The story of Purim (Hebrew for lots) is told in Bible in the Book of Esther. In the 4th century BCE, a powerful Persian king named Ahasueros was having an elaborate feast. His wife, Vashti, was having her own feast for the woman. The king sent seven eunuchs to bring her to his feast, but she declined. The king was angry and he met with his advisors who said that Vashti needs to be punished; otherwise, the women in Persia will show contempt to their husbands as well.
The king bans Vashti and then has all the beautiful, unmarried women brought to the palace so that he can choose the best one to be his new wife. He selects Esther, not knowing that she is Jewish.
Mordechai, Esther’s kinsman, overhears two eunuchs discussing the assassination of the king. Mordechai sends word to Esther who reports it to the king; the king is saved and the two eunuchs are executed.
In Ahasueros’ kingdom is Haman, whom the king has elevated to the highest rank in his court. Mordechai would not bow down before Haman who was so enraged that he plotted to kill all the Jews in Persia, starting with Mordechai. By lotteries (i.e., purim), Haman determined the month and day of the genocide: the 13th day of the month of Adar (the 12th month of the year). He even convinced the king to make this a royal decree.
When Mordechai heard this, he told Esther that she had to disclose to the king that she is Jewish. Taking her life into her hand, she presented herself to the king and invited him and Haman to a feast. At the feast, she disclosed that she is Jewish. The king then condemns Haman to die on the same gallows that he had planned for Mordechai.
Even a great king cannot cancel his own decree, but he did allow the Jews to fight back, and so they did. The Jews prevailed and we continue to celebrate Purim. We remember the bravery of Esther and our victory.
We celebrate Purim on the 14th of Adar (the day after Haman’s choice), with the 13th of Adar being the Fast of Esther – a minor fast day. We have four responsibilities on Purim: (1) reading of the Megillah (the Esther scroll), (2) giving gifts to the poor –usually food (mishloach manot), (3) Charity for the poor (matanot l’evyonim) , (4) having a festive meal (seudat Purim).
During the reading of the Megillah, every time Haman’s name is read, it is to be drowned out by shouting and noisemakers (called groggers). Many synagogues perform a Purimspiel – a burlesque of the story of Esther. The Book of Esther does not mention G-d, which is probably why it is not sacrilegious but joyful to mock it.
The foods we eat and share usually include a triangular pastry called Hamentaschen (Yiddish for Haman’s ears). At the festive meal, the Talmud tells us that we are allowed to drink so much that we cannot tell the difference between Cursed is Haman and Blessed is Mordechai (this practice is no longer encouraged).
Most importantly, Purim is about our redemption and survival despite a powerful army that was intent to destroy us.