Thursday, March 3, 2011

History of Purim Shpiels

Dear Tanta Golda,
It’s almost Purim and I have a question about something that has been troubling me.  The synagogue I grew up in just chanted the ‘whole megillah’. However, the Shul I attend now always does a farcical version of the story – a shpiel. This seems a bit disrespectful. Am I just being a stick in the mud?

Dear Stick,
Well, yes.  
First, some background: The Book of Esther is not believed to have been written until well after the time it describes. It does reflect a number of important features of Persian culture which can be found in other writings. These however, were satirized in the Esther story – the mock representation of the Persian rites of gluttony, drinking, over the top display of wealth, and the whole bowing bit. So you see, the ‘whole megillah’ itself appears to be a satire.  How ironic that we do shpiels that mock a mockery!

Shpiel is a Yiddish word meaning ‘play’ or ‘skit’.  More learned people than Tanta Golda have looked into the origins of shpiels and found evidence of their existence since the 14th century. (Slightly before my time.) Initially these were silly monologues, rhymed paraphrases of the book of Esther, usually performed in people’s homes, or among Talmudic students in Yeshiva.

This idea of parody spread to the telling of stories of the Talmud, liturgy, Torah, and halakah (Jewish ritual law). One of Tanta Golda’s sources sited the ‘Tractate Peschim’ (a Talmudic discourse about Passover), where instead of bread being prohibited, water and other non-alcoholic beverages were banned!

Over time, some communities developed very rigid traditions surrounding these shpiels and held competitions. In other areas the shpiels became so raucous and vulgar that they were banned, and those found performing them, fined!  There was even heated debate among Talmudic sages about the appropriateness of men dressing in women’s clothing on this one day. Oy!

In Germany especially the plays began taking great liberties with the plot and how the characters were portrayed – perhaps making Haman (boo, hiss) a tragic figure and Mordecai a bumbling buffoon. Shpiels were a way for Jews to blow off steam and escape the harsh realities of everyday life.

Shpiels often poke fun at leaders and politics, whether they be on the world stage, or in the synagogue. Even in very Orthodox communities Purim can be a time to mock rabbis, cantors, and temple presidents.

The important thing to remember my sticky one is that we are told to retell the story. If it is done with humor, so be it. Jews are after all, known for their humor!
A happy and joyous Purim to you!

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