The Darker Side of Purim Graggers

It’s every Jewish kid’s favourite activity: each year on Purim, while the megillah is being read, we gleefully shake our graggers and shout aloud, drowning out the name of Haman. Haman (yimach sh’mo – may his name be erased) is, of course, the bad guy of the Purim story. The perennial enemy; the face of evil; the original He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. He tried to destroy us, and so we blot out his name.

When we shout over Haman’s name, we are participating in a practice that is born out of the Torah portion for this week. On this Shabbat before Purim, we end the regular Torah reading with an additional section, a maftir, from Deuteronomy. It says:

זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃ אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כׇּל־הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃ וְהָיָ֡ה בְּהָנִ֣יחַ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֣יךָ ׀ לְ֠ךָ֠ מִכׇּל־אֹ֨יְבֶ֜יךָ מִסָּבִ֗יב בָּאָ֙רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יְהֹוָה־אֱ֠לֹהֶ֠יךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֤ נַחֲלָה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃ 

(17) Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt— (18) how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. (19) Therefore, when your God יהוה grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that your God יהוה is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!

Deuteronomy 27:17-19

Amalek was an enemy nation of ancient Israel – a people with whom there was a war, as recorded elsewhere in the Torah. But this passage implies more than war. The Torah doesn’t give a lot of details about what the Amalekites “did to you on you journey,” but it does suggest that their crime was to attack the weak, to “cut down the stragglers” at the back of the marching Israelites. Many of the commentators suggest that Amalek not only hit the most vulnerable Israelites, but also hit them when they were most tired, and in the most painful ways. Whatever the crime was, it was clearly something beyond the pale, something unforgivable. And so the Torah commands us to “blot of their memory,” and Jewish tradition understands this as a commandment to destroy them so completely that (as Rashi puts it) “the name of Amalek shall never again be mentioned.[1]” Hence the practice of shouting over the name of Haman, who is named by the book of Esther as an Amalekite descendent.

It’s all in good fun, right? After all, there are no Amalekites walking around today. Haman has been dead for 2500 years (if he ever really lived at all). So, we might argue, no harm no foul and everybody has a good time.

But there is a darker side of this practice. Judaism traditionally considers Amalek to refer not only an ancient enemy nation and to Haman’s pedigree, but more widely to those evil groups and forces that have arisen through history to wipe out/murder/oppress the Jews and Judaism. The Romans, the Crusaders, the Nazis – all have been associated with Amalek. And here’s where things start to get subjective and messy, because we don’t all agree on which groups are trying to destroy the Jews.

Last week, while visiting Israel for a Rabbinic conference, I went to the Western Wall on Rosh Chodesh morning to support Women of the Wall. This group of women has been meeting at the Kotel for decades in order to pray together – they sing, read from the Torah, wear tallit and tefillin, and celebrate the new moon with a beautiful, musical service. Not being a woman, I can’t pray with the group on the women’s side, but I did join with a group of men who were there to support and to help bring in a Torah scroll (since the Haredi rules of the Kotel forbid the women from bringing a Torah into the holy place). What I experienced that morning was exceedingly disturbing. Our group of dozens of worshippers was first barred from entering the Kotel. Ultimately, after being let in, we travelled as a tight pack, surrounding Rabbi (and Member of Knesset) Gilad Kariv who was holding the Torah scroll, while trying to fend off a mob of Haredi youth who surrounded us, blowing whistles and shouting over us and chanting at us that “Amalek will be wiped out!”

That’s right – they called us Amalek. Fellow Jews, holding a Torah scroll at Judaism’s holiest site. Presumably they did so because they believe liberal Judaism is a nefarious, evil force that is trying to wipe out Judaism and that must itself be wiped out, blotted out, and drowned out. Fortunately, there were no significant injuries – in part thanks to a diligent ring of Kotel security guards who surrounded us and fended off the incurring youth. But in past months there have been injuries – there have been physical attacks, people harmed, prayerbooks desecrated, damage done. And even this time, despite the lack of physical injury, a lot of participants walked away scarred.

A second incident this past week drives home the danger of the “wipe out Amalek” tradition. It happened in the West Bank: following the tragic and horrifying murder of two Jewish brothers by a terrorist in the Palestinian village of Huwara, a Jewish settler mob set upon the town and undertook what has been variously described as a “rampage,” a “riot,” and a “pogrom.” They set fire to cars and houses, destroying homes, injuring several people and killing one. The next day, Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich stated in an interview, “I believe that the village of Huwara should be erased.”

Smotrich’s language is eerily similar to the language of the commandment to “wipe out” Amalek. And while he claims he wasn’t calling for mob violence (he dialed back the statement later, suggesting he only meant Israel should “act in a targeted manner against the terrorists”[2]) there can be no doubt that some in the mob saw themselves as carrying out the holy act of wiping out the evil enemy. In fact, another member of Israel’s coalition, Zvika Fogel of the “Jewish Power” party, unequivocally backed such violence: “A closed, burnt Huwara — that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence.”[3]

These kinds of incidents don’t represent the majority of Jews; not by a long shot. In fact, I keep seeing statements on social media by well-meaning people who declare that “this is not Judaism,” or “not my Judaism.” But the thing is, this is a form of Judaism. It’s not the only expression of Jewish beliefs and practices; it’s not the one that most of agree with – we condemn it unequivocally. But it is an expression of Jewish tradition. This kind of violent action represents a possible manifestation of the command to wipe out Amalek. And I have to tell you, it scares me. A lot. It scares me to know that my fellow Jews have the capacity to interpret our tradition in ways that call for violently harming others. It scares me that they see me as a liberal Jew as an Amalek who needs to be shouted down and drowned out. It scares me (but no longer surprises me) that they will act in racist and violent ways – kill their own Palestinian neighbours – and then justify it with words from our sacred texts.

So this year when I pick up my gragger, I’m going to have mixed feelings it. I’m not so comfortable with the whole “blot out Amalek” thing. Certainly, I’m not looking to do away with Purim; I think we should celebrate the fact that we’re still here, that we’ve overcome oppression and thrived as a people throughout the ages. But at the same time I think we need to give some thought to the “darker side” of this tradition: Are we encouraging mistrust of outsiders? Are we plastering over our low-level paranoia with songs, games, and booze? Are we giving the green light to revenge and to the celebration of others’ misfortune? What can we do to ensure that our Judaism leads us to build bridges and connect with one another, rather than burn cars and shout over others.

Ultimately, that choice is ours. The texts are just a tool – a tradition to be interpreted and understood anew in each generation. We have the power, as Jews and as human beings, to seek the good in others – even when we disagree with them or mistrust them. To try to build a world where the only things we’re “blotting out” are hatred and violence.

Micah Streiffer is a rabbi, teacher, writer, and PhD student. He is the founder of LAASOK, a liberal Beit Midrash (“House of Study”) whose mission is to deepen liberal Jews’ connection with Judaism through meaningful engagement with sacred texts.

[1] Rashi to Deuteronomy 25:17.



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