Purim Customs and Traditions
In addition to services performed in the synagogue, Jews observe a number of traditions and customs during the Purim holiday. Though practices vary, the common thread woven through all of them is the emphasis on the celebration of Purim as a day to rejoice and commemorate the deliverance of the Jews from the hands of Haman. Although no formal ruling prohibits work on Purim, Jews do try to take the day off in order to fully observe the holiday.
A Day to Imbibe
On Purim, it is a mitzvah to eat, drink, and be merry. In fact, tradition encourages Purim partiers to keep drinking until they can no longer distinguish between “blessed be Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman”! Of course, nobody needs to drink so much as to become seriously ill or violate other mitzvot, but otherwise, feel free to imbibe the finest kosher wine or Maccabee beer, and know you are carrying out a mitzvah. And although it is not officially a mitzvah yet, be sure to find a designated driver!
Many Jewish holidays boast special and sumptuous foods prepared for a particular historical or symbolic reason, and in this regard Purim is no different. A festive meal is appropriate at dinnertime following evening synagogue services, and another one the following day, after the morning service.
However, the primary holiday meal is served late in the afternoon after Mincha (the afternoon service). This meal is called the Purim Seudah. At this meal, observant Jews should eat bread and at least one cooked food, drink at least one cup of wine, and dine on anything else they desire.
Hamentaschen, traditional Purim pastries
The traditional food eaten on Purim is a delightful pastry called hamentaschen (Yiddish for “Haman's pockets”) or oznei Haman (Hebrew for “Haman's ears”). These pastries are triangular cookies that are usually filled with fruit jam or poppy seeds. The three-corner shape of these cookies represents the type of hat Haman is said to have worn, or perhaps his funny-shaped ears.
As you already know, tzedakah is an integral part of Judaism. Several tzedakah traditions are practiced specifically during Purim. For instance, a special mitzvah originates from a passage in the Megillah, which quotes Mordecai's declaration that Purim is a time “of feasting and gladness and of sending food to one another, as well as gifts to the poor.”
As a result, it is now a Purim tradition to send baskets or packages of food to friends and relatives. These packages of food are called mishloach manot in Hebrew and Shalach-manos in Yiddish (in both cases, a literal translation is “sending out portions”). These packages may be as simple or as elegant as you wish, but they must contain at least two different types of food that are prepared and ready to be eaten.
Mordecai also instituted the practice of Matanot L'evyonim (gifts for those in need), which requires making gifts to the poor and donations to charitable organizations. In fact, you should give charity to anyone who asks, with the hope that God will act likewise in responding to your prayers.