Purim: The Rowdiest Day of the Year

Tickets to the Jewish Museum’s 31st Annual Purim Ball After Party on sale now

The Jewish Museum’s 31st Annual Purim Ball and After Party takes place this Wednesday, February 22 at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City. Celebrated in the early spring, Purim commemorates the deliverance of Persian Jews from the annihilation planned by King Ahashuerus’s advisor, Haman, in the 5th century BCE. His plot was foiled by the King’s new wife Esther, who was Jewish, and her uncle Mordecai. Over the centuries, Jewish communities have celebrated the anniversary of personal deliverance with Purim rituals that include reading the Book of Esther, feasting, exchanging gifts, and drinking.

On Purim, Jews come together as a community and listen to the reading of the Megilah, also known as the Scroll of Esther, which recounts the story of how Esther saved the Jews from Haman’s insidious plan. For many, it’s a boisterous occasion: Dressed in costume and armed with noisemakers, the revelers drown out Haman’s name with groggers (noisemakers), and jeers while celebrating the victory of Esther and Mordecai. Cookies in the shape of Haman’s infamous triangle hat (like this grogger available in the Jewish Museum Shop) are given away inside traditional gift baskets.

Purim Cup, c. 1690. Silver: engraved and parcel-gilt. Height: 2 3/16 in, Diameter: 1 15/16 in. Gift of Richard Scheuer. 1981–6

There is one other special tradition reserved especially for Purim: Jews are commanded to drink until drunk. This Purim Cup from the Jewish Museum collection is inscribed with the saying of the Talmudic Sage, Rava: “A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’” Maimonides himself said that on Purim: “one should drink wine until he is drunk and falls asleep from drunkenness.”

It is not only food and drink, which aid in the celebration of Purim, but material objects as well. The use of objects in Jewish traditions draws attention to a fascinating dichotomy. In Judaism, icons are forbidden. There can be no idols or depictions of God and prayers cannot be directed to an image or object. Instead, tradition is commemorated with ritual items that are the physical representations of shared history and spiritual significance non-representationally. On Passover for example, it is the Seder plate and the matzah cover; on Sukkot, it is the lulav and the etrog; and on Hanukkah, it is the Hanukkah lamp.

Laurel J. Robinson, Purim Kit 2000, 2000. Wood: burned, painted; glass; brass; printed paper. 18 7/8 × 11 1/2 × 3 1/2 in. Purchase: Dr. Joel and Phyllis Gitlin Judaica Acquisitions Fund. 2002–55

This Purim Set from the Jewish Museum collection features a mask, flask, grogger, and scroll. All of these are used to celebrate the holiday and remember Esther’s story and the central importance of women in the Purim story. The double-sided mask features King Ahasuerus on one side and the story’s heroine, Queen Esther, on the other. The flask, shaped like a woman’s leg and representing Vashti, King Ahasuerus’ first wife who he killed after she refused to parade naked to appease his vanity, appears to be kicking her husband in the face.

These objects are an important element of worship and represent the material culture of Jewish tradition on Purim. Explore their many iterations in the Jewish Museum’s online collection, or browse our selection of Purim groggers and gifts available online and at the Jewish Museum Shop.

Chag Purim! Join us to celebrate Purim early this year at the Jewish Museum’s 31st Annual Purim Ball After Party at the Park Avenue Armory on Wednesday, February 22, 9:30 pm — midnight, for a night of music by DJ Cameron Smalls & Tully, dessert, and open bar. Tickets on sale here.

— Emily Genatowski, Social Media & Digital Marketing Intern