Dear TEE community,
We know that play is an essential part of child development but seldom think about how important it is throughout our lives. Interacting in lighthearted and creative ways is a source of joy and sustenance for all ages. While our Jewish tradition is often quite serious, it recognizes that there are times when we all have to let go a bit and just have fun. For many of us, this is especially true at this time of year, when winter seems long and days still seem short. Luckily for us, just when we’re getting the “when will spring be here?” blues, Purim comes along.
Originally, Purim observances centered on reading the Book of Esther, without the frivolity we now associate with the holiday. But early on, the Babylonian community added the (now problematic) injunction that “A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until one does not know how to distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai’ (Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7b).” They also began the custom of “Purim Torah,” sophisticated parodies of traditional texts. This element of self parody was later extended to customs we might characterize as making Purim a “backwards” day, where students were in charge of classrooms and children led services.
The first reference to masks and costumes on Purim comes from the early 1300s in southern France. This popular custom spread quickly and during the Renaissance Italian Jews added the tradition of a masked Purim Ball. From German Jewry we get the Purim Spiel (a comical play often based on the Book of Esther) as well as hamentaschen, the triangular pastry adapted from the German mahn-tash (“poppy-pocket”).
One tradition associated with Purim probably pre-dates the holiday itself. Many cultures have a practice of using noise to dispel demons or evil spirits. We don’t know exactly when the custom of drowning out Haman’s name with noisemakers began but related customs date from the early Middle Ages. Babylonian Jews burned effigies of Haman and medieval children in Europe chalked Haman’s name on planks or stones and then noisily struck them on the ground until the name was erased.
All of these practices – making fun, dressing up, being noisy – are pleasures we encourage in children but too seldom permit our adult selves. I encourage you to let yourself remember and enjoy that playful self by participating in this week’s Purim festivities. Take advantage of this opportunity to laugh, make noise, wear a costume, and banish those late winter blues.
Hope to see you there,
Rabbi Drorah Setel