers: What is the nature of Jewish vulnerability? Is there really such a thing as pure good and pure evil? Are beauty and power a hero’s virtues? Is there a more responsible way to wield power than doing to our enemies what they would have done to us? And where was God in all of this madness?

So lift a glass and join Jews around the world in questioning, debating, celebrating, and embracing life. L’hayim!

On the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending foodstuffs to one another and gifts to the poor.

Esther 9:22


One must send to one’s friend two portions of meat, or other kinds of food, as it says in Esther, “sending foodstuffs to one another.” Two items to one person is the obligation. But anyone who sends more is praiseworthy. If one has none, one can trade with their friend, this one sending to that one his meal, and this one sending to that one her meal, so that they can fulfill the mitzvah of “sending foodstuffs to one another.” 

Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 695:4