Purim, Parody, and Pilpul

How this festival became a time for merriment and satire

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Or to take another example, the later custom of donning masks and costumes on Purim--a practice which is first reported in Provence in the early 14th century, and later achieved popularity under the influence of the German Fastnacht celebration and the Italian carnivals--was afterwards tied to the idea of God's "hiding his face" as found in the Talmud!

In contrast to the approach taken by the Palestinian sources, the Babylonian Talmud records the famous dictum of the noted sage Rava (Megillah 7b): "A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim to the point where he can no longer distinguish between 'Cursed is Haman' and 'Blessed is Mordecai.'"

Here, too, later authorities had trouble accepting the ruling at face value. For an arch-rationalist like Maimonides it was unimaginable that the halakhah [Jewish law] could be condoning such actions; hence he re-interpreted the ruling to refer to drinking only enough to fall asleep. Some authorities understood that the statement was rejected by the Talmud, a view which it indicates by juxtaposing to it an incident wherein Rabbah slaughters Rabbi Zera while under the influence. (Rabbah is able to revive his colleague, though the latter politely refuses an invitation to the next year's festivities).

Medieval Parodies

From these Talmudic beginnings we can trace the development of a whole genre of Purim parodies, wherein Jews would affectionately poke fun at the world of Talmud and halakhah. From the 12th century, Jews in Italy, southern France (Provence) and elsewhere were producing parodies on the Talmud, liturgy ,and other familiar pillars of Jewish life.

A typical "Purim Tractate" (Masekhet Purim) might follow the form of the Tractate Pesahim which deals with the regulations of Passover, except that all the stringent laws concerning the removal of leaven are now applied to water and non-alcoholic beverages, which are not to be tolerated on the holiday.

A special roster of biblical and rabbinic authorities populates these works. Alongside such drunkards as Noah and Lot we might encounter the prophet Habakbuk ("the Bottle"); as well as Rabbi Shakhra ("Drunkard"), or the commentary of Rasha ("Wicked"). In modern times especially, the format has been used to satirize a variety of social phenomena, from American Judaism to Israeli politics

It might be my imagination, but I have noted that in recent years it has become almost impossible to find these parodies, which used to be routinely reprinted before Purim. This might be indicative of an excessively defensive mood that has overtaken religious Jewry.

Particularly among German Jews there also developed the institution of the "Purim-shpiel," a rowdy play on the Megillah story (or other theme) traditionally performed on Purim. Absorbing a number of different traditions, from the German theater as well as from Jewish exegesis, these productions took great liberties with plot and characterization, such that Mordecai might appear as a pathetic buffoon, Haman as a tragic figure, and so on. Such irreverence could of course be tolerated only at Purim time.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.