Groggers Defame Villain, Ennoble Twirler

By Saul Austerlitz

Published March 18, 2005, issue of March 18, 2005.
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Step into any synagogue on Purim this year, and prepare to be assaulted by a terrifyingly ferocious din during the reading of the Megillah. At every mention of the name Haman, congregants interrupt the reader, who often must pause for 10 seconds or more as a roar of clapping, booing, hooting, hissing, whistling and foot stomping ensues. Providing the bulk of the clamor, though, are the ritual noisemakers commonly known as groggers (“ra’ashanim” in Hebrew). Where did this strange custom come from, and what purpose does it serve?

While noisemakers now appear in contemporary variations, like thunder sticks and cap guns, the traditional grogger is a rotating cylinder attached to a perpendicular holder, designed to make noise when spun. Fanciful though it might seem, the custom of making noise at the mention of Haman’s name does spring from biblical sources. On the Sabbath before Purim we are instructed to “erase the name of Amalek” — the Israelites’ arch nemesis. A side game of the unusual commandment is to speculate on who does and does not qualify as Amalek, but scholars are in agreement that Haman, the attempted murderer of the Jews, is an Amalekite, and as such is worthy of having his name, both written and spoken, erased.

As early as the ninth century, there are records of young children in Italy, France and (a bit later) Germany “beating” Haman by banging two stones together, or stamping their feet loudly, when his name is mentioned in the Megillah. It was often customary to inscribe Haman’s name on the soles of shoes so that it would literally be wiped out during the course of vigorous foot stomping. “Das Feste Purim,” an 18th-century print by Dutch artist I.G. Puschner, shows a large stone inscribed with Haman’s name placed in the middle of a synagogue, with a crowd of children attempting to rub out his name with smaller stones, and others banging rocks and hammers against the benches. Similarly, a German custom of the same era had the entire congregation jointly clobber, with hammers, a rock inscribed with Haman’s name.

Groggers have been in use as Purim noisemakers since the Middle Ages, often decorated with elaborate illustrations of scenes from the story of Megillat Esther, such as Haman leading Mordecai on his horse, and inscriptions such as “Arur Haman” (“Cursed Be Haman”). Groggers were forums for artistic creativity, with many designed to reflect the similarities between the story of Purim and contemporary events. One 19th-century grogger from Eastern Europe features a chained and pilloried Cossack — wish fulfillment punishment for the Hamans of the day. The grogger, though, was primarily a plaything of Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews did not use them during the Megillah reading until fairly recently.

With the custom of noisemaking at the reading of Haman’s name adopted so vigorously in contemporary practice, a conflict has emerged during the annual Megillah readings between the raucous revelers and the religious sticklers, who insist on fulfilling the mitzvah of hearing every single word of the text. Especially in Orthodox synagogues, the balance between boisterousness and silence is always a tenuous one, constantly threatening to tip over into outright hostility. With old-fashioned groggers especially, there is always the one joker who insists on giving his noisemaker a few extra cranks after everyone has ceased making a racket, sending the shushers into an apoplectic rage. Regardless, the grogger has become an integral part of the Purim experience, its jangling rowdiness a symbol of the holiday’s celebration of human endeavor.

A Hasidic tradition compares the grogger with the dreidel to craft a distinction between Purim and Hanukkah. The dreidel, spun by holding it by its top, represents the intervention from above that miraculously kept the Temple’s oil burning for eight days. Meanwhile the grogger is held from its bottom, because individual action, and not God, determined the events of the Megillah. The grogger’s raucousness, therefore, is an acknowledgement that Megillat Esther is alone among all the books of the Bible in not mentioning the name of God, and a recognition of the centrality of human striving in Purim’s small miracles. On Purim, the least divine of the Jewish holidays, we make a racket to honor the best in ourselves.

Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer in New York City.

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