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Purim in Music

By Jonathan L. Friedmann

Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, instrumental music and general joy making were forbidden in synagogue worship. As Maimonides summed it up, "the Sages forbid the playing of musical instruments, and the enjoyment of melody and song of any kind, on account of the destruction of the Temple" (Mishneh Torah, Taaniyot 5:14). Since the very beginning of the exile, however, these restrictions were lifted on two occasions: Simchat Torah and Purim. In the case of Purim, this seemed a necessity. Not only does the lengthy Megillah reading and Purim atmosphere beg for musical levity, but its musical embellishments, along with the midrashic literature, helped to overcome the glaring problem of the Esther text: the absence of God.

Due to some strong rabbinic objection, inclusion of the Book of Esther in the Hebrew Bible did not come easy. So, once it was received, great efforts were made to resolve the omission of divinity. Rabbinic responses ranged from the notion that God's presence was concealed because of Israel's neglect of Torah, to the discovery of God's name hidden acrostically in the text—"Yavo Hamelekh V'Haman Hayom" ("The King and Haman will come today")—the first letters spelling out the tetragrammaton YHVH.

Various midrashic responses also found musical expression. Midrash Esther 2:11, for example, states that the vessels used at Ahasuerus' feast were taken from the Jerusalem Temple by Nebuchadnezzer in 586 BCE. As a result, at the mention of these vessels, the joyous Esther cantillation is replaced by the mournful mode of Lamentations, invoking the Ninth of Av (the day commemorating the Temple's destruction).

Also, in Esther 6:1, we are told of King Ahasuerus' night of sleeplessness. According to Midrash Esther 10:1, God, the King of kings, was likewise sleepless this night on account of his people's terrible plight. In Ashkenazi custom, this sentence is therefore sung with the elevated melody of Ha-Melekh ("The King"), used during the morning services of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, reminding the listener of God's implicit presence in the text.

The scroll, too, is traditionally read hastily, in the manner of a letter or document, and participants often employ less-than-reverent musical and theatrical shtick, creating a distinct tension between sanctity and silliness. Chanted with a measured degree of frivolity, the presentation of Esther is in keeping with Purim's requisite carnival-like spirit.

To be sure, such musical departures, aside from their sometimes "tongue in cheek" wittiness, provide a sacred context for the Esther scroll more penetrating than even homiletic writings. With carefully inserted musical clues—obvious to those dedicated shul-goers familiar with melodies used throughout the year—the midrashic insights come to life. Through direct musical symbolism, there emerges an awareness of the Divine and association with the destruction of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile—elements central to the rabbis' "deep reading" of the Esther text. Without the allowance for musical humor and flexibility on the day of Purim, these powerful musical clues would not be possible.

In addition to these interpretive musical embellishments, noisemaking at the mention of Haman's name has a long history. This custom has its source in Deuteronomy 25:19, where the command is made to "erase" the name of Amalek, the Israelite's first enemy after they left Egypt. In Ashkenazi tradition, the mentioning of Haman—believed to be a descendent of Amalek—is "erased" by raucous groggers. These devises have long been an indispensable part of the Megillah reading. And, interestingly, while the grogger has its origin in thirteenth-century Germany and France, anthropologists note that noisemaking of this kind was an ancient custom at the outgoing and incoming of seasons, intended to scare away evil spirits. Purim, which comes at the beginning of springtime, most likely adopted the grogger from such time-specific rituals.

Perhaps above all else, the joyous and lively presentation of the Esther scroll exemplifies the necessary balance of the serious and not so serious in Jewish life—a healthy outlook that has contributed immeasurably to the survival of the Jewish people. Just as Purim itself commemorates the defeat of ancient anti-Semitism, its solemn-yet-silly atmosphere reflects the triumph of joy essential to survival. As Phillip Goodman reflected in his book, The Purim Anthology, written just a few short years after World War II, "Notwithstanding the ever-present persecutions by new Hamans that arise in every generation, the Jewish people do not despair, for they have celebrated many Purims."


Jonathan L. Friedmann is Cantor at Bet Knesset Bamidbar in Las Vegas, and teaches religious studies at Whittier College.

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For more Purim articles, see our Purim Archives

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from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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