By Edmon J. Rodman, JTA
On Purim, can we really blot out the memory of an evil like 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, the 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 the Amalek, and when we hear his name, with groggers and noisemakers of every design, we attempt to symbolically blot it out.
Works for kids, but what about adults?
Since something in my hand that ratchets, clanks or booms at least aurally gets my attention, I pulled a couple of groggers off my bookshelves to hear if they would wake me up to anything else, like the mitzvah associated with Purim of helping the hungry. I gave a colorfully painted wooden one a twist. It would drown out Haman, but its sound didn’t ring any dinner bells. I gave a paper-mache Haman head on a stick with some rice inside a shake—it was cute but empty mouthed, and a hamantashen-shaped grogger—left me hungry for something more.
I wondered if I could find a better blotter.
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.
Since it’s not hard to imagine the result of having kids in synagogue with a couple of river rocks to smash together, a simple noisemaker seems to be a reasonable simulacrum for them.
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 faithfully observe the blotting mitzvah, I baked some pot into a batch of hamantashen; prune, as I recall. But since that’s about all that I remember from the evening, I may have over-blotted.
Generally speaking, the past blots out itself 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 US 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.
An organization called Fair Trade Judaica sells a wooden grogger, handmade in India, that gives Purim noisemaking a social action twist. The groggers are made in workshops organized by a group called the Shilpa Trust that works with economically and educationally disadvantaged artisans. The trust, according to the site, “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, this is 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 email@example.com.