This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Purim-Shpiel and the Passion Play*

Since I have come to be perceived in certain circles as Calgary's resident authority on ancient Judaism, I am occasionally consulted by the staff of the Badlands Passion Play in Drumheller in their sincere resolve to imbue their production with historical accuracy. Needless to say, the situation elicits some very mixed and ironic emotions in me when I think of the sinister history of European passion plays. In their classic medieval versions, the Jews were invariably cast as the demonic Christ-killers; and at the conclusions of the performance, the incensed audiences were ready to take out their wrath upon the local descendants of that depraved brood, resulting in violent attacks against innocent Jews.

Although we are much more familiar with the image of Jews as innocent victims of these riots, historians are now calling attention to a large body of circumstantial evidence which suggests that the reading of the Megillah on Purim played an reciprocal role of inciting Jews against Christians, even to the point of acts of violence and murder.

Evidence of this phenomenon can be traced as far back as the Byzantine Empire, where the Emperor Theodosius, in his famous law code, felt it necessary to include a directive to the provincial governors instructing them to forbid the Jewish practice or burning an effigy of Haman on Purim, a figure which was perceived as a parody of the crucified Jesus.

Theodosius was of course the ruler of a Christian empire, and we might justifiably accuse him of slandering the Jews, or even of erroneously imagining an anti-Christian affront where none was intended. However several considerations lend credence to his suspicions.

Though we are accustomed to imagine Haman and his sons as hanging on a gallows from a noose, that manner of execution was evidently unknown in antiquity. The ancient Aramaic translations always render the word by the root tzalab, meaning "crucify." This of course was a common Roman form of capital punishment, and originally had no uniquely Christian associations. However, for later generations all references to crucifixion were naturally associated with that of Jesus,

We are all familiar with Haman's descent from the Amalek, that archetypal enemy of Israel. Our standard telling of the story tends to overlook the fact that the Biblical Amalek was a descendent of Esau, whom midrashic tradition regarded as the prototype of the evil Roman Empire. With the Christianization of Rome, some Jews continued to apply the symbolism of Esau to the Christian church and to the Byzantine empire which demonstrated intense hostility towards Judaism.

Shortly after the promulgation of the Theodosian Code, an incident was reported in the Syrian town of Inmestar, when a mob of drunken Jews began blaspheming Christians and their messiah. They seized a Christian child, placed him on a cross, and began to make sport of him, eventually causing the boy's death. The circumstances make it likely that the unfortunate event occurred on Purim, and was inspired by the Jews' equation of Haman with Jesus or Christianity.

Again, we have good reason to suspect that the story is nothing more than an anti-Semitic fabrication.

Neertheless, in medieval Byzantium, Jewish converts to Christianity were required to make a solemn declaration that they "anathematize those who celebrate the festival of Mordecai...;and those who nail Haman to a piece of wood, and joining it to the sign of the cross, burn them together while hurling various curses and anathemas against the Christians."

Here too, the accusations emanate from hostile sources, and our history is replete with such charges being leveled against us without any factual basis. It is entirely possible that malicious outside observers were ascribing imagined motives to the traditional Jewish condemnations of the Biblical Haman.

Similar doubts arise when we read that in later times Christians continued to be offended by the fact that European Jewish communities were accustomed to publicly disgrace their own sinners on Purim (a feature that was also central to the gentile carnivals of the time). It seems that Christians, used to viewing the present through the lens of their scriptures, automatically equated any Jewish act of public chastisement with the scourging of Jesus.

A particular thorny problem is the following episode, which was related in widely differing versions by two independent Jewish chroniclers, as well as by a Christian writer:

In a French town named Bray [or: Brie]-sur-Seine, at the close of the twelfth century, a Christian attached to the royal court killed a Jew. The victim's family succeeded in bribing the local duchess to hand the perpetrator over to them to be hanged. According to the Christian reporter, the execution was preceded by a ceremonious procession through the town square during which the murderer had a crown of thorns placed on his head (in a transparent burlesque of Jesus' crucifixion). So incensed was King Philip Augustus upon hearing of this development that he ordered the martyrdom of the local Jewish community.

Here too the sources differ with reference to several of the salient details. Only one of the Hebrew sources states that the hanging took place on Purim; whereas the other one does not mention a hanging at all, but rather that the resulting pogrom occurred on Purim (presumably in retaliation for arresting the Christian). The non-Jewish source dates the execution two weeks after Purim. Historians are in disagreement about how much credence to attach to each of the versions; though some have insisted that the story makes the most sense against the background of the chauvinism and general license that characterized the medieval Purim celebrations.

I am personally inclined to see this as another instance of Christians permanently type-casting the Jews as the bloodthirsty taunters of their messiah. However, in light of the repeated tendency of Jews to equate Haman or Amalek with their contemporary enemies, one can sympathize with those historians who attach greater weight to the reports.

In fact, this might be the real moral of the story: When religious or ideological communities began to perceive each other as symbolic archetypes, rather than as living, breathing human beings, then it is only a matter of time until they start treating each other inhumanly. At that point, both the Passion Play and the Purim-shpiel are transformed into regrettable tragedies.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, March 16 2000, pp. 12-3.

  • Bibliography:
    • Chazan, Robert. "The Bray Incident of 1192: Realpolitik and Folk Slander."Proceedings of the American Academy for the Advancement of Jewish Research 37 (1969): 1-18.
    • Doniach, N. S. Purim, or the Feast of Esther: An Historical Study. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1933.
    • Horowitz, Elliott. "'And It Was Reversed': Jews and Their Enemies in the Festivities of Purim." Zion 59, no. 2-3 (1994): 129-168.
    • Roth, Cecil. "The Feast of Purim and the Origins of the Blood Accusation." In The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore, edited by Alan Dundes, 261-72. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
    • Thornton, T. C. G. "The Crucifixion of Haman and the Scandal of the Cross." Journal of Theological Studies 37 (1986): 420-29.