Erasing the Name of Haman the Wicked: The Origin of the Grogger

How does one drown out the name of the most hated, evil man in the Megillah? By making good use of a Christian folk tradition of course!

Haman meets his end, Scroll of Esther, Ferrara, Italy, 1617, the National Library of Israel

There are few people in Jewish history who are despised as much as the wicked Haman, the villain of the story of Purim and the Book, or Scroll, of Esther. As the saying goes, “in every generation they stand up against us to destroy us” – words embodied by the figure of Haman, whose actions fulfill the supposed prophecy/timeless historical truth. Haman the Wicked, Haman the Evil, and various other derogatory epithets have been attached to his name – even in the Scroll of Esther itself. The story even links his name to Israel’s greatest enemy – the Amalekites. He is described as “Haman the Agagite” in the Megillah (scroll) of Esther, thus linking him to Agag, king of Amalek. In the book of Deuteronomy (25:19) Israel is ordered “blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven”.

So how do we erase the name of the man who is mentioned repeatedly in the Megillah, which we read during the festival of Purim?

Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan writes of a 13th century custom, in which young boys “would take pebbles from a stream and write ‘Haman’ on them. Then, they would knock the stones together while citing the name of Haman and his crimes, ‘and the name of the wicked shall rot’“. This idea quickly gained popularity among European Jewry and was manifested in various ways, such as breaking clay pots or banging on synagogue tables – with one’s hands or with wood sticks prepared in advance.

About three hundred years later, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (“The Rema”) also wrote of a custom popular among children, who would bang pieces of wood or stone with the name of Haman written on them against each other, all with the purpose of erasing the name of the wicked foe.

“So they hanged Haman on the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai”, Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The common theme is that the very purpose of mentioning Haman’s name is to erase it, in both the literal sense – the gradual disappearance of the letters of Haman’s name from the river pebbles as they are knocked together – as well as in the sense of noisily drowning out the name of Haman with the sound of objects banging against each other. Rabbi Isserles added that this customary noise making evolved into the practice of “beating” Haman by producing similar noises whenever his name was mentioned during the reading of the Megillah in the synagogues.

When, therefore, do we meet the Purim noisemaker – the grogger?

It seems as though this unique toy only became popular among Jewish populations during the 19th century.

Reading the Megillah in Tel Aviv, 1985; The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Before the grogger, came the firecrackers. In 17th-century Germany, from the moment gunpowder became an affordable commodity, young boys began adding early forms of firecrackers to their noise-making tools. These crude explosives were made of various combustible materials that were relatively available and easy to find, with sulfur or gunpowder sprinkled generously on top. This custom quickly spread to Poland, Lithuania, Russia, and Romania, and from there to other Jewish communities. Occasionally, a hollow key was filled with gunpowder and then lit ablaze; a practice that could still be observed in 1930s Tel Aviv.

Regarding the noisemakers and groggers, in addition to written testimony from different periods, we also have physical examples which survive from the 18th-century onwards. They first appeared in Europe and later spread to Eastern communities. Ethnographer Yom-Tov Lewinski, noted that “groggers originated in Greece” – meaning Ancient Greece. The Romans used them in various magical rituals and ceremonies, and during the Middle Ages, noisemakers became popular among Christian communities.

“He robed Mordecai, and led him on horseback through the city streets, proclaiming before him, “This is what is done for the man the king delights to honor!” The Scroll of Esther, 18th century, Amsterdam, the National Library of Israel

The custom of using groggers on Purim was likely born out of popular folk traditions (common among Middle Age Christians) that held that such noisemakers contained the power to exorcize evil demons and spirits. Groggers were used during weddings and violent storms, and even to welcome the coming of spring. During the buildup to Easter Sunday, when church bells were ordered silenced, groggers were used to summon Christian worshippers to prayer. On the eve of Easter, Christian youths used groggers to “beat” or punish Judas Iscariot, and from there, we can assume that the custom extended to Ashkenaz Jewry, who “beat” the figure of Haman the Wicked.

The first direct evidence of the use of Purim groggers dates to 19th-century Europe. We also have examples from the same period in the United States, especially in New York. This being said, in Mimi Reuter’s doctoral thesis, which assisted us greatly in the preparation of this article, she writes that “there appear to be two Purim groggers, which are dated to the 18th century, but it is likely that they are actually from a later period.”

Two early examples of groggers, Holland (left) and Italy (right), from The Book of Festivals – Purim, Lag Ba’Omer, Tu Be’Av, Yom-Tov Lewinski, Agudat Oneg Shabbat, (1950)

The Jewish grogger, or gragger, or gregger is known by many names. In Polish it is called a terkotka, in French crécelle and in Hungarian kereplő. In Hebrew the word for noisemaker is ra’ashan, derived from the root ra’ash (רעש), which simply means “noise”.

 

Thanks to Shirat-Miriam Shamir, aka Mimi Reuter, for her assistance in the preparation of this article.

 

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Who Are You, Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof?

The story of the three angels charged with safeguarding newborn babies and their mothers

The figures of Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof appear here from right to left

The quest for a proven, functioning magical amulet, one whose supernatural powers can be trusted with certainty, has led buyers to prefer amulets ordained with fixed and familiar mystic formulas. Since the most common Jewish amulets known to us are those designed to protect women giving birth, we can safely assume that the three angels who appear on these types of charms are among the most common figures associated with the Hebrew amulet. Their names are Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof.

This amulet was written on parchment. It is of Middle Eastern origin, made in the early or mid-20th century.

 

An amulet from the Bill Gross Collection, the National Library’s ‘Time Travel‘ Project

What is the origin of these three angels? In rabbinic literature, incorporating over 1,000 years of writing and interpretation, we find the names of several satanic figures that developed over time, each of them constantly trying to establish evil’s grip on the world. First among these Talmudic demons is Samael, often referred to euphemistically as Sitra Achra – “The Other Side”. He is considered to be the wicked Esau’s demonic master, and in Talmudic literature most of his evil deeds involve attempts to undermine the righteous.

Since the end of the Talmudic period, Samael has often been portrayed as the source of all evil; his agents charged with defeating the cause of good and righteousness. His main partner is his wife, Lilith. This monstrous couple was apparently first brought together in the 13th century, their combined powers allowing them to rule the realm of impurity.

A birth amulet featuring an illustration of Adam and Eve. The names of the three angels as well as those of Lilith and Satan, also appear. This is the earliest Jewish amulet to appear in paper print. Amsterdam, circa 1700. Source: Angels and Demons edited by Filip Vukosavovic

In Jewish mythology, Lilith is believed to be Adam’s first wife, who was banished before she was able to bear his children. In a desperate attempt to take revenge on Adam and all his offspring, Lilith devotes her efforts to harassing newborn children and their mothers. Two main roles are attributed to this demoness: strangling young children in their sleep, and seducing men – Lilith becomes pregnant with this wasted sperm, giving birth to demonic stepchildren. At this point, the three angels enter the picture.

In the 10th century text known as the Alphabet of ben Sirah, we find the story of Adam and Lilith. Adam’s first wife is described as having been created from dust, just as he was, “and therefore,” argues scholar Joseph Dan, “she saw herself as his equal in every aspect.”

In memory of Adam and Eve, excluding Lilith, a protective amulet against demons and harmful forces, from the exhibition book Back to the Shtetl – An-Sky and the Jewish Ethnographic Expedition, The Israel Museum, 1994

How was this sense of equality manifested? Lilith believed she could leave her husband, and as he refused to “accept this decree of equality in their sex life” – apparently meaning that Lilith wished to be on top of her husband during intercourse, “she fled from him and escaped.”

The angels who were sent to return the woman to her husband were Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof. The three failed in their mission; Lilith claimed that “the great demon has already come upon her,” referring to Samael, and could therefore no longer return to Adam. The angels were able, however, to extract a vow – that Lilith would not harm the offspring of Adam and his second wife, Eve.

An amulet with the names of the angels, and Adam and Eve, “excluding Lilith”. The names are surrounded by three frames: The first has illustrations of a birth and circumcision ceremony, the second frame consists of verses, and the third features decorative ornaments.

This promise is the foundation of the famous amulet used to this day by women following childbirth. The three angels were made popular by the Alphabet of ben Sirah, while the illustrations of their images in various amulets also contributed to their fame.

Eli Yassif, who studied the medieval stories of ben Sirah (or ben Sirach), claimed that the custom of writing amulets with the names of the angels dates back even earlier than the 8th century, its story intended to explain an existing custom. The same goes for the story of Lilith as the first woman, and her escape from Adam. It seems these tales were known even before they appeared in the stories of ben Sirah.

The angels’ very names – Senoy, Sansenoy and Semangelof – are seen as safeguards against Lilith’s actions. The amulets contain written text featuring the names of the angels as well as graphic motifs of their images. There is also a threatening vocal motif involved, emanating from the onomatopoeic sound of the names said together, which resembles sounds found in nature, like the hiss of a snake or the crackle of fire. The sound warns Lilith and gives her pause, making clear that she should not approach the mother and her newborn children.

The repetition of these sounds (sen-san-sen-sem) enhances the whip-like, whispering, threatening effect.

The names Senoy and Sansenoy are mentioned several times in first century Hebrew texts and they can also be found on an incantation bowl discovered at Nippur in modern-day Iraq.

An amulet for safeguarding a newborn child and its mother with an incantation against Lilith. A blank space is left for the name of the mother. The text notes the name of the amulet’s buyer: Sylman Ben Katton, for the protection of “the people in his home.”

On an incantation bowl kept at the National Library, which was inscribed in antiquity, long before the ben Sirah stories of the Middle Ages, we find the same narrative which appears on amulets protecting new mothers. On this bowl we find a text written by the author Duchtish Bat Bahrui, describing a character named Smamit, the mother of twelve sons who were killed by a brutal demon named Sideros. Smamit escapes the demon and flees to an isolated mountain where she builds a fortified home. Four guests protect Smamit from the demon; the names of three of them are Soney, Sosoney and Senigly. Though the names are not completely identical, the same whispering, threatening motif can be heard here as well.

A bowl with a Jewish Babylonian Aramaic inscription, The National Library collections

 

In Christian versions of similar amulets, the assisting forces are saints. Etymologically, we can trace the changes in the names of the angels/saints which have evolved over the years and which have been modified to suit any culture that embraced them. Senoy became Saint Sisoe, Sansenoy became Sisynios and Semangelof appears as Synidores.

An amulet for women after childbirth, The National Library’s Amulet Collection

Further reading:

Jewish Mysticism, Joseph Dan, Jerusalem : J. Aronson, 1999

Some sources of Jewish-Arabic demonology, Gershom Scholem, JJS, Vol. 16, 1965, p. 1-13

 

 

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On Gershom Scholem, Conspiracy Theories and Rabbinical Court Controversies

Marvin Antelman, an American rabbi and conspiracy theorist, was one of the many strange figures who wrote letters to Gershom Scholem, the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism. Scholem, however, was not impressed...

Gershom Scholem loved to write in his books. He wrote many types of comments; bibliographical, content, cross references, etc. Occasionally he also took swipes at other authors by pointing out flaws in their research. These comments usually appeared on or across from the title page. On one book he wrote “a waste of nice paper”, on another “woe is to the teacher that this [author] is called his student.”

In one particular volume, Scholem wrote “Nonsense based on me!!!​”. These words were scribbled on the inside cover of “To Eliminate the Opiate: The Frightening Inside Story of Communist and Conspiratorial Group Efforts to Destroy Jews, Judaism and Israel“, by Rabbi Marvin S. Antelman, published in New York – Tel Aviv in 1974.

Nonsense based on me!!!​” – Gershom Scholem’s words scribbled on a copy of “To Eliminate the Opiate” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

 

In his work Antelman (who also held a PhD in chemistry) painted a detailed conspiracy theory incorporating the Jewish Enlightenment, Reform Judaism and Communism, tracing their origins back to the false messianic movement of Shabbtai Zvi, his Polish successor Jacob Frank, the Illuminati movement and Jacobin Society.

The false messiah, Shabbtai Zvi

 

Here is where Scholem, the preeminent scholar of the Sabbatean movement enters our story. Antelman references him regarding the possible influence of the Sabbatean movement on the development of the Jewish Enlightenment and Reform movements but goes well beyond Scholem’s noting of a possible cultural influence –  Antelman lunges into a full-fledged conspiracy theory, so complex as to be beyond the scope of this article.

Antelman attempted to chart out his conspiracy theory…From “To Eliminate the Opiate” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel

 

Interestingly, Antelman’s book got him into hot water with the rabbinic establishment in his home town of Boston, where he was summoned by the local rabbinic court to defend the book. It wasn’t Antelman’s outlandish claims concerning the Reform movement and the Sabbatean roots of Communism that raised the ire of the Boston rabbis, however. What really got them upset was Antelman’s decision to take sides in a fierce 18th century controversy, by claiming that the famous sage Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz was a Sabbatean (a position also shared by Scholem). Antelman wrote back at length defending his position based upon prior rabbinical authority (Rabbi Yaacov Emden and others) and refused to submit to the authority of the Bet Din of the Massachusetts Council of Rabbis unless they met various conditions, including being able to call scholarly witnesses (Gershom Scholem?) to testify on his behalf.  He also mentions that he had at one time served as the New England Coordinator for the JDL [Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League]. It is also telling that whereas Antelman titles the subject of his letter “Reply to your summons…to answer heresy charges”, the word “heresy” appears nowhere on the actual summons that he received from the rabbinic court. . He later turned to a rabbinic court in Los Angeles which vindicated him of the charges.

…you are hereby summoned to appear before a Beth Din...” The Massachusetts Council of Rabbis’ letter to Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

 

Antelman sent the rabbinic court correspondence to Scholem, along with a personal letter. Scholem kept these letters together with the book in his collection.

One of Antelman’s letters to Scholem, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

 

In the 1990s Antelman published a Hebrew book on R. Yonatan Eibeschutz (Bechor Satan) detailing his prior claims, and here as well he relied heavily on Scholem’s research. In this book he published a copy of the letter from the Los Angeles Bet Din exonerating him of the heresy charges leveled in Boston.

Bechor Satan, Antelman’s book detailing his theories on Eibeschutz

 

This letter explicitly mentions “Professor Gershom Shalom” [Scholem] as the authority upon whom Antelman based his research regarding R. Eibeschutz. The Los Angeles rabbinic court even threw its support behind Antelman’s strange theories, claiming in the letter that he was “enlightening the Jewish reader in the danger of Reform, Conservative and Jewish Communists”. It is interesting to point out that though Scholem’s work was cited as a source by both Antelman and his friends in California, Scholem himself was hardly a typical example of Jewish orthodoxy.

The Los Angeles rabbinic court’s letter defending Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

 

Antelman eventually went on to serve as “Chief Justice” of the “Supreme Rabbinical Court of America” that he founded. Among the more dramatic acts of the court was the excommunication of American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976.

The Excommunication of Henry Kissinger” by Marvin Antelman, the Gershom Scholem Collection for Kabbalah and Hasidism at the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge

In his later years he was active in finding solutions for women who had difficulties receiving an halachic divorce. Antelman eventually made Aliyah and spent his last years in the Israeli city of Rehovot.

 

The author thanks Rabbis Elli Fischer and Daniel Yolkut for help with this research.

 

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Kehilot Moshe: The Discovery of a Rare Illustrated Bible

The Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe contain wonderful and unique illustrations, which feature rare examples of Jewish self-representation

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Song of Songs)

There’s nothing like discovering a rare, hidden masterpiece, right under your nose…

The Kehilot Moshe publication of 1724 was a celebrated achievement in its day. These days, any remaining volumes and complete sets of this mikraot gedolot, or rabbinic bible, are considered rare treasures in the world of biblical intellectual history and Jewish printmaking. Of all the remaining copies, The Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe represent a special category as pre-ordered special runs.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Kings 1). Click to enlarge

 

Unlike the other copies with woodblock title initials, the Twin Sets title registers were left blank. The folios were removed from the press, and passed along to artists for illustration. The unprinted areas in the Twin Sets were completed as a special project, probably a commission.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Kings 1). Click to enlarge

 

Select title initials include hand drawn text and decorative illustrations with figurative narrative bible scenes. Most works are delicately illustrated with ink gouache paint. Some are illuminated in gold.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Samuel 1). Click to enlarge

 

These figurative miniatures depict Jews as historical characters from the bible in classical costume, as well as characters in modern eighteenth century Dutch fashion. The bible characters include nude Adam and Eve, Moses, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Miriam, King David, a collection of putti, soldiers and many other figures. While representations of Dutch Jews of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be found in a myriad of different artworks and styles, these bible miniatures are of the few rare examples of Jewish self-representation.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Mishlei –Proverbs). Click to enlarge

 

The first set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe is on long-term loan from Richard and Debra Parkoff to Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library where it is being cared for by Shulamith Berger, Curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica at Yeshiva University Library. The second set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe was a more serendipitous finding. The special run of Kehilot Moshe was modestly hiding in an unmarked collection of three standard eighteenth century sets in the National Library of Israel’s Department of Manuscripts in Jerusalem. The National Library’s magnificent illustrated Kehilot Moshe includes seventeen miniatures of bible scenes. It is unknown who the artists were. Another unknown is who the Twin Sets’ original owners and patrons were. It was most likely a commissioned project, but there is no existing documentation.

 

What Can the Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe Teach us?

The Twin Sets are eye opening in their richness of Jewish art history, in what they can tell us about the early modern publishing industry and about the city of Amsterdam during this period. There are two especially valuable lessons to be learned here:

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Devarim – Deuteronomy). Click to enlarge

 

Firstly, the Kehilot Moshe, created by Moshe Frankfurt, the Amsterdam av beit din (rabbinic court judge) and master book printer, was a project of the Ashkenazi Dutch intellectual rabbinic elite. The figural depictions in a Jewish bible teach us to reexamine the preconception that traditional Judaism disparages representational art. Like other iconoclastic faith practices, this book represents a diversity of opinions and artistic traditions.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Song of Songs). Click to enlarge

 

Secondly, limited resources in book cataloguing limit our knowledge of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. Diminishing funds to the arts, and a diminishing focus on art works on paper and rare books makes it more difficult to know which of the remaining books may be illustrated. The Twin Sets remind us of the relevance of physical books, the necessity to continue to care for old books, and the vibrancy that collectors and libraries bring to cultural heritage.

 

Where Can You See the Twin Sets?

Since my visit in August 2019, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the National Library of Israel’s Judaica Collection has sent the books for conservation treatment and evaluation. Meanwhile, the images will be digitally recorded thanks to his immediate recognition of this hidden treasure.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Job). Click to enlarge

 

Images from the two editions that make up the Twin Sets will be featured together in Yeshiva University’s upcoming exhibition on Kehilot Moshe at Amsterdam Printing on Amsterdam Avenue in winter 2021 as part of a discussion on Jewish artistic traditions.

The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Book of Samuel 1). Click to enlarge

 

Underfunding in book cataloguing limits our knowledge of the quantity and quality of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. It is probable other illustrated sets of Kehilot Moshe are hidden in library stacks and private collections where they are waiting to be found. Perhaps there are even triple or quadruple sets waiting to be reunited.

 

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