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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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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