Purim is one of the festive days of the year on which there is no prohibition against work. Like Chanukah, Chazal did not decree that one may not work on Purim, and (also like Chanukah) there are no prohibited labors (as there are on Chol Hamoe’d).
However, the story of work on Purim is not as simple as it may seem. While there is no prohibition against work nor any forbidden labors, there is a wealth of halachic material concerning the issues. In the present article we will discuss the different elements of work and labor that involve some level of restriction on Purim. And while it is permitted to work, we will see that often it is not advisable.
Permission to Work
The Gemara (Megillah 5b) mentions that Rebbi planted a tree on Purim, and notes that Rav Yosef questioned the matter: Surely Chazal enacted that the day should be a day of “joy and feast and festival,” and the word “festival” (yom tov) implies that labor is forbidden? The Gemara responds, after some discussion, that even though initially they wanted to make Purim a festival, in the end “they accepted upon themselves only a prohibition against eulogy and fasting, but not a prohibition of labor.”
Concerning an anecdote of Rav, who cursed somebody he saw planting flax on Purim, the Gemara explains that this was special to Rav’s location, where it was customary to refrain from work on Purim. This is an example of “things that are permitted, but others have the custom of prohibiting them.”
This principle is ruled by the Rambam (Megillah 2:14), the Rosh (Megillah 1:8) and the Shulchan Aruch (696:1), who states: “On Purim it is permitted to perform labor.” However, based on the above Gemara, the Shulchan Aruch adds that “in places where the custom is not to work, it is forbidden.”
The Orchos Chaim (Purim 27) notes that the general custom is not to work on Purim. This is echoed by the Kol Bo and noted by the Rema (696:1), who writes: “Today the custom in all places is to refrain from work.”
The Orchos Chaim goes so far as to write that because the custom against work has become ubiquitous, we excommunicate (cherem) anybody who works on Purim. This is also mentioned by the Aruch Hashulchan (696:2). However, other authorities write that working on Purim does not warrant so severe a punishment (see Kol Bo; Eliyah Rabba 696:1; Peri Megadim, M.Z. 1).
Moreover, the Birchei Yosef (696:2) writes that according to most Poskim it is not a universal custom, but rather depends on the specific location and its custom. The Rambam and Shulchan Aruch also do not note a universal custom, implying that the matter depends on local custom. These rulings imply that for Sefardim the matter of working on Purim is less severe than it is for Ashkenazim, who follow the ruling of the Rema.
Even if we assume that it is forbidden to work on Purim (based on the ubiquitous custom), the Peri Megadim writes that the prohibition does not apply on the night of Purim, but only during the day of Purim. This matter is disputed, and the Biur Halacha cites both opinions. Since the prohibition is only by force of custom, one can be lenient about work at night, even for those who are stringent to refrain from work by day.
The Magen Avraham (1) adds that even where the customary prohibition applies, it remains permitted to do things by means of a non-Jew. This is also ruled by the Mishnah Berurah (2).
Work on Both Days of Purim
The Shulchan Aruch adds (696:2) that the prohibitive custom applies only on the actual day of Purim, the 14th or the 15th of Adar depending on a person’s location, but not on both days.
The Aruch Hashulchan (696:4) is undecided about the interpretation of this ruling: Does it mean that a custom to refrain from work on both days is void, or does it mean that there is no known custom, but where there is such a custom the prohibition will apply?
The Mishnah Berurah (696:7, based on Be’er Heitev) writes that some are stringent in this matter (in fact, the Ben Ish Chai (Year 1, Tetzaveh 21) forbids labor on both days of Purim), and concludes that the matter depends on the custom in a person’s specific location. The Aruch Hashulchan (4) notes further that the custom is unclear in this matter.
The Darchei Moshe (1) cites the Avudraham that only women are careful to refrain from labor on both days of Purim.
While it is permitted to work on Purim, the Rambam adds that it is unworthy to do so, and that the Sages state that one who works on Purim will not see blessing from his labor. The principle is noted by the Shulchan Aruch. The Gra explains that since the practice is unworthy, it follows that one will not see blessing from one’s work on Purim.
The Beis Yosef writes that this was derived from the previously-mentioned anecdote in the Gemara, where Rav cursed somebody who worked (by planting) on Purim. This seems to imply that not seeing blessing from one’s labor applies specifically to a place where the custom is not to work, as the Gemara explains concerning that anecdote.
The Magen Avraham (2) writes that while it would seem from the Gemara that the idea of not seeing blessing applies only where there is a custom to refrain from work, according to the Rambam it applies in all places.
As to the meaning of not seeing blessing, the Beis Yosef (696) understands that a person will make a loss: he will plant and will not reap. However, others maintain that while one will not gain from working, he will not necessarily suffer a loss either (see Re’em, as cited by the Mishnah Berurah 4).
Work for Purim or a Mitzvah
The Gemara (Megillah 5) clarifies that it is permitted to work (such as building or planting a tree) where the work is related to a joyous matter appropriate to Purim. This is noted by the Orchos Chaim (Purim 27) concerning building a house for one’s son’s wedding, and similar matters of joy. It is likewise permitted to sew a Purim costume (Terumas Hadeshen 1:112), or to work for a mitzvah (Kol Bo 45, citing Darchei Moshe 1).
The Taz (1, noted by the Mishnah Berurah 3) adds that it is permitted to do business on Purim, since this is something that brings a person joy. A similar ruling is given by the Peri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 1) concerning somebody who is destitute, and lacks food: It is permitted for him to work, since the work brings him joy.
Haircuts and Laundry
The Magen Avraham implies that Purim is similar to the eve of Pesach, but even more lenient than the eve of Pesach, as noted above. This means that Purim will not share the stringency of Chol Hamo’ed: it is permitted to write and to perform other labors on Purim when these bring a person joy, unlike on Chol Hamo’ed when only a davar haveid (cases in which a financial opportunity will be lost) is permitted.
It therefore seems that there is no prohibition against getting a haircut on Purim. Haircuts are prohibited on Chol Hamo’ed, but only Chazal do not want people to enter the festival unkempt. This will not apply on Purim, and moreover getting a haircut is a joyous activity done in honor of Purim. For these reasons the Eshel Avraham (696) rules that haircuts are permitted on Purim. The same ruling applies to laundry.
The Eshel Avraham writes that one should not cut another’s hair, since there is no joy for the person performing the labor. However, the Aruch Hashulchan (696:3) writes that this, too, is permitted, according to lenient opinions we find even for Chol Hamo’ed.
Even those who are stringent concerning taking haircuts on Purim—see for instance Shut Divrei Malkiel (5:237) who is stringent even concerning trimming fingernails—it is permitted to do so when Purim falls on Friday, in honor of Shabbos.
It is permitted to work on Purim, but in some communities the custom is to refrain from labor, whereupon it is forbidden. Nonetheless, although going to work is forbidden in these places, it is permitted to perform labor such as laundry and writing, in particular where there is an element of joy in them. It is likewise permitted to do actual work, such as business dealings, where an element of joy is involved, or where the work is done in honor of Purim or for a mitzvah.