History of the Purim Shpiel

The joyous nature of the Purim celebration often carries a serious message behind the smile. The Purim Shpiel often takes a look at world politics with various world leaders playing the roles of heroes and villains. By offering a mocking commentary, the Purim Shpiel presents a Jewish version of political justice in the world.

Shpiel is a Yiddish word meaning a “play” or “skit.” A Purim shpiel is actually a dramatic presentation of the events outlined in the Book of Esther. Featuring the main characters, such as King Ahasuerus, Mordecai, Esther, and the wicked Haman, the Purim shpiel was a folk-inspired custom providing an opportunity for crowds to cheer the heroes (Mordecai and Esther) and boo the villains (Haman). It is a staple of many modern synagogue Purim celebrations for children to attend the ritual chanting of the Book of Esther and Purim carnivals dressed in costumes depicting these main characters.

Often, a synagogue religious school will hold a costume contest and organize a parade of all the costumed children. While it is traditional to masquerade as characters from the story of Esther, many Jewish families celebrate Purim as an alternative to Halloween, with children dressing in non-traditional costumes and masks. There is no “right” or “wrong” costume for Purim.

In relatively modern times, the popularity of these Purim shpiel plays and the boisterous audience reaction they engendered, spilled over into the actual synagogue celebration of Purim when the scroll of Esther is chanted in Hebrew. There is an ancient tradition derived from the Torah that one is supposed to “blot out” the mention of Haman as a form of enduring spiritual punishment and ignominy for his actions. Therefore, synagogue attendees attempting to “blot out” Haman’s name will literally shout, catcall, boo and swing noisemakers, called graggers, to drown out the name of Haman as it is read.

Many synagogues hold special family or children’s services on Purim, or make a point of including families in the chanting of the Book of Esther so that the children will be able to not only attend in costume, but shake their noisemakers and contribute to the merriment through making lots of noise. In fact, a growing custom is to hold an arts-and-crafts session for the children in advance of the Purim festivities so that children can make their own graggers and masks to wear.

Purim shpiels have evolved over time into the presentation of humorous skits not just about the story of Purim, but also about leaders and well-known people in the community. In synagogues, members may write and act in funny skits gently mocking the rabbis, cantor, president, and other people. In Jewish religious day schools, no teacher ever escapes the mocking attention of their students in such Purim shpiels.

Purim shpiels also include popular songs sung with new, creative funny lyrics lampooning community leaders. Some congregations go to elaborate lengths in producing shpiels, sometimes writing mini-musical plays, or with some people renting expensive outrageous costumes. It is also traditional for religious leaders to deliver “Purim Torahs,” which are farcical, sometimes nonsensical, sermons about ridiculous topics. Often, the synagogue bulletin for Purim will be a special joke edition with many funny, ludicrous articles.