Some Jewish holidays tend toward the solemn and subdued. Yom Kippur, a day of fasting and atonement that falls in September or October, is the prime example of Jewish observance at its most somber.
This weekend sees the opposite end of the spectrum with the celebration of Purim, the most carnival-like of Jewish holidays. For all the generations of children (and some adults) who have been shushed for making noise at services in houses of worship of any faith, this holiday is a time when it’s OK to cut loose even in a synagogue setting.
“Purim is a celebration of deliverance and continuity,” explains Rabbi Hersch Spalter of Chabad Lubavitch of Costa Rica.
The two-day observance begins on the 14th day of the month of Adar in the Jewish calendar, placing it in February or March in the secular calendar. Because the Jewish day runs sunset to sunset, rather than starting atmidnight, that means Purim gets under way tomorrow evening.
The festival commemorates events that took place in the fourth century B.C. and are described in the Book of Esther in the Bible, Spalter says. Esther’s intercession with King Ahasuerus of Persia spared the empire’s Jewish population – the entire Jewish population of the world at the time – from destruction at the hands of Haman, one of the government’s ministers who had given orders for them to be killed.
An observant Jew listens to a public reading of the story twice during the Purim holiday. The account is read from the Megillah, the scroll of Esther. It’s exactly that: a hand-inscribed, rolled parchment read in scroll form.
Therein enters the noisemaking traditionally associated with the holiday.
“It’s customary to make noise to blot out the name of Haman when he is mentioned during the reading,” Spalter explains.
Spalter says he has found that the Costa Rican community likes to create a ruckus at every mention of Haman’s name. Like many rabbis, he tries to limit it to specific points in the story when the name has a qualifier, such as “Haman the Wicked.”
“We’d never get through it otherwise,” he says, laughing.
Booing and stomping of feet are the norm. Old-timers here would write the name of Haman on the soles of their shoes or on two stones. Each thump of the feet to the ground or pounding of the stones would gradually erase the name.
One of Purim’s iconic symbols is a ratchet-like noisemaker, made of wood, metal or plastic these days. Twirling the ratchet rotates a board against a gearwheel, resulting in a distinctive rattling sound, always in vociferous evidence at Megillah readings.
Pick your language: The ratchet is a matraca in Spanish, a ra’ashan in Hebrew or a gragger in Yiddish. (The latter is the name that has been adopted by most English speakers.)
Costa Rican schoolchildren frequently give their own twist to the Megillah reading, according to Chana Spalter, co-director of Chabad Lubavitch. The outside of an empty aluminum soda can is often decorated with a picture of one of the characters from the Purim story: Esther, King Ahasuerus or Mordecai, the leader of the Jews, are the common themes.
What creates the noise?
“Put coffee beans or raw frijoles inside and shake them,” Spalter says. “It’s a uniquely Costa Rican noisemaker.”