Sing a Song of Purim

 Mishenichnas Adar, marbim besimchah! (Ta'anit, 29a)

[When Adar comes in, there is lots of joy!]


Say "Purim", and we immediately conjure up pictures of merriment, clowns, fancy-dress costumes (such as this cute musical costume), story-telling, hamentashen, drinking, and, certainly not least, singing!




Q. How do you become a millionaire singing Jewish folksongs?
A. Start off as a billionaire!

Purim's four mitzvoth [religious commandments] derive from the Scroll of Esther, the first three of which provide us with plenty of opportunities to sing:

1. Listening to the Megillah   (Esther 9:28)
2. Eating the festive meal   (Esther 9:22)
3. Sending gifts of food   (Esther 9:22)
4. Giving gifts to the needy   (Esther 9:22)

1. Listening to the Megillah -  Singing the story of Purim


Telling and retelling the story of Purim - how Esther and Mordechai saved their people from annihilation in the reign of the Persian monarch Xerxes I - is a mitzvah that Jews the world over have kept with relish. Many of the verses of the Megillah [Scroll of Esther] and Talmud have been set to music. Here is a sampling. The National Sound Archive also presents a nice "potpourri" of religious and secular music for Purim.

Are graggers [noise-makers] counted as musical instruments? I suppose it depends upon who you ask! "Our custom of sounding noisemakers at the mention of Haman's name during the reading of the Megillah is a version of an old practice, which took on different forms through the generations. The earliest sources (from the writings of the Babylonian Ge'onim) speak of burning effigies of Haman on a bonfire. In medieval Europe children would write Haman's name on stones or wood blocks, and bang them until the name was erased." (Segal). Here are some more customs of how children around the world would deal with Haman!  

Purim parodies date from the 12th century. Ashkenazi Jews put on Purim-shpiels - that is, burlesques dating from the 14th century starring not only the Purim stock figures, but also other familiar Biblical characters.1 Purim-shpiels were originally performed in Yiddish. As Ahuva Belkin points out, "The Megillah was read in Hebrew, the language of religious literature, liturgy and scriptural commentary, while the carnival show required an everyday, informal language that everyone could understand. The vernacular Yiddish eased the transition from non-dramatic parody to theatre. The popular language shattered the solemnity of the ritual and of the biblical scheme, replacing them with parody and adding oral material such as sketches, jokes, satires and folk songs."

A modern "Megile" in Yiddish, by Itzik Manger (set to music by Dov Zeltser) tells the "true" story of Purim by anachronistically transposing the Biblical characters into the context of a lovesick apprentice tailor. (See Dos lid funem loyfer [Song of the herald]).Today purim-shpiels are performed in all languages, and are an endless source of creativity and musical enterprise. (Here, for example, is a politically-correct megillah and a world famous story of Purim!)


Q. Who was the greatest comedian in the Bible?
A. Samson.  He brought the house down!


Sephardic Jews tell the story of Purim in coplas, i.e., poems in Ladino composed from the late 17th century on, which deal largely with Jewish holidays and historical events. Coplas de Purim were among the first of the genre to be written, and they are also the most numerous. Broadly speaking, the content can be divided into three types: abbreviated versions of the entire story from the Book of Esther, descriptions of the Purim celebration (e.g., La celebracion de Purim) and burlesques about the "bad guys" in the book of Esther - especially Haman and his wife Zeresh. (Seroussi) All three are included in the informative disk produced by Voice of the Turtle: "The Sword of the Dove: Purim Songs in the Sephardi Tradition." Zeresh was particularly reviled in Sephardic folklore: the letters of her name stand for zona resha'ah shikorah [wicked, drunken whore]. A 21-stanza copla about Zeresh ridicules her vile physical appearance and character in loathsome detail – not only was Zeresh an apt partner for Haman, but she was also regarded as goading his wicked hatred of the Jews. (Raphael). Here is El testamento de Aman [Haman's will], a copla de Purim from Spanish Morocco which makes fun of Haman and his family. (See also the folksong Sen dale, ben dale).

The story of Purim is told and retold in piyutim [religious poems] and folksongs the world over. The piyut "Mi kamocha" [Who is like You], by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, which paraphrases the whole Megillah, is recited by Sephardic communities on Shabbat Zachor, the shabbat preceding Purim. Another piyut "Shoshanat Yaakov" is traditionally recited immediately after the reading of the Megillah. The phrase "Shoshanat Yaakov" [rose of Jacob] - which is reminiscent of the name of the city, Shushan, and the phrase in Song of Songs (2:2) "a rose among the thorns" - is used in many folksongs (e.g., Kum ikh arayn or Purim lid) to refer to the Jewish people. (Here is an extremely interesting article in Hebrew about this piyut). Numerous folksongs recount the story of Purim: here is a well-known song retelling the Purim story in English: "Haman was a wicked, wicked man."

A method of retelling the Megillah which has always been popular is the parody, especially in the style of Talmudic pilpul [subtle rabbinical disputation]. The Purim story, moreover, is an unending source of political satire, providing even greater scope for creative song-writing - see, for example, Billy Ray Sheet's Beverly Hillbillies interpretation of the previous American administration (scroll down the page), and, of course, it's impossible to miss the connection between Haman from Medes and Iranian Ahmadinejad!

Here is the traditional site of the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in present-day Hamadan, Iran, and the story of its restoration in the 1970's.


Q: What kind of man was Boaz before he married Ruth?
A: Ruthless!


Rafael, S. (2004). Asaper Shir - I will tell a poem: A study of the |Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) Coplas [In Hebrew]. Jerusalem, Carmel.
Weich-Shahak, S. (2006). En buen siman. Pardess.


2. Eating the festive meal – Eat, drink and be merry *


Q. What sort of food is permitted on Yom Kippur?
A. Fast food!


The Purim feast is lovingly described in several Sephardic coplas and songs: e.g., La Celebracion de Purim tells us about a feast of grilled and fried foods, including skewered sausages, marachinos [almond cookies], and, of course, plenty of wine. One version of Esta noche de Purim, a copla popular in north Africa, mentions vino, gallinas y arróz [wine, chicken and rice]. Another version of the same song includes the word alhawinadas [baked delicacies], which might include little cakes of various shapes – birds, ladders, or cats' paws. One of the places with elaborate Purim celebrations was Livorno, meeting-place since the Expulsion from Spain for a variety of Sephardic cultures. A well-known Purim song in Bagitto, the Livornese Jewish dialect, is Fate onore al bel Purim [Honour the beautiful Purim], a song admonishing women to concentrate on baking Purim delicacies!

Haman is eaten up in many shapes and flavors: in the form of homentashn ("Haman's pockets" 2, originating in Germany and gradually becoming standard Jewish fare), kreplach, foulares (thin strips of pastry dough placed over eggs to represent Haman's leg or foot, symbolizing his hanging or incarceration), or fazuelos (fried strips of pastry which represent Haman's ears). All these treats are well-represented in many Purim songs, including the one about the "half-burnt, half-raw" homentashn which Yakhne-Dvoshe brings to her mother-in-law! (While on the subject of food, look at the wonderful ways of baking challah for the Purim feast!)


The Purim festive meal is as much about drinking as eating. The Talmudic verse justifying this custom – chayav inish livesumei [A man is obliged to become inebriated until he cannot distinguish between “cursed is Haman,” and “Blessed is Mordechai.”] (Megilla, 7b) – is the text one of our most popular songs. The Ladino folksong Sen dale, ben dale [You give him, I give him] purportedly warns against the dangers of drinking too much wine, but everyone knows that, in the topsy-turvey world of Purim, the opposite is indicated! In general, Jews regard Purim intoxication as exceptional; however, there are lots of drinking songs in our folklore, indicating that we like alcohol more than we are prepared to admit!

Read about the Hasidic Purim tish [rabbi's table] in the article, "The live frog as prop in the Purim Play of the Bobover Hasidim". Here is a video of Hasidim singing, drinking and clowning at their Rebe's tish in Jerusalem:

(By the way, some people associate all Jewish festivals with feasting, but there's actually a healthy balance between feasting and fasting, viz the Yo-Yo diet guide to Jewish holidays
Rosh Hashanah -- Feast
Tzom Gedalia -- Fast
Yom Kippur -- More fasting
Sukkot -- Feast
Hoshanah Rabbah -- More feasting
Simchat Torah -- Keep feasting
Mar Heshvan -- No feasts or fasts for a whole month. Get a grip on yourself.
Chanukah -- Eat potato pancakes
Tenth of Tevet -- Do not eat potato pancakes
Tu B'Shevat -- Feast
Fast of Esther -- Fast
Purim -- Feast on pastry
Passover -- Do not eat pastry
Shavuot -- Dairy feast (cheesecake, blintzes etc.)

Seventeenth of Tammuz -- Fast (definitely no cheesecake or blintzes)
Tisha B'Av -- Very strict fast (don't even think about cheesecake or blintzes)
Month of Elul -- End of cycle.

Enrol in Center for Eating Disorders before High Holidays arrive again!)

3. Sending Gifts of Food  --  Mishloach Manot


Q. Who was the greatest financier in the Bible?
A. Noah. He was floating his stock while everyone else was in liquidation.

Of the four Purim commandments, giving money to the poor is probably the most noble, but I personally find the mitzvah of sending gifts of food to one's friends or neighbors - mishloach manot - the most endearing, and it's no wonder that there are lots of associated folksongs. The law is to send two portions of food which, ideally, can be eaten at the Purim feast without any further preparation. These usually include the stuffed pastries described above. 

Mishloach manot are sent to one's neighbours and friends, usually delivered by the children who have great fun dressing up as Purim characters (or anything else). This custom is described in such songs as Makht oyf  [Open up], A gut yontev yidn [Happy holiday], Shalakhmones [Purim portions], and El diya de Purim [The day of Purim]. Here is an amusing story by Sholem Aleichem (translated into Hebrew) about what can go wrong in the process of the delivery!

Marc Chagall's illustration
to Bella Chagall's "Burning Lights"

It's been said that the difference between mishloach manot and the Halloween tradition of "trick or treat" is that in the Jewish custom, the emphasis is on giving rather than receiving. That this isn't quite accurate can be gathered from the ditty "Haynt iz Purim" [Today is Purim] which shows that children probably expected and received a little monetary tip:
                    A guten purim ale-kh
                    Vi ikh gey fal ikh.
                    Di bord iz mir lang
                    Un dos vayb iz mir krank.
                    Haynt iz purim
                    Morgn iz oys,
                    Git mir a groshn / peni
                    Un varft mikh aroys.

[Happy Purim, everyone / wherever I go I fall. / The beard is long / my wife is ill. / Today is Purim / tomorrow it's over, / Give me a penny / and throw me out].

It's actually quite customary for children to receive purim money when they deliver the mishloach manot, or, as these are known in Sephardic communities, platicos. Flory Jagoda recounts a cute song about Madam Gashpar: "Right after Purim, Madame Gashpar, a very kind, rich lady in Sarajevo, gathered the children with their il dinaro di Purim [Purim money] in the town square near the Jewish Quarter. They would go shopping for little animals.' The humor of the song is a game where the children made Madame Gashpar guess how much each little animal cost. If she guessed wrong, she owed them one dinar. Naturally, she never guessed right, so each child collected a special dinar from Madame Gashpar." [Flory Jagoda – "La Nona"]

*          *          *          *          *

Jewish Humour 

Q. Who was the greatest woman financier in the Bible?
A. Pharaoh's daughter. She went down to the bank of the Nile and drew out a little prophet.

Most of the jokes on this page come from Rabbi Scheinerman's website. Some other recommended sites on Purim humor are Jacob Richman's Humor Pages and this JWeekly article. Believe it or not, there are lots of humorous stories in Talmudic literature. Here are two good reviews: Jewish Humor and Jewish Humor: A Hisory, There are lots of websites, for example Jewish Humor Central, a daily blog including a collection of sources of Jewish humor--anything that brings a grin, chuckle, laugh, guffaw, or just a warm feeling to readers.

Regarding humour in songs, here is an interesting article by Judith Cohen entitled "The lighter side of Judeo-Spanish traditional song". Making up parodies is a particularly "Purimy" thing to do, and  Mickey Katz is synonymous with parodies of popular American songs sung in "Yinglish". Last - and I hope not least - is my own essay on humour in Jewish folksongs: "Singing with a Smile".

Finally, if you're in any doubt about whether to celebrate Purim, here are ten good reasons to do so.

What’s your favorite Jewish joke? If you have any good jokes I can add to this page, please send them in!

  A man is having a problem with his son and goes to see his rabbi. "I sent him to Hebrew School and gave him a very expensive Bar Mitzvah," says the man, "and now he tells me he's decided to be a Christian! Rabbi, where did I go wrong?" "Funny you should come to me," said the Rabbi. "I also brought my boy up in the faith and gave him a fancy Bar Mitzvah. Then one day he, too, tells me he's decided to become a Christian." "So what did you do?" asked the man. "I turned to God for the answer" replied the Rabbi. "And what did he say?" pressed the man. "God said, 'Funny you should come to me...' "

A German, a Frenchman and a Jew are wandering in the desert.
The German says, “I’m so hot, I’m so thirsty, I must have a beer!”
The Frenchman says, “I’m so hot, I’m so thirsty, I must have some wine.”
The Jew says, “I’m so hot, I’m so thirsty, I must have diabetes.”

1 There are lots of Purimshpiels in English on the Internet. Here is a particularly good site.

2  Homentashen: For more discussions on the origin of this word, see: Yiddish Words of the Week, Philologos, and Brodt (1) and (2).


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