On Purim, can we really blot out the memory of evil Haman, who threatened our very existence, with a noisemaker?
When in a popular Purim song we sing “Hava narishah — rash, rash, rash,” “Wind your noisemakers,” all that “rashing” does momentarily make the darkness go away. But in what direction do we turn as we step into the light?
It’s not that the sound is supposed to make us entirely forget Haman. In fact Purim, which this year begins at sundown March 15, is the time of year when Jews are supposed to remember what we have been told to forget. On Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance — the Shabbat before Purim — we read in the concluding Torah reading (Deuteronomy 25:17-19), “You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”
Why the blot out?
The Torah reading explains that while the Israelites were on the march in the wilderness, Amalek attacked “when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear.” On Purim, when reading from the Book of Esther and Haman’s name is mentioned, that’s what all the noise is about. Haman is considered a descendant of Amalek, and when we hear his name, we attempt to symbolically blot it out.
Works for kids, but what about adults?
The custom of making noise when Haman’s name is mentioned, according to an article titled “Are Jews Still Commanded to Blot Out the Memory of Amalek?” by Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schetcher Institute, goes back to around 1200. Citing a midrash that says “blot out the memory of Amalek even from the trees and the stones,” he suggests that in France to act this out, children took smooth stones to write “Haman” on them. During the reading of the Megillah, at the mention of his name, they knocked the stones together to erase it.
It’s not hard to imagine the result of having kids in synagogue with a couple of river rocks to smash together. So, a simple noisemaker seems a reasonable simulacrum.
For the big kids, some of us try blotting out with food and other substances. Munching a hamantaschen, which represents Haman’s tri-cornered hat, and downing a shot or two is an easy and tasty way to eliminate his image.
In my 20s, to observe the blotting mitzvah, I baked some pot into a batch of hamantaschen — prune, as I recall. But since that’s about all that I remember from the evening, I may have overblotted.
Generally speaking, the past blots itself out without our help. The harder part is to remember what to do about it today. What I needed to move toward some kind of Purim-centered social action was a grogger that also was a jogger of memory.
Getting back to those two stones, I needed a noisemaker that would rub two ideas together, erasing my feelings of ambivalence and waking me up to an important Jewish concept.
Several synagogues have turned the grogger into a reminder about the hungry. They ask their congregants to bring boxes of macaroni and cheese to the Megillah reading so they can shake them when Haman’s name is read, and afterward donate them to a food bank. Adding a little sweetness, or even pleasure, I figured a box of Good & Plenty or can of coffee beans would work, too.
You can also bang two ideas together — that of blotting out Haman and wastefulness — by using the grogger as a reminder to recycle. Use an empty soda can to which you have added a few dried beans or coins for tzedakah.
Fair Trade Judaica, based in the East Bay, sells a wooden grogger, handmade in India, that gives Purim noisemaking a social action twist. The groggers are made in workshops organized by the Shilpa Trust, a group that works with economically and educationally disadvantaged artisans. The trust, according to the fair trade website Ten Thousand Villages, “provides artisans with children’s educational assistance, free health check-ups, social security insurance, a loan program, skill training and product development.”
Helping to blot out poverty, while making me remember it — now there’s a grogger that would give others a turn.
Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.