Wednesday, 07 Mar 2012

Written by Student Rabbi Lea Mühlstein

In just a few hours, we will read the Megillah and I am sure that many of you have already prepared your greggers and other noisemakers so that the noise we make will blot out the name of Haman the descendant of the Amalekites. Those of us, who attended the Megillah reading at synagogue last night, will probably have witnessed scenes of children over-excited by the fact that they are not just allowed but even encouraged to make a real racket in synagogue.

As we indulge in the various Purim customs, it seems to be an appropriate time to look at some of these in more details and explore their acceptance within the Jewish community.

While the noise-making during the Megillah reading in almost all synagogues independent of denomination is today accepted, this has not always been the case. The historian James Picciotto describes in his 1875 Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History the custom that “unruly boys and silly men” would “show their reprobation of Haman’s conduct by loudly knocking against the Synagogue benches during the celebration of the service,” stating that “this absurd and irreverent usage has ever been opposed by the congregational authorities.”2  In fact, the first documented ban on noisemaking during the Megillah reading was decreed by the leaders of the Portuguese-Jewish Community in Amsterdam as early as 1640, who considered the custom to be more appropriate to barbarians than to civilized individuals. However, as the historian Joseph Kaplan notes, the fact that the prohibition had to be repeated three decades later and the fine increased twenty-fold shows that the resistance to banning this popular custom was great.3

A similar ban in 1783 even led to the so-called “Purim riots” at London’s Bevis Marks Synagogue, which was started by 14 members who refused to honour the “cold decree” of the Mahamad against noisemaking during the Megillah reading. The city marshal was informed and constables appeared in the synagogue and removed the offenders. We see that this was no joking matter! But we also see how a seemingly innocent custom can lead to a split within a community, turning fun into violence.

Noisemaking was however not the first Purim custom to be banned. Already in 408 C.E. did the Byzantine emperor Theodosius instruct the governors of his provinces to “prohibit the Jews from setting fire to Aman in memory of his past punishment, in a certain ceremony of their festival, and from burning with sacrilegious intent a form made to resemble the saint cross in contempt of the Christian faith, lest they mingle the sign of our faith with their jests.” Jewish and non-Jewish historians have struggled with this Theodosian law as Elliot Horowitz, Professor for Jewish History at Bar Ilan University, documents in his remarkable essay “The Rite to be Reckless: On the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence.” While basically all historians acknowledge that there was indeed a custom to burn an effigy of Haman as part of the Purim festivities, the more apologetic historians suggest that this was unrelated to anti-Christian sentiments. The famous 19th century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, without accepting any connection to anti-Christian behaviour, was only prepared to acknowledge that the gallows to which Haman was fastened and which it was the custom to burn had “by design or accident, the form of a cross.”4  On the other hand, the eminent historian of Rome, Ferdinand Gregorovius, claimed that the Jews “represented Haman as crucified and on that day burned him in effigy amidst shouts and revelry as if he were Christ.”5  This view was rejected by most 19th and 20th century Jewish historians as resulting from Christian slander or misunderstanding.

While it is impossible to determine the exact truth about the matter, from today’s perspective we can indeed understand how the burning of Haman on the cross may be interpreted by Christians as an act of mockery at their faith. Similarly, Horowitz observes that Jewish historians are now more inclined to acknowledge the antagonism of ancient Jews toward Christianity than to accuse Christians of hypersensitivity. From our modern perspectives, we can clearly see how this custom, even if it were intended innocently and for fun, can be perceived by others as an insult.

And thus it is good that the custom to burn Haman on the cross during Purim festivities is no longer practised and not even talked about any longer – I must admit that until I started research on this topic, I hadn’t even heard of it. However, another custom, which is related to it and which was already practised in the Middle Ages, can still be observed today. What I am referring to is the utilisation of Purim as an opportunity to settle accounts under the cover of jocular festivity. Who does the Haman in your Purim-Spiel resemble this year? Of course, most of these are innocent jokes but as was the case with the custom of burning the figure of Haman on the gallows, which took on the shape of a cross, it can be a challenge to avoid overstepping the boundary.

It is at the essence of the Festival of Purim that the difference between good and evil can often be tantalisingly close. Purim is fun and joyful and even Jews have the right to be just that at least once a year. In times and places, where Jews suffered hardship, Purim provided and still provides a much needed “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order.”6  And, irrespective of external circumstances, it can also be a deeply meaningful festival, if despite all of the frivolity we do not neglect the important commandments of mishlo’ach manot – to give gifts of food to friends – and of mattanot la-evyonim – the act of giving to the poor and needy.

The customs associated with Purim should be there to enhance the joy and fun of the festivities. They should be a vehicle for expressing our emotions of relief that, while many may try to kill us, we are still here. Maybe for one day a year, we can let go of our attachment to decorum and we can make a real racket, even in synagogue. But, as the wonderful story about Rabbah and Rabbi Zera in the Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7b warns about the commandment to get drunk on Purim,7  we must always be vigilant that the balance won’t tip, which turns fun into insult or even violence.

[1] I am indebted to the Professor Elliott Horowitz, whose essay “The Rite to be Reckless: On the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence” (Poetics Today 1994, 15(1), pp. 9-54) and book “Reckless rites: Purim and the legacy of Jewish violence” (Princeton University Press, 2006) discusses both incidences of Purim violence and the historical perception of these. The quotes used in this sermon are taken from Horowitz’s essay. I would also like to acknowledge that, by pure coincidence, Rabbi Alexandra Wright chose to discuss the same theme in her short article about Purim in the current LJS Newsletter (LJS News March 2012, p. 4-5), which I became aware of after writing this sermon and which is well worth reading.

[2] Picciotto, J. (1956 [1875]) Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History. Rev. ed., with a prologue by Israel Finestein (London: Soncino Press), p. 195.

[3] Kaplan, J. (1986) “The Portuguese Community in Amsterdam in the Seventeenth Century” (Hebrew), Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 7(6), p. 181.

[4] Graetz, H. (1853) Geschichte der Juden. Vol. 4, Vom Untergang des jüdischen Staates bis zum Abschluss des Talmud (Berlin: Veit), p. 454.

[5] Gregorovius, F. (1878), “Der Ghetto und die Juden in Rom,” Wanderjahre in Italien. 5th ed. (Leipzig), p. 72-3.

[6] Bakhtin, as quoted in Horowitz, E. (1994) “The Rite to be Reckless: On the Perpetration and Interpretation of Purim Violence,” Poetics Today 15(1), pp. 9-54.

[7] bMegillah 7b: Rava said: One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one does not know the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai. Rabbah and Rabbi Zera had a Purim feast together. They became intoxicated. Rabbah arose and killed Rabbi Zera. The next day Rabbah prayed for mercy and revived him. The following year [Rabbah] asked him [Rabbi Zera]: “Let master come and we will have the Purim feast together [again]”. Rabbi Zera answered him: “Not every time does a miracle occur!”

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.