Where Do Purim 'Spiels' Come From?

Scholars have long believed these satirical performances originated in a poem from the 1500s, but a careful reading of the Talmud reveals a spiel that extends far further back in history than that.

Purim spiel performance in The Jewish Theatre of Warsaw, Poland in March 2009.
Wikimedia Commons / Henryk Kotowski

Where do Purim "spiels" come from? These satirical performances, stories or songs – which often mock an aspect of the Book of Esther or community leaders, like rabbis and cantors – are as central to the joyful Jewish holiday as costumes. Nobody really knows when or why they began, but scholars have found the first recorded reference to the Yiddish term, which was derived from the word for “play," in a poem from the 1500s. Many believe that the custom of telling Purim spiels arose as part of the general merriment that accompanies drinking alcohol on this holiday.

But a careful reading of the Talmud reveals a story from long before the 1500s that may in fact be the first Purim spiel. And in it lies a critique of the custom of drinking on Purim.

Immediately after the Talmud recounts Rava's famous instruction to "drink on Purim until that person cannot distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai" (Megillah 7b), it tells a bizarre story about him and another rabbi, Zera. Rava* kills Rabbi Zera during the Purim meal, revives him, and then asks him to join him for another Purim meal the following year. Rabbi Zera declines his invitation, saying "Miracles don’t happen all the time."

This story has perplexed Talmud commentators for centuries. Those who have taken it literally have struggled to understand how Rava was able to revive Rabbi Zera from the dead and, of course, why Rava would kill him in the first place. Those who have interpreted it metaphorically have been stumped as to why the Talmud tells the story at all, especially since it portrays Rava acting out of control while following his own prescription to drink alcohol on Purim.

But this is actually the critical point. The story aims to make a fool out of Rava.  

Last year, I explained that Rava recommended drinking on Purim in order to help people ease their minds into accepting that Mordechai was actually a villain, rather than a hero. A number of people critiqued what I wrote because I dared question the traditional premise that Mordechai was noble.

Similarly, and not surprisingly, many people were unhappy when Rava first made this argument, over 1,500 years ago. But because Rava was one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, his critics couldn’t attack him outright. Instead, they wrote a satirical story -- one that might have been called a spiel if they spoke Yiddish – about him and his views.

The story is overflowing with sarcasm that alludes to teachings from throughout the Talmud. Reading into the symbolism behind each part of the story reveals that its authors make fun of Rava for his views about drinking and, more importantly, about Purim.

1. The central premise: Rava got so drunk that he killed his friend. As I explained last year, Rava wanted people to drink on Purim not to become drunk, but because he thought that, in moderation, “wine and incense help people achieve deeper insight” (Yoma 76b; Sanhedrin 70a).  The anonymous authors of our story didn’t like the insight that Rava wanted people to gain -- that Mordechai was a villain – so they insinuated that drinking in moderation was impossible.  To make their point, not only did they tell a story in which Rava takes his own prescription too far; but the particular type of excess – murder – also mocks Rava for not recognizing that another famous Talmudic saying of his – “wine leads to bloodshed” (Sanhedrin 70a) – undermines the feasibility of drinking in moderation.

2. Rava and Rabbi Zera appear in the same story, despite having lived in different places, at different times. At first glance, there is nothing odd about Rava and Rabbi Zera having a Purim feast together. But on closer inspection, one realizes these Talmud-era sages lived in different rabbinical generations and in different parts of the world. Rava was part of the fourth-generation of Talmudic rabbis in Babylon while Rabbi Zera was part of the third-generation in the land of Israel. So why did the authors of our story put them together? Because they are the only two Talmud-era rabbis who thought it was better to transgress certain Jewish prohibitions on idolatry than to risk one’s life. (Rava had criticized Mordechai for risking the lives of Jewish people instead of bowing to Haman, while Rabbi Zera thought it was better to worship idols than put Jewish lives at risk, Avoda Zara 54a.)

3. Rabbi Zera says miracles don't happen, just after one did happen. Rabbi Zera’s refusal not to be slaughtered again the next year is not simply a rejection of Rava’s invitation. In the story, Rabbi Zera says that “miracles don’t happen all the time.” It seems like a logical statement to the modern reader, but in a world where miracles do happen, why wouldn’t a miracle occur next year, just as it did this year when Rava revived Rabbi Zera? This question is posed elsewhere in the Talmud (Berakhot 20a), using almost identical phraseology. There, Abaye, a contemporary of Rava who expressly disagreed with his assertion that Mordechai did the wrong thing (Sanhedrin 61b), answered that the reason miracles no longer occur regularly was because Jews were not willing to die to sanctify God’s name – exactly what Mordechai-as-hero was willing to do. The message is clear: Rava and Rabbi Zera do not appreciate Mordechai, so they don’t get to count on miracles from God.

Read properly, the story about Rava and Rabbi Zera packs multiple layers of critique into a few punchy lines. As the first recorded Purim spiel, it also serves as a model of how powerful and evocative well-crafted satire can be.

*For the Talmud junkies reading this: You may notice that the commonly-found printed version of the Vilna edition tells the story about Rabbi Zera and Rabbah, rather than Rava. Earlier manuscripts demonstrate that this is clearly a typographical error.

Ayalon Eliach is a lawyer and a rabbinical student at Hebrew College. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. He is passionate about using religion as a source of connection rather than separation in the world. He tweets at @ayaloneliach.