Purim (Hebrew: פּוּרִים, Pûrîm “lots”, from the word pur, related to Akkadian pūru) is a Jewish holiday that commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in the ancient Persian Empire from destruction in the wake of a plot by Haman, a story recorded in the Biblical Book of Esther (Megillat Esther).

Reading of the Megillah

Purim in the streets of Jerusalem

The first religious ceremony ordained for the celebration of Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther (the “Megillah”) in the synagogue, a regulation ascribed in the Talmud (Megillah 2a) to the Sages of the Great Assembly, of which Mordecai is reported to have been a member. Originally this enactment was for the 14th of Adar only; later, however, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (3rd century CE) prescribed that the Megillah should also be read on the eve of Purim. Further, he obliged women to attend the reading of the Megillah, in as much as it was a lady, Queen Esther, through whom the miraculous deliverance of the Jews was accomplished.

In the Mishnah, the recitation of a benediction on the reading of the Megillah is not yet a universally recognized obligation. However, the Talmud, a later work, prescribed three benedictions before the reading and one benediction after the reading. The Talmud added other provisions. For example, the reader is to pronounce the names of the ten sons of Haman (Esther 9:7–10) in one breath, to indicate their simultaneous death. The congregation was to recite aloud with the reader the verses 2:5, 8:15–16, and 10:3, which relate the origin of Mordecai and his triumph.

The Megillah is read with a cantillation (a traditional chant) differing from that used in the customary reading of the Torah. Besides the traditional cantillation, there are several verses or short phrases in the Megillah that are chanted in a different chant, the chant that is traditional for the reading of the book of Lamentations. These verses are particularly sad, or they refer to Jews being in exile. When the Megillah reader jumps to the melody of the book of Lamentations for these phrases, it heightens the feeling of sadness in the listener.

In some places, the Megillah is not chanted, but is read like a letter, because of the name iggeret (“epistle”), which is applied (Esther 9:26,29) to the Book of Esther. It has been also customary since the time of the early Medieval era of the Geonim to unroll the whole Megillah before reading it, in order to give it the appearance of an epistle. According to halakha (Jewish law), the Megillah may be read in any language intelligible to the audience.

According to the Mishnah (Megillah 30b), Exodus 17:8–16, the story of the attack on the Jews by Amalek, the progenitor of Haman, is also to be read.