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Purim is the festival of joy and good fellowship. It is also a commemoration of the victory of the Jewish people over Haman, the evil Prime Minister of King Achashvayrosh in ancient Persia. It tells the story of Esther and Mordechai and their brave campaign to save the Jewish people from massacre.
Purim's Threefold Charge
...and the month was changed unto them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning into a feast day: to make them days of entertainment and joy, of sending portions one to the other, and giving gifts to the needy. -- The Book of Esther 9:22
Happy, Sweet Celebration
To celebrate this turn of events and the happy deliverance of the Jews, Mordechai and Esther sent letters to all Jewish settlements, urging them to establish an annual festival to be observed on the 14th day of Adar. Today, we celebrate this wonderful holiday in happy ways -- reunions, masquerades, dances, and festivals.
Foods: As always, this holiday presents special food. Because Purim is the last festival before Passover, in days of stored dry goods, Jewish women would us up all of the year's flour and yeast to make deep-fried and baked pastries. Most popular are hamantaschen and kreplach (meat-filled cakes). Both are shaped like Haman's triangular shaped hat, the symbol of his high office. Legend also has it that hamantaschen (Haman's Pockets) are so named to remind us that Haman was prepared to pay out of this own pocket (tasch) for the annihilation of the Jews. During the afternoon of Purim, some families plan a Purim Seudah, a thanksgiving feast, in commemoration of the great rescue.
Activities: We also celebrate with the reading of the Megillah, the Book of Esther, as we arrive in costume to engage in booing, hissing, and winding noisy graggers whenever the Rabbi mentions the name of the evil Haman. We watch Purimspiels (Purim plays) to incite merrymaking and celebrating the day.
Sending two types of ready-to-eat food to at least one friend fulfills this law. This mitzvah should be performed on Purim day itself. Some Jews send Mishloach Manot through a third-party messenger, since the word Mishloach is related to the word for messenger, Sh'liach.
Giving money to at least two poor people on the day of Purim fulfills this lay. The gift should at least equal the value of a fast food meal. This is not a "family" obligation, but rather each person should perform the mitzvah him/herself. The money needn't be given directly to a poor person, but can be given to a community representative, as long as the money is actually distributed to the poor on Purim day. Matanot La'evyonim is a special mitzvah, not to be included with money a person sets aside for charity during the rest of the year. Maimonides writes that it is in appropriate to buy expensive Mishloach Manot, if this will come at the expense of larger gifts to the poor.