Jews around the world ring in the festival of Purim this weekend, commemorating their sixth-century deliverance from genocide in Persia with celebrations in schools and synagogues, while in Israel, revellers take to the streets in masks and fancy dress for a weekend of parties.

In Israel, celebrations have become increasingly flamboyant in recent years, with the festival often expanding to take up the best part of a week. Around the world, Jewish communities celebrate with special cakes prepared for children's parties, and sweets known as "Misloach Manot" handed out.

"What's wonderful and special in Israel is that Purim is a big public holiday, out on the street, complete with everyone walking the streets in costume - kind of like Hallowe'en, minus the scary and ghoulish part," Allison Kaplan Sommer wrote in the left-leaning Israeli daily Ha'aretz.

"At some point, the holiday took some steroids and expanded more - not two days, not three days, but a full week - one that takes an entire month to prepare for and from which it takes nearly as long to recover."

Purim commemorates the deliverance of Persian Jews from the genocide ordered by Haman, a prince in King Ahasuerus' court. The biblical book of Esther recounts the miracle of how the Jews came to be saved when Esther, who was loved by the king "above all women", revealed herself as a Jew and asked him that "my people be saved". According to the scrpitures, Haman was condemned to death, and hanged from the tree from which he had planned to hang the Jews.

Traditionally recitations from the Megillah, or long story of Esther, are marked with raucous celebrations, with the name of Haman booed during readings.

Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites, said: "Sometimes it is difficult to notice Divine Providence, but when we look back and see the coincidences that occurred as though by chance, we understand that someone has been directing the processes from above.

"This is true of the history of the Jewish nation, and it is true also regarding the individual who sometimes thinks his life is going along on its own, without Divine intervention. Success, failure, experience, opportunity - none of these are coincidences."