Purim painting, untitled. Safed, Israel, 19th century. Hasidic Jews celebrating Purim with a Sephardic Jew (left). The inscription is part of a passage from the Talmud urging Jews to imbibe enough alcohol so that they will not know the difference between the phrases “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” Collection of Isaac Einhorn, Tel Aviv. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource NY)

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A minor Jewish festival observed annually on the fourteenth of the Jewish month of Adar (February or March in the Gregorian calendar), Purim (Pirem in Polish dialects of Yiddish) celebrates the survival of the Jews of Persia despite a plot to annihilate them, and is the only Jewish holiday originally established in the Diaspora. The biblical Scroll of Esther recounts the story, including details about the instigation of the plot by a villainous official, Haman, and the Jews’ successful turning of the tables against their enemies.

Purim is a joyous day in the Jewish calendar: drinking and merrymaking are encouraged and studies are suspended. The principal observance is the public reading of the megile (Heb., megilah), the Scroll of Esther. There is a festive afternoon meal, and part of the holiday is devoted to exchanging gifts and giving charity. The importance of Purim to the psyche of Jews in Eastern Europe is best illustrated by the many accounts of Purim in yizker-bikher (memorial books) and by the fondness and warmth with which writers from all walks of life have remembered the holiday.

Jews in Eastern Europe added their own practices and traditions to the celebration of Purim. The megile-leyenen—the prescribed chanting of the Scroll of Esther twice, in the evening and morning of Purim—was the most popular community event for the holiday, and brought children and adults to the synagogue. Jews there continued the practice of the reader unfolding the entire scroll on the desk in front of him, so that reciting from it resembled the reading of a letter. (This custom was intended to remind the congregation of the letters that Queen Esther and Mordechai wrote to the Jewish community, as recounted in the Scroll of Esther.) Special megile readings in Hebrew with a Yiddish translation were sometimes arranged at homes for women who were unable to attend the regular service in the synagogue but still were required by Jewish law to hear the recitation.

Manin Rudich (second from left) with friends at a Purim ball organized by the Democratic Jewish Community (the Jewish section of the Communist Party in Romania), Braşov, Romania, 1947. (Centropa)

Jews in Eastern Europe perfected the craft of making rattles that were used for drowning out Haman’s name every time it was mentioned during the reading of the megile. (This was to fulfill the biblical obligation [Deut. 25:19] to erase the memory of Amalek, whom rabbinic tradition considered to be Haman’s ancestor.) The noisemaker was called a grager or gregar in Yiddish (Pol., grzégarz, from the property of being smooth and shiny). A variety of noisemakers were created by children in heders as well as by skilled craftsmen. Especially popular among children in the interwar years were gragers made of metal keys, nails, and powders that exploded when they touched the floor. Adults, in turn, often shuffled their feet when the name of Haman was mentioned. Some rabbis protested against the uproarious excesses occasioned by the noisemakers. In the city of Góra-Kalwaria, Poland, the use of gragers was prohibited in the eighteenth century for a different reason: a woman suffered a miscarriage following the explosion of a noisemaker.

For the exchange of gifts, or shalakhmones (Heb., mishloaḥ manot), prescribed on Purim, Jews in Eastern Europe generally gave home-baked goods; cooked meat and fish were usually reserved as presents for rabbis. The shalakhmones was delivered on plates covered with embroidered cloth by the shalakhmones-treger (shalakhmones carrier), often a yeshiva student who received a small amount of money for performing the task. In the joyous spirit of Purim, shalakhmones-tregers often snatched plates from one another. It was a custom for future brides and grooms to send shalakhmones to each other. In observant communities, the gifts were usually religious books. Jews in Eastern Europe also gave charity to the poor—matanot la-evyonim—on Purim, sometimes even to non-Jews. In addition, well-to-do members of the community sent money to teachers and rabbis.

The festive meal, or purim-sude (pirem-side), was celebrated by members of the family around a table with wine, schnapps, and special foods associated with Purim. These included a gigantic Purim challah (koyletsh); hamantaschen (lit., “Haman’s pockets”), three-cornered pastries filled with poppy seeds or jellied fruits; and kreplach, triangular meat-filled dumplings that were thought to resemble Haman’s hat, served in soup. Purim performers sometimes visited houses during the purim-sude to entertain participants with short plays and music.

Kabbalists and Hasidim created a link between Purim, a lesser festival in the Jewish calendar, and Yom Kippur, the most important day of the year. They saw a paronomastic connection between the Hebrew word for atonement, kipurim, which could be taken to mean “like Purim” (ke-Purim), and the holiday of Purim. Hasidim attributed auspicious qualities to the festival—when, they taught, as on Yom Kippur, God is more attentive to petition. On Purim, Hasidim conducted elaborate feasts known as the trink-side, modeled after the mishteh ha-yayin, the “wine banquet,” described in the Scroll of Esther.

“Mishloaḥ Manot: The people of Israel to the Land of Israel.” Fund-raising coupon issued by the Keren Kayemet (Jewish National Fund) during Purim. On the Jewish holiday of Purim, it is customary to send mishloaḥ manot (food baskets) to friends, family, and the poor, and to make charitable donations. A donor from Vilna received this coupon in exchange for a donation of 1,000 marks. (YIVO)

The Jewish masses in Eastern Europe welcomed the rabbinic injunction to be joyful on Purim and celebrated Purim with many kinds of merrymaking, often with behaviors that were reversals of everyday conduct. Purim enabled Jews to let off steam and uplift their spirits with feasting, drinking, masquerading, and the performance of plays and skits.

Wearing costumes was part of the early history of the Purim celebration in Eastern Europe. Male students at heders and yeshivas often wore costumes and even cross-dressed with clothing borrowed from their mothers and sisters. Through the genius of folk humor, East European Jewish folk enacted ritualized subversions of the official worldview and social order. In some places they chose a Purim king; in others, a Purim rabbi. Particularly famous Purim rabbis were selected in the Lithuanian yeshivas, and they were expected to deliver humorous sermons for the occasion.

The performance of purim-shpils (or pirem-shpiln; Purim plays) constituted another kind of merrymaking. Purim-shpils revolved around both biblical and nonbiblical themes, elaborate and simple, and were produced by artisans as well as yeshiva students. In the interwar years, modern Jewish elementary schools, high schools, and teacher seminaries, both religious and secular, produced and performed Purim plays in Hebrew and Yiddish. Consistent with the reversal theme of Purim, Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers also printed special editions for the day, often including parodic and satirical critiques of Jewish and world politics.

Across time and in many different locations in Eastern Europe, Purim also became a source of both religious and nonreligious artistic and literary inspiration and creativity. Jews there did not paint and decorate their megiles with scenes from the story of Esther, as did some communities in Central Europe. They did, however, innovate a unique style of composition, referred to as hamelekh-megile, “the king’s megilah.” Each leaf in this text started with the word hamelekh, which means “the king” and can also refer to God. Since God’s name is absent from the text, starting each leaf with hamelekh was a way to nonetheless emphasize God’s presence.

Wall decoration used on Purim. Eastern Europe, 1939. The Hebrew inscriptions read, (top) "When Adar comes, we increase rejoicing" (Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit 4, 29a) and (center), "To life, Luck, Adar, Fish." The toast "L'Khayim" (To Life) refers to the Talmudic injunction to drink "ad d'lo yodah" on Purim, until one cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordekhai. Fish, associated with Pisces, the astrological sign for the month of Adar, are also symbols of abundance. (Moldovan Family Collection)

Jews of Eastern Europe developed a variety of megile cases made from silver and wood and engraved with scenes from the Scroll of Esther. In Galicia, Purim plaques were painted to announce the holiday with depictions of fish, corresponding to the zodiac sign of the month of Adar; these were hung in homes, schools, and synagogues (see image at left).

Jews in Eastern Europe, as in other regions, established special local Purims to commemorate the survival of specific communities and families in the face of destruction and annihilation. Scrolls describing an event in question were written. Examples of special Purims include Purim Katan of Mezhbizh (Międzyboż), established in 1648 to commemorate the survival of the community from the army of Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi and observed on the Eleventh of Tevet; Purim Katan of Ostre (Ostróg), established in the 1730s and observed on the Twenty-Third of Nissan, commemorating the saving of the community from a pogrom; Purim Katan of Kovno, established in 1783 and observed on the Seventh of Adar, commemorating the sparing of the community during the Russian–Polish war; and Purim of Vilna, established in 1794 and observed on the Fifteenth of Av, commemorating the survival of the community during the same war. An example of a family Purim was that of the family of Avraham Danzig of Vilna, established in 1804 and observed on the Fifteenth of Kislev, which celebrated the survival of the family when their house was demolished after the explosion of a powder magazine.

Jews in Eastern Europe continued to celebrate Purim during World War II, often risking their lives to observe the holiday in ghettos, concentration camps, and death camps. Purim was also one of the first holidays to be observed post–World War II by inmates of displaced persons camps who found in Purim a way of celebrating their survival during the Holocaust.

Suggested Reading

Shifra Epstein, Purim: The Face and the Mask; Essays and Catalogue of an Exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum (New York, 1979); Philip Goodman, The Purim Anthology (Philadelphia, 1973).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1,2, YIVO (Vilna): Ethnographic Committee, Records, 1911-1940; RG 683, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Collection, ca. 1900-1970s.