Purim Customs

Mishlo'ah Manot (shelakhmones) and Gifts to the Poor

The custom of sending gifts (Mishlo'ah Manot) leaves its special mark on Purim. Throughout Purim, men and women, young people and children throng the streets, bearing plates, baskets and trays filled with choicest Purim goodies and covered with a fine embroidered napkin. Many of these "messengers" are in disguise and this adds a special beauty to the Purim atmosphere.

In Jerusalem, it was customary for engaged girls to send special, large and sumptuous Mishlo'ah Manot to their future husbands; iced cakes, cookies and confectionery were beautifully arranged on gigantic round trays.

In contemporary Israel, there is a family, neighborhood and even national flavor to Mishlo'ah Manot. They are sent, for instance, to IDF soldiers serving at the front, to border settlements and the needy. Children exchange symbolic Mishlo'ah Manot in the schools, for their enjoyment. There are some who make Mishlo'ah Manot into a parodic, humoristic shpil.
Noise-making upon Mention of Haman's Name
There is a special atmosphere in the synagogue during the Megillah reading. Many of the worshippers bring their own kosher Megillot [scrolls], written on parchment, in strict accordance with halakhah - for fear that otherwise, they might miss a word or two of the reading; they can thus supply the missing word silently from their own Megillah, fulfilling the mitzvah [precept] of hearing it in its entirety.

Children in various disguises grasp all kinds of noise- making utensils, sticks, rattles, Purim pistols and so on, and begin to drown out the name of Haman whenever the reader pronounces the name. Sticks are beaten, rattles are waved, and ear-splitting explosive noises come from the Purim pistols. The tremendous tumult adds to the general joy and gaiety. The reader waits until the noise dies down in order to continue the Megillah reading until the next `Haman".

Another custom was to write Haman's name on one's shoe soles and to stamp one's feet until the oppressor's name was erased.

The custom of making a noise when Haman's name is mentioned is very ancient and widespread throughout the Jewish Diasporas. Some strict rabbis did ban the custom, since it disturbs the reading of the Megillah, but the festive Purim atmosphere triumphed and the custom became deeply rooted in Purim folklore.
Purim Games
Even in Talmudic times, the custom of playing special Purim games in order to increase the rejoicing was widespread. The Talmud tells of an ancient game called "Meshavarta de-Purim", in which wood and tar were burnt in a hole in the ground, and the children would jump over or around the bonfire.

In the period of the Gaonim there was a widespread custom of burning an effigy of the evil Haman and dancing round the bonfire. Some people hung a large ring over the bonfire and the young men hung on it and jumped from one side of the bonfire to the other. Over the centuries other Purim games evolved in various communities, and in particular special Purim plays, such as the selling of Joseph, Jacob and Esau, David and Goliath.

Improvised Purim ensembles would go round the Jewish houses, presenting their plays. The most widespread play was of course "Achashverosh Spiel", in which all the heroes of the Megillah appear, all enacted in verse and accompanied by attractive music.
Venahafoch Hu
The easy, gay atmosphere of Purim gave rise to an abundance of jokes, clowning and humor, based on the Megillah words: "Venahafoch hu" - the opposite happened. In other words, the tables are turned and people joke about everything.
"The Purim Rabbi"
In this context, the custom spread of appointing a "Purim Rabbi". The role of this "Rabbi" is to recite a Purim Torah, frivolously manipulating Biblical and Talmudic tests. The "Purim Rabbi" takes this opportunity to target public personalities and community leaders, satisfying "desires for vengeance" against these "despots", that have accumulated during the year.
Special Purim foods
Hamantashen - the most widespread food on Purim is a special pastry, popularly known as Hamantashen. This is a triangular piece of dough, usually filled with sweetened poppy seeds. The origin of the name is unclear and there are various theories. Some people say that Haman wore a three-cornered hat, and that is why the pocket of dough is triangular. Others refer to the midrash that relates that when Haman entered the King's treasury, he was bent over, covered with shame, and humiliated (literally with clipped ears). Hamantashen also means that Haman's force was exhausted ("tash coho") when he came to harm the Jews, and it is inferred that this will be fate of all those who try to do us harm.

The source of the pastry was apparently poppy seed pockets called "Mantashen". The name was intentionally distorted to "Haman tash" - pockets of Haman. It is a mitzvah to devour Haman with open mouth. Besides Hamantashen, biscuits made of sugar and sweet starch are also widespread on Purim.

Kreplach - mince meat covered with dough, also triangular in shape. The reason for eating kreplach on Purim is implied in two ways, based on initials.
  • KRP - Kippur, Hoshana Rabba, Purim - these are the holidays on which we eat Kreplach, and they are connected with beating and striking (on the eve of Yom Kippur - 39 lashes that the penitents apply to themselves; Hoshana Rabba - striking the Arevot; Purim - striking Haman during the Megillah reading.
  • Based on the verse in the book of Deuteronomy (13:16): "Hakeh takeh et yoshvei ha-ir" (you will surely smite the inhabitants of that city"), and of course in relation to beating and striking: HAKEH TAKEH - Hoshana Rabba, Kippur, Haman - "Tochlu Kreplach Harbeh" (You will eat a lot of Kreplach!!!)
Purim Challah - A special, very large challah with raisins is baked for the Purim meal. Cakes are also baked, that have been kneaded with oil and butter, smeared with egg yolk and decorated with chocolate and sweets.

Purim fish - fish are not prepared on Purim in the same way as for the other festivals. They are usually cooked in vinegar, raisins and spices.

Seeds - several ancient sources make mention of the custom of eating seeds on the eve of Purim in memory of Esther who ate only seeds in the King's palace. This is also the source of the custom of filling the Hamantashen with poppy seeds.

Beans and cereals. In many places people ate beans and cereal on Purim, in memory of the piety of Esther, who ate no forbidden foods in Achashverosh's palace but only cereals. There may also be a reference here to affliction and mourning, which are symbolized by cereals and beans.

Turkey - it is customary to eat turkey ("tarnegol hodu") on Purim, in memory of Achashverosh who reigned from India ("Hodu") to Ethiopia. It is well-known that the turkey was considered a symbol of foolishness in the European nations, and among the Jews in general, and there is a reference to Achashverosh's foolishness here.
The custom of wearing disguises on Purim is extremely ancient. It was particularly prevalent in Italy. As early as four hundred years ago and even earlier Rabbi Yehuda Mintz wrote in his "Responsa" that men should be allowed to wear women's clothing on Purim, although the Ashkenazi rabbis absolutely forbade this. Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (`Bayit Hadash") in Poland bitterly opposed the permission given by Rabbi Yehuda Mintz in relation to Purim disguises, which went against the verse in the book of Deuteronomy (22: 5):

"a woman shall not wear a man's garment, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment".

He also cautioned against men wearing masks so that they not be recognized, this being forbidden both on Purim and at weddings. The book of customs of the Worms community describes the manner in which Purim was celebrated in the following way: "On the Shabbat before Purim, early in the morning, the young men go to a house far from the synagogue, where they put on the outer Shabbat coats called sidecoats, that have the right sleeve sewn. Each of them wears a pointed hat on his head. When they leave the house, they go in pairs, hand in hand. A servant boy precedes them, clad in a clown's attire, and he dances and acts the fool..."

In our times, the most conspicuous external revelation of Purim is the wearing of fancy dress, mainly by children, although adolescents and adults do sometimes dress up in public or to participate in a masked party.