Purim Plays and Carnivals

Creative ways that fulfill the religious obligation to have fun.


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The joyous nature of the Purim celebration often carries a serious message behind the smile.  The Purim Shpiel often takes a look at world politics with various world leaders playing the roles of heroes and villains. By offering a mocking commentary, the Purim Shpiel presents a Jewish version of political justice in the world. 

Despite the relatively minor nature of the festival of Purim, it has assumed far greater proportions and significance in popular Jewish culture. purim quizIt is often celebrated as if it were a major Jewish holiday. On the surface of it, the events of Purim–recounted in the biblical book of Esther–are about a near catastrophe in ancient Persia. The Jews, about to be attacked, end up turning the tables on their enemies and end up the victors. Therefore, the date of Purim became an opportunity for celebration of this miraculous turn of events. 

Early on, the Talmud records that Purim was a date of celebrations and riotous parties. In the Talmudic tractate entitled Megillah (megillah means “scroll,” referring to the scroll of Esther) the ancient Rabbis passed along a longstanding tradition that in order to celebrate the victory of Purim, everyone is supposed to drink alcohol and reach the point where they are unable to differentiate between the phrases “Bless Mordecai” and “Curse Haman”(Megillah 7a). While the dictum of consuming alcohol may not be palatable to everyone today, drinking (at least for the adults!) and merriment remain a traditional aspect of Purim celebrations.

Even though Purim is a religious opportunity for young and old to celebrate together, the celebration of Purim has been commonly relegated to a children’s event. Many synagogues today celebrate Purim by holding a Purim fair or carnival. This is an opportunity to set up booths with games, give prizes, and serve holiday foods. And the highlight of any Purim celebration is the Purim Shpiel.

Israeli children dressed up for Purim.

The Purim Shpiel

Shpiel is a Yiddish word meaning a “play” or “skit.” A Purim shpiel is actually a dramatic presentation of the events outlined in the book of Esther. Featuring the main characters, such as King Ahasuerus, Mordecai, Esther, and the wicked Haman, the Purim shpiel was a folk-inspired custom providing an opportunity for crowds to cheer the heroes (Mordecai and Esther) and boo the villains (Haman). It is a staple of many modern synagogue Purim celebrations for children to attend the ritual chanting of the book of Esther and Purim carnivals dressed in costumes depicting these main characters.

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Rabbi Daniel Kohn, a native of St. Louis, Missouri, was ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1991. He is the author of several books on Jewish education and spirituality who currently writes and teaches throughout the San Francisco Bay area.

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