The Four “Memim”: Purim Customs and Traditions

This resource deals with the four main customs on Purim – mishteh (a feast), mikra megillah (reading Megillat Esther), matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and mishloach manot (gifts to friends) – and the values of mutual responsibility reflected in them.

Resource Ages: 9-11, 12-14


And Mordechai recorded these things and sent letters to all the Jews […] to establish an annual celebration on the 14th and 15th days of the month of Adar, as a time when the Jews could rest from their enemies during this month when they went from grief to happiness, from mourning to holiday, and to make these into days of celebration and joy, of sending presents to one another and giving gifts to the poor […]

And these days are remembered and celebrated by every generation, family, province and city, so that the days of Purim will not lose their significance for the Jews and will always be remembered. 

Megillat Esther, chapter 10, verses 20-28

וַיִּכְתֹּב מָרְדֳּכַי אֶת הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים אֶל כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים […]. לְקַיֵּם עֲלֵיהֶם לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת יוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר וְאֵת יוֹם חֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה. כַּיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיֹנִים. […]

וְהַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה נִזְכָּרִים וְנַעֲשִׂים בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר מִשְׁפָּחָה וּמִשְׁפָּחָה מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וְעִיר וָעִיר, וִימֵי הַפּוּרִים הָאֵלֶּה לֹא יַעַבְרוּ מִתּוֹךְ הַיְּהוּדִים וְזִכְרָם לֹא יָסוּף מִזַּרְעָם.

Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • How am I an important part of my community?
  • How do I grow as a result of the Jewish calendrical cycle?
  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • What are the Jewish values (e.g., freedom, responsibility, justice, community, respect of diversity etc.) that should be honored in an ideal society?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • What is the meaning and social significance behind the Purim customs?
  • How are various values expressed on Purim?

Background for Teacher

The holiday of Purim is a holiday that was established by Chazal (Our Sages) and isn’t Biblical. The holiday commemorates events that occurred, according to tradition, during the days of exile after the destruction of the First Temple, under the Kingdom of Persia. According...

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The holiday of Purim is a holiday that was established by Chazal (Our Sages) and isn’t Biblical. The holiday commemorates events that occurred, according to tradition, during the days of exile after the destruction of the First Temple, under the Kingdom of Persia. According to Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), in which the events are described, the Jewish people were subjected to a decree of destruction from which they were saved, and this rescue is celebrated on Purim. Descriptions of mutual responsibility between the Jews can be found in the megillah; for example, that all of the Jews living in the city of Shushan participated in a fast that Esther took upon herself before she approached King Ahasuerus about the fate of her people. This value of mutual responsibility helped the Jews to both deal with the evil decree and indeed to defeat it, and it is also one of the values commemorated on Purim through the customs of the holiday.

The four main customs on Purim are commonly called “the four ‘memim’” because their names begin with the Hebrew letter “mem”. These customs are: mishteh (feast), mikra megillah (reading the Book of Esther), matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor) and mishloach manot (sending presents to one another). The passage quoted above, from the end of Megillat Esther, describes how when Esther and Mordecai wrote the events that led them to establish the holiday of Purim, they also established the customs of the holiday. Maimonides (Hilchot Megillah, chapter 2) detailed the laws of the holiday as follows:

    1. Matanot L’evyonim (gifts to the poor) – giving a sum of money or food to those in need on Purim day. We need to give to at least two people, ideally as much as we can.
    2. Mishteh (feast) – a festive meal that takes place on Purim day, during which it is customary to drink alcohol. 
    3. Mishloach Manot (sending gifts to friends) – this involves giving two different types of food to at least one friend for the purpose of the festive meal. 
    4. Mikra Megillah (reading the Book of Esther) it is customary to read Megillat Esther on the evening and morning of Purim. Unlike the other three commandments, reading the megillah is not explicitly mentioned in the text of the megillah, but our Sages determined that it is implied in the words “and these days are remembered.”

Maimonides also emphasized the aspect of mutual responsibility on the holiday, as reflected in its customs. He wrote: “It is better for a person to give many gifts to the poor than to have a big feast or to send many presents to one another – because there is no joy greater or more exalted than bringing happiness to the hearts of poor people, widows, orphans and converts. Whoever brings joy to the hearts of the unfortunate brings godliness.”

In fact, this value of mutual responsibility is seen in all the customs of the holiday. When reading the megillah, everyone sits together and reads a story that emphasizes the importance of connecting to and caring for people and which led to their rescue. When sending gifts to friends, we give food for the purpose of a festive meal. And, of course, giving gifts to the poor means giving to those in need so that they too can experience joy. This teaches us that even the festive meal should take place in a way that allows all to enjoy it, and there shouldn’t be a situation in which someone is unable to participate.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
Further Study
How to Do It?

Show the students this slideshow presentation with pictures that represent the Purim customs and ask them what these four pictures have in common. The answer is that they all commemorate Purim, they are all mentioned or hinted to in Megillat Esther, and they all begin with the same letter – the Hebrew letter “mem”, or “M” in English transliteration.  

We will now discuss these traditions and their meanings. 

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

  1. Why do you think Mordechai and Esther established customs to commemorate Purim? Why did they choose these specific customs?
  2. How do the Purim customs connect to the Purim story?
  3. How is the value of mutual responsibility related to the holiday story? How is the value of mutual responsibility expressed in the holiday customs?
  4. What other values do we learn from the Purim customs? Which of these values is especially important to you?
  5. Maimonides emphasized that giving gifts to the poor is more important than the other customs of the holiday, because there is no greater joy than bringing joy to those in need. What’s the connection between happiness and giving to those in need? Have you ever experienced joy after doing an act of tzedaka?
  6. Unlike most other holidays, in which the commandments of the holiday can usually be observed even if one lives on a desert island and celebrates the holiday alone, the Purim customs focus on relationships between people in the community. What can we learn from this about the values of the holiday? What can we learn from these customs about our attitude to community life and our relationships with others? How can we apply the value of community, as learned from the Purim customs, to our daily lives, as well?
  • Teach the students about the rule that at least two different dishes should be included in the mishloach manot. Suggest to the students that they make mishloach manot to give to each other in which each dish symbolizes a different holiday value. For example, one dish can be something meant to bring joy to the receiver and symbolize the value of joy on the holiday, while the second dish can be something meant to help the receiver and symbolize the value of mutual responsibility. You can suggest that they make symbolic mishloach manot from “dishes” that are not foods, like gift certificates or (for example, a joke gift certificate, in which the giver promises to tell their friend a joke when they redeem the gift certificate, can symbolize the value of joy, while a gift certificate to help with homework can symbolize the value of mutual responsibility).
  • Think of a non-profit or charity organization with whose goals you identify. Have the students organize a campaign to collect donations for the organization in preparation for Purim, as part of the mitzvah of matanot l’evyonim. For example, students can collect recyclable bottles and donate the deposit money, bake and sell cookies to raise money for the organization; etc.
  • Expand further with the resource Megillat Esther – Story of​​ the Holiday (for ages 6-11).
  • Play for the students a recording of Megillat Esther being read, including the Moroccan version performed by Hila Cohen-Chesla. You can listen a few times and learn how to sing select verses according to the trope melody.
  • Ask the students to think about an activity or game that they can all do together to help increase mutual responsibility in the class (for example, have them make a bulletin board where students can either ask for help or offer help; at the beginning of each class have the students tell about some help they received from another student in the class, etc).