Purim Plays

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PURIM PLAYS . Known in standard Yiddish as purimshpiln (sg., purimshpil), the Purim plays, presented during the holiday of Purim, were the most common form of folk drama among eastern and western Jews up until the Holocaust. The earliest written accounts of such plays are from the middle of the sixteenth century. They describe single-actor performances in Yiddish of purimshpiln based on nonbiblical themes that took place in Venice, Italy, and Brest (in Belarus). In the eighteenth century, more full-fledged plays with troupe performances were produced in various communities by yeshivah students, musicians, artisans, and apprentices; they were enacted in synagogues and in the homes of the well-to-do, where the actors received small sums of money. Examples of especially popular biblical stories that were performed were those of Esther and Ahasuerus (main characters in the Book of Esther), Joseph and his brothers, the binding of Isaac, and David and Goliathall these plots emphasized redemption from impending destruction.

Today, most well-known traditions of purimshpiln occur in several Hasidic communities, of which the best known are the Reb Arele asidim (known also as Toledot Aharon), who came to Jerusalem from Hungary during World War I; the Vizhnitzer asidim, who came to Bene Beraq (in Israel) from Romania during World War II, and the surviving members of the Bobover asidim of Poland, who established themselves in Brooklyn, New York, after World War II.

In addition to the religious events of the common Jewish calendar, the asidim have established their own traditions; to a great extent these were inspired by the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century qabbalists of Safad. The qabbalists elevated the status of Purim to that of a major festival. Playing on the Hebrew word kippurim ("atonements," an alternate name of Yom Kippur), reading it to mean "like Purim" (ki-Purim ), the Purim holiday thus placed in importance alongside Yom Kippur, the most solemn of all Jewish holidays.

Like their forefathers, contemporary asidim draw on the message of Purim, particularly as it is dramatically presented through the purimshpil, as a means of strengthening their ideology and tradition. On both Yom Kippur and Purim, a central theme is that repentance is requested and granted; the asidim believe that God is more attentive to supplication on these days.

The purimshpil has assumed the role of sacred work; the rebe (spiritual leader of the community) uses it to bring members of the community closer to God. The first evidence of the purimshpil as an element in Hasidic ritual is attributed to Aryeh Leib (17251813) of Shpola, a city in Russia. He believed that the performance of a play on Purim could influence the course of events, a phenomenon known to anthropologists as "sympathetic magic." Folk belief has it that when a decree was issued against Jews, Aryeh Leib suggested to his followers that they act in a play, the plot of which described a reversal of such a feared situation. Other stories are told of how these purimshpiln were instrumental in offsetting specific disasters. The quality of inversion is inherent in the original Purim text, the Book of Esther. A central idea underlying the Book of Esther is ve-nahafokh huʾ (Heb., "and it was reversed," Est. 9:11). Accordingly, Haman, the king's vizier who wanted to hang Mordecai, is hanged himself, and Mordecai becomes a minister of the court. The Jewish community is avenged of its enemies rather than harmed by them.

Themes nowadays are also drawn from biblical sources, East European folklore, and issues of day-to-day life. In the Bobover repertoire, for example, the Book of Daniel serves as the background for the Play of Nebuchadnezzar. Similarly, a Hasidic legend retelling the wonder of a pious Hasid has been dramatized as the Three Revenges. Consistent with the Purim-Kippurim notion, the plays are always serious and didactic despite the comic overlay, depicting central themes in Jewish experiencesurvival, martyrdom, and redemption.

The production of the purimshpil by the community replaces the sermon the rebe would otherwise deliver. The purimshpil is incorporated into the rebe' s tish (table) on the midnight of Purim. The tish is a central ritual in the life of Hasidic men, who assemble around their rebe' s table in their prayer hall on festivals to share a communal meal, dance, and sing together. The purimshpil may last all night, and women may be part of the audience. The production of the play is considered sacred work rather than "entertainment," and the manner in which it is performed is as carefully monitored by those involved in the production as the content since the performance itself and the texts used may appear to be in contradiction to Jewish law. Making fun of God and misquoting biblical phrases, for example, are forbidden and could result in God punishing the actors. Therefore, it is important that the themes of Jewish belief are accurately followed.

Usually the spiritual elite of the community, the married male students and teachers, take part in the production, writing, selection of music and costume, and painting of backdrops. The comic elements are incorporated into the play during both rehearsals and the performance itself. The actors suggest jokes, which may be accepted or rejected for particular scenes. The time allocated for the preparation of the production is limited because it is viewed as taking the men away from their primary function, studying Torah.

The purimshpil more than any other event in the Hasidic festival calendar engages the members of the community in ludicrous, playful behavior antithetical to everyday conditions. During the performance, men become actors, wear costumes and makeup, and assume both male and female roles. In the audience, the division between male and female is also relaxed; women speak with men across the mehitsah (the separation between the women's and the men's sections in the synagogue, a division mandated by religious law), which has been drawn aside. Thus, the prayer hall is converted from a house of study and prayer into a theater. In fact, the Purim play is one of the rare occasions during the year for the community to view theater: The Hasidic way of life prohibits the participation in, and viewing of, movies or plays.

Inspired by the male production of purimshpiln, Hasidic women have started to perform their own versions of the Purim plays for mainly female audiences during the week of Purim. Referred to by the women as "Purim musicals," the texts have sources similar to those of the male purimshpiln but are more influenced by musicals and modern stage effects.

World War II for the most part brought an end to the folkways of Ashkenazic Jewry. Traditions of Yiddish song, music, literature, and drama, which were integral parts of Jewish life in Europe, were brutally destroyed. The revitalization of the purimshpil in the latter half of the twentieth century exemplifies how traditional art forms may survive physical and spiritual catastrophes. The annual performance of the purimshpil, once an all-encompassing Ashkenazic Jewish tradition, has evolved among Hasidim into a continuation ritual, dramatizing their need to remember the past, thereby connecting that past to the present.

See Also

Hasidism, overview article.


Almost all the literature on the Purim plays is in Hebrew. Among works in English are Philip Goodman's The Purim Anthology (1949; reprint, Philadelphia, 1960), which has a musical supplement, and my doctoral dissertation, "The Celebration of a Contemporary Purim in the Bobover Hassidic Community" (University of Texas, 1979). A videotape of the play described in my work is available at the YIVO Institute in New York (Purimshpil, R-70-54-11 and R-80-54-29). The Purim play is also discussed in the context of Hebrew drama in Israel Abraham's Jewish Life in the Middle Ages (1896; reprint, New York, 1969), pp. 260272. Following is a list of a few of the works available in Hebrew.

Moskowitz, Zvi. Kol ha-kattuv le- ayyim. Jerusalem, 1961/2. This volume discusses "everything attributed to ayyim," who is ayyim Halberstam (17931876), of the city of Nowy Zanz (southeastern Poland), the originator of the Bobover asidim. See especially pages 8487.

Rosenberg, Yehudah. Tiferet MaHaRʾel: Mi-shpiʾlei ha-niqraʾ "der shpaler zayde." Peyetrekow, 1912; reprint, 1975. A selection of the miraculous deeds of Rebe Aryeh Leib of Shpola. See especially pages 3853.

Shmeruk, Chone. Mahazot miqraʾiyyim be-Yiddish, 16971750. Jerusalem, 1979. This is one of the best reference books in Hebrew available on the history and origin of the purimshpil. Also included are early texts of plays as well as a bibliography of manuscripts and printed books.

New Sources

Baumgarten, Jean. "Un ʿPurim-shpilʾ à Kyriat Vizhnitz de Bnei Braq (1996)." Perspectives 10 (2003): 127142.

Belkin, Ahuva. "Joyous Disputation around the Gallows: A Rediscovered Purim Play from Amsterdam." JTD 1 (1995): 3159.

Belkin, Ahuva. "Clowns et mendiants: les costumes de ʿPurim-shpilʾ." Cahiers du Judaïsme 6 (19992000): 105112.

Epstein, Shifra. "Daniyel-shpil" be-hasidut Bobov: mi-mahazeh ʿamami le-tekes Purimi. Jerusalem, 1998.

Rozik, Eli. "The Adoption of Theater by Judaism despite Ritual: A Study in the Purimshpil." European Legacy 1 (1996): 12311235.

Shifra Epstein (1987)

Revised Bibliography