Banging for Haman

February 3, 2013 | by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld

I find going to the synagogue on Purim to hear the Megillah an unnerving experience to say the least. Why do the children have to set off explosives and make such a ruckus at various times during the reading?

The Aish Rabbi Replies

You must be referring to universal practice to bang at the mention of the name of Haman, the story’s antagonist. Although children do tend to go overboard, there is a solid basis for this practice in Jewish tradition.

According to the Sages, Haman, who attempted to wipe out the Jews in the Purim story, descended from the wicked nation of Amalek. (He is referred to as Haman the Aggagite (Esther 3:1), and Agag was the Amaleki king whom King Saul failed to slay when he was commanded to wipe out the nation of Amalek. See I Samuel 15.)

Now Amalek was the first nation to attack the Israelites in the desert after the Exodus (see Exodus 17). As a result, God vowed that there would be an eternal war against Amalek until its nation would be totally destroyed (v. 16). The Torah also commanded that “we wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heavens,” and that we never forget the evil they did to us (Deut. 25:17-19).

On a philosophical level, Jewish thinkers see Amalek, in its denial of God and obsession with the destruction of the Jews, as the opposing force to Israel in this world. Israel represents belief in God and the purposefulness of existence. Amalek represents an equally strong denial of those very concepts. More generally, God created an equilibrium between good and evil in this world, as Solomon wrote, “This opposite that did God create” (Kohelet 7:14). The force that opposes the good we stand for is Amalek.

Given the mitzvah to wipe out Amalek and Haman being a shining example, the custom came about of destroying the name of Haman. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (the “Rema”, great Talmudist of 16th century Poland, known primarily for the glosses he wrote on the Shulchan Aruch, codifying Jewish law according to Ashkenazi practice) writes of an ancient custom to draw a picture of Haman or to write his name on a surface, and to then strike that surface until his name or image is erased. More recently, he continues, the custom has become to bang at every mention of Haman’s name during the recitation of the Megillah. He also adds that we should never annul or make light of a custom which has become widespread in Israel (Shu”a 190:16).

So yes, this practice is accepted custom today. Even so, there is no “extra credit” for making more noise than necessary. Many synagogues strictly ban children from bringing devices which contain gunpowder or which otherwise bring the noise to an intolerable level. It would be an excellent idea – well appreciated by most of your congregation – to suggest to your rabbi a similar injunction for your own synagogue.

Another important word of caution is in line. We are obligated to hear every word of the Megillah. The reader should take care to stop reading while the children (or grownups) are banging. And likewise, the children must refrain from banging or making any type of noise while the reader is reading (Mishna Berura 190:60). Children who are too small to remain quiet during the entire reading should not be brought to synagogue.

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