Purim: It’s time to stop beating Haman

Purim: It’s time to stop beating Haman

Purim is certainly a day for feasting and fun, and even perhaps for letting down one’s hair. But at its religious core is the retelling of the Megillah story which, according to the Talmud (Meg.14a), serves as Purim’s counterpart to the Hallel recited on other festivals. So just as the Hallel on festivals acknowledges God’s mighty works, similarly the Megillah on Purim is meant to inspire gratitude for our deliverance. Both elements, the thanksgiving and the roistering, play meaningful roles at Purim; but to which category can we assign the noisemaking that punctuates megillah reading in many synagogues? Because the noise targets the mention of Haman’s name and was often produced by stomping and banging (before the invention of gragers), it came to be called generically “Haman Beating” (hereafter HB).

Seven years ago in these pages, I wrote briefly on the subject of HB. Today I beg leave to revisit specific aspects that I believe to be of current relevance. Some children are programmed to Haman-beat from a very young age, long before they can make independent choices. I would like to offer parents an opportunity to ponder the pros and cons of HB before imparting it as a matter of course to yet another generation.

The first thing to realize is that this noise is no exuberant outburst; on the contrary, its idea is to boo, hiss, and curse at Haman, to beat him and take revenge on him as can be seen from surveying the various forms the custom assumed down the centuries. In the middle ages Haman’s name would be written variously on stones, pieces of wood, soles of shoes, or small scraps of paper, and then erased. But as we shall learn, none of this invaded the sanctuary.

In my earlier essay I showed the weakness of attempts to produce Scriptural support for HB. On the other hand, it is clear that HB gained sustenance from the kind of superstition that endows every hammer, foot, and rattle that accompanies Haman’s name with the power to inflict pain upon him beyond the grave (see Yosef Lewy, Minhag Yisrael Torah, p.394; Sefer chasidim; etc.). For those who don’t go that far, what are they trying to achieve with HB? Some blame boisterous youngsters for the popularity of HB. Yet, is it feasible that children would spontaneously come up with these hateful ideas? The patent absurdity of such a theory is proven by the literature – it was parents who taught it to their offspring; and many continue to feed the impressionable minds of little ones with these lamentable notions.

By no means do we mean to minimize folklore or the history it preserves; but history alone is never the last word for believers in Torah. So where do our Torah guides stand on HB? As already noted, recitation of the Scroll of Esther counts as a religious duty similar to Hallel on other festivals, with blessings recited before and after (Meg.14a). Many halakhists are troubled by the inability of those who attend cacophonous readings to hear every word – the essential requirement incumbent on men and women. Moreover, to the extent that the reading is compromised by the pandemonium, the blessings will have been recited in vain (berakhot le-battalah).

R. Hayim Hezekiah Medini (d.1904) went further and ruled that stamping the foot in the sanctuary is particularly offensive (cf. Sukkah 56b). Additional problems are enumerated by Israel’s former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Hakham Ovadiah Yosef: 1″“banging can cause sacrilegious damage to synagogue furnishings in defiance of the prohibition derived from Deut.12:4; 2″“HB promotes frivolity in the synagogue which is prohibited at Meg.28a; 3″“it is a desecration of God’s name in the sanctuary, a dwelling place of God’s presence (Sefer Hazon Ovadiah: Purim, pp. 62-63).

Further back we find Maharil (R. Jacob Moellin, d.1427) – the great champion of Ashkenazi minhag – displaying ambivalence towards HB. More significantly, R. Joseph Karo ignores it in his comprehensive code the Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 690:17). As R. Moses (MHR”M) Schick points out “although [R.Karo] mentions HB in his Beit Yosef, he omits it from Shulhan Arukh; and it would appear that among Sephardim who follow him [R.Karo] the custom does not obtain. As for Rema, he writes that [HB during megillah reading] nishtarbev from an earlier usage – which words imply that it was no more than an outgrowth as in [the Talmudic phrase] ‘ishtarbuve ishtarbuv” (Y.D.,Responsum 216).

And indeed, R. Moses Isserles (Rema d.1572) records the French/Provencal custom. “Some authors … write that children had a custom to draw Haman’s likeness or his name on stones or pieces of wood and knock them together until the inscription was erased, in conformity with ‘Thou shalt surely obliterate the name of Amaleq’ and ‘The name of the wicked decays.’ Out of that grew the custom of beating Haman during the Megillah reading in synagogue. And no custom should be abolished or ridiculed because they were not instituted for nothing” (O.H. 690:17).

With his last comment Rema could be understood to be saying that any custom once up and running is immutable. But that is unlikely, since we know Rema has no qualms about the demise of venerable customs – some going back to the Talmud (e.g. ‘sympathetic mourning’, Y.D.374:6). Perhaps we should read Rema as saying: Even if a custom is to be discontinued, still never ridicule it, because we can rest assured that its founders had reason for instituting it. More importantly, the Hebrew we translate “Out of that grew” is u-mizzeh nishtarbev. Now the primary connotation of the verb hishtarbev is ‘to extend, grow or distend’; but, as R. Schick reminds us (see above), its talmudic occurrences typically carry an overtone of “disfigurement” or “grotesque distortion”(e.g. examples at Sot. 12b). This holds also for Rema whose five uses of the verb all refer to questionable folk practice.

Notwithstanding HB’s survival in many places, history also records a different trend. Over the centuries, in community after community – Leghorn, Amsterdam, Posen, Rhodes – HB was phased out. Where the value of a practice is so minimal and the risk of its misuse so palpable, many reflective people see that it is only proper to let it go.

Yet, perhaps some feel that to make any change in a synagogue’s practice is to sit in judgment on their founding membership. Certainly, we Jews have great respect for our forebears; nonetheless, we are not slaves to the past. Scripture (Lev.26:40), Talmud, and the halakhic codes teach us that when we confess our sins and the sins of previous generations we are not demeaning them. Moreover, the moment you elevate habit above halakhic and other Torah priorities, you have broken faith with past generations. To do what is currently right and decent in the present circumstances is surely what our pious ancestors would have expected of us.

Every Jew should say “the buck stops here”. Our generation in particular needs to confront the issue of hate and its expressions and transform them into something nobler. To hate forever is sinful – we remember how the Edomites are faulted (Amos 1:11) for inveterate hatred. After 9/11/01 many realized that any expression of hate in the sanctuary needed reconsideration. More than one community acted courageously; after weighing the argument for and against they decided to forgo HB.

One synagogue in particular, when made aware that HB was not an expression of glee but of hatred, transformed its observance in the following way. After each chapter of the Megillah the reader would pause for a predetermined number of minutes to allow the children to dance and clap, much as they do on Simhat Torah. Once the children were done, the congregation resumed its attentive silence until the next interlude. In our religion dancing, clapping, and singing are not taboo. Far from it; they are an essential part of our Divine service and have been since Miriam the prophetess inaugurated it with dancing and tambourines.

This arrangement accomplished a number of worthwhile goals. First, being detached from Haman, the noisemaking was an authentic expression of joy, pure and simple. The positive aspect of letting children revel to their hearts’ content was reclaimed and any connotation of vengefulness was eliminated. Second, the reading conformed to the halakhah whereby everyone could hear each and every word of the Megillah. Third, it created an appropriate atmosphere where distinct periods of joy were interspersed among the religious requirement of the reading. By delineating these boundaries the congregation leadership was satisfying the demands of Torah and halakhah, without being killjoys.

We are taught in Isaiah (57:14) “remove the obstacles out of the way of my people – harimu mikhshol midderekh ammi.” Rabbis must remove the obstacles; if we don’t then we are not worthy of the name. Many of us are now aware of the fact that the Torah tradition itself is very broad and has historically allowed many different approaches, traditions, and variations. That is why Torah religion has never stagnated but always remained dynamic. Indeed, open and healthy dialogue enables us to grow. I am confident that each of us can play a role in making our Purim a day of conviviality and goodwill for young and old. The resolution to eradicate the beating of Haman in the synagogue will be an example of Torah’s brilliance and flexibility. May doing so remove us a step further from hate and bring us a step forward in the slow march towards the redemption of our universe – the direction that Torah has always charted for its adherents.