This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Snap, Gragger, Pop! *

For some of us, the most satisfying Purim customs are those that involve the symbolic blotting out of Haman's name in ways that can serve as an annual escape valve for all sorts of pent-up frustrations. The usual methods for accomplishing this goal involve noise-making, most commonly by swinging the mechanical device known in Yiddish as the gragger at each mention of the arch-fiend's name during the reading of the Megillah. Those of you who are more resourceful may have experimented with alternative ways of producing thunderous noises at the appropriate moments--whether as by hammering, by raising the volume of an electronic speaker system, or by some other imaginative contrivance.

Jews have invested so much energy in the metaphoric eradication of our ancient foe that a distinguished folklorist was able to devote an entire volume to the history of How Did They Strike Haman? Limitations of space compel me to confine my scope here to just a few instructive examples.

Let us begin with the only allusion to Haman-bashing that is actually mentioned, albeit cryptically, in the Talmud. The topic turns up in connection with a discussion about the Torah's admonition "you shall not let any of your seed pass through the fire to Moloch." The Babylonian sage Rava tried to illustrate the precise choreography of ritually passing a child through fire by comparing it to a custom known as "Purim-jumping"

Though the Talmud itself did not take the trouble to explain this obscure practice, the medieval commentators are quite helpful at supplying the missing details. As described by one of the Babylonian Ge'onim, it was customary in the lands of Babylonia and Elam for Jewish lads to fashion an effigy of Haman which they would then hang from their roofs for four or five days before Purim. When the holiday arrived, they kindled a bonfire and cast the effigy into it, as they stood around dancing and singing. To add to the merriment, they would leap from one side of the fire to the other while grasping a ring that was suspended over it. Rashi adds that the fire was placed inside a pit. Other authorities mention that the celebrants liked to fling salt onto the fire so that it would make a fine crackling sound. It's a good thing they did not yet know about gunpowder, because I am certain they could not have resisted the temptation to produce some serious explosions if they could.

As noted previously, in our own time the sole custom that reigns supreme from among all those numerous possibilities of jumping, stomping, stoning, hitting or hammering at Haman and his despicable memory is the good old gragger. Sounding it at the pronouncement of Haman's name has been a perpetual source of annoyance to community rabbis, who fear lest it prevent their flocks from fulfilling the halakhic requirement of clearly hearing every word in the Megillah.

The Jews probably adopted the use of the graggers from the Catholic churches in medieval Greece, where the instruments were used for somewhat different purposes. The implement that is now universally designated the gragger was originally known by many different names among the Jews of central and eastern Europe. The word seems to have evolved from the Latin word crecella, an onomatopoeic name that was in use in the early Catholic church. Other dialectical variants include krikl, kraker, krikiler and graker.

Bear in mind that Purim falls close to the Christian Easter season. It was customary in some regions of Greece to sound a colossal gragger from the local church tower in order to summon the faithful to services during the last four days of their Holy Week, prior to Easter Sunday. Though normally the church bells would be tolled for that purpose, a tradition evolved of silencing their chimes during those pre-Easter days. A charming legend related that the bells chose that time to go on pilgrimage to Rome. During the bells' days off, the beadles installed a large gragger in the church tower, and its sound would reverberate throughout the village to proclaim the commencement of the prayer services.

Once this booming noise-making technology had been introduced, it did not take long for the Christian children to get hold of their own individual noisemakers and find appropriate occasions for using them. The most popular of these occasions was strikingly similar to our own custom of blotting out Haman's name, except that the Catholic youngsters would direct their earsplitting wrath at Judas Iscariot, the apostle who had betrayed Jesus to the Romans. They would make the rounds of the streets and churches with graggers in hand on a spree of "hitting Judas" Inevitably, adults wanted to get in on the fun as well. The monks would strike Judas with larger graggers, or by sounding gongs with large iron sticks.

Other European communities knew of local variations on both the Jewish and the Christian practices. In Hungary, for example, a sixteenth-century author describes children banging on the synagogue benches to make the requisite racket at the pronouncing of Haman's name. Their Christian counterparts in Seged would strike the floors on Good Friday and declare that they were "hitting Pilate" Others would draw pictures of Pontius Pilate on their writing-slates for the purpose of beating him. The practice of hitting Pilate was actually incorporated into the standard church services during Holy Week. The priest, while reading the festival hymns, would beat the steps of the altar with his prayer book, which would launch the congregation into their own brief frenzy of bench-beating. It probably did not take long for the local Jewish children to come to the realization that a relatively simple change of the victim's name would provide them with an effective way to liven up the reading of the Megillah in their synagogues. What was good enough for Judas Iscariot or Pontius Pilate must certainly be worth applying to the wicked Haman.

Every now and then, respectable Jewish community leaders were moved to prohibit the practice of Purim noise-making, whether because it prevented the congregants from hearing the Megillah or because the rowdy conduct was deemed inappropriate to a house of worship. An edict to that effect was issued by the overseers of Amsterdam's Portuguese community in 1640, stigmatizing the custom as barbaric and uncivilized. Evidently, the ban was not particularly effective, and it had to be repeated thirty years later with a more severe fine.

A more vocal response accompanied the issuing of a similar decree at London's Bevis-Marks synagogue in 1783. However, fourteen congregants openly defied the ruling, and the police had to be summoned to restore public order and to combat the disturbance of the peace.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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