Purim History

Print this page Print this page

Contemporary Observances

Sarcastic, humorous, and iconoclastic entertainment has become a universal component of Purim celebration. Although written evidence of the Purim shpiel (Yiddish for "Purim play") exists in Europe only from the 14th century, Purim entertainment is likely of ancient origin as well. Since Jewish performers and musicians did not exist as a professional class until the 18th century, Purim shpiels and wedding entertainments are our only source of Jewish popular pursuits for centuries. The biting content of Purim performances and the socializing, mockery, dressing up, and carousing surrounding them often provide an important forum for boundary-crossing on issues of gender, sexuality, authority, and relations with the non-Jewish world. Through satires of the original story in the Book of Esther, Purim performances and religious practices provide an essential and fixed measure of creative release exploring some of the Jewish community's most sensitive topics.

From at least as early as the tenth century, the emergence of "Special Purims"--commemorative days instituted by local Jewish communities employing any number of Purim-related customs--demonstrates Purim's effectiveness as a prototype for engaging larger Jewish concerns in the context of shifting historical events, particularly in the case of communities or families who escaped from serious danger. Both Special Purims and Purim itself have proven particularly useful for adapting traditional Jewish narratives and customs to the changing historical circumstances of the Jewish experience. Each generation has related its own understanding of the Jewish experience to this deceptively simple story of good versus evil and Jewish survival in a distant and hostile land. The myth of Purim lends itself to such reinterpretation because of its timeless and compelling nature.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.