The Gragger, Purim and Amalek
By Avi Lazerson
A gragger, sometimes pronounced grogger, is a special Purim noise maker which is comprised of a handle and a revolving part that makes noise as it is revolved. Normally, making noise in the synagogue is forbidden during services, but on Purim even the adults join the children to make noise during certain parts in the reading of the Megilah.
Each time the mention of the evil enemy of the Jews, Haman, is mentioned during the reading of the Megilah, the custom is to make noise and the gragger is the traditional Purim noise maker. Today, however, cap guns and horns seem to have come into use as well as table banging and foot stomping. Many are against the cap guns because they are too loud and annoy others, so discretion must be used.
What is the meaning of this odd custom and how did it start?
We can find our answer in the Torah reading on the Shabbat before Purim which is called Shabbat Zachor. On this Shabbat we take a second Sefer Torah, in addition to the one for the regular weekly portion, out from the holy Ark and read a special portion. This special portion begins with the word Zachor remember! In this portion we read the special commandment to remember what Amalek did to us when our ancestors had just left Egypt. The nation of Amalek, the grandchildren of wicked Esau, attacked the newly liberated Jews as they marched on their way to the promised land, Israel. It was not the normal mode of attack, but rather they attacked from the rear, attacking those who were the 'stragglers' and the weak who rested a bit on the journey and distanced themselves from the main body of Jews.
Joshua, under the command of Moses, responded to the attack. He lead an army of men, and as Moses prayed, Joshua and his men fought Amalek until they ran in defeat. Because of this nasty unprovoked attack the Torah commanded the Jews to eliminate Amalek from the face of the earth and in addition to wipe out his memory. Amalek is the enemy not only of the Jews but also of G-d.
What does this have to do with Purim?
Haman was a descendent of Agag, as it is written in the Megilah, Haman the Agagite. Agag was the king of Amalek during the reign of King Saul. Saul was told by the prophet Samuel to wipe out the Amalekites but instead of killing Agag, he left him alive as a prisoner. Samuel was upset with Saul's seeming kindness to a mortal enemy, one that the Torah commanded us to destroy, and told him that because he did not kill King Agag, Saul's reign would pass to some one else - that some one else was King David.
Haman was a descendent of Agag, like Hitler after him, and so many other vicious anti-Semites to whom the hatred of Jews becomes a compulsive portion in their lives. The opportunity to eliminate Amalek and all anti-Semites was lost when Saul failed in his mission.
In olden days there was a custom in many communities to make a dummy in the likeness of Haman and destroy it on Purim. This custom was stopped and in its place another custom came, the writing of Haman's name on the bottom of the shoes and then wiping it on the floor or sidewalk to erase it. Others would write the name of Haman on the floor of the synagogue and then by wiping the shoes over it erase the name. From this came the custom to stomp the feet at the mention of Haman during the reading of the Megilah. From the stomping of the shoes gave way to the creation of a loud noise-makers, the gragger.
Amalek was not merely evil, and not merely anti-Semitic, Amalek was anti-G-d if such a concept can be understood. Amalek had no reason to attack the Jews, they certainly did not present any threat to their peace, but since the Jews had just had such divine revelations and were elevated into such holiness through witnessing the ten plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea, it was just this elevation of a people into holiness which angered Amalek. Whereas most people are more concerned with their own lives and do not envy others' successes, Amalek was worse. They were against the revelation of G-d; they were the sworn enemy of G-d as shown by their actions of attacking an innocent people who possessed no threat to them what so ever.
Amalek directed his attack at the weak and stranglers, not at the main body of the Jewish people. Today Amalek is still amongst us; he looks for those weak Jews who have separated them selves from the main body of Judaism. His agents come to them and tell them that there is no G-d in the midst of the Jews. Whether they are missionaries or anti-Semites they are still Amalek and still our enemy; we just have tremendous difficulty identifying the real Amalek.
Just like in Shushan, the capital of ancient Persia, the wicked Haman plotted to kill all of the Jews. These same Jews were lax in their mitzvah observance. When ever G-d sees that the Jews are wavering in their faith, G-d sends them Amalek. This is what happened in Persia and in Germany and Russia when Jews tried to assimilate, G-d let Amalek come and punish them.
But Haman and Amalek can have no power over us when we Jews as a collective body are true to our G-d. As long as we are strong in our faith and live according to G-d's commandments, He will protect us from wicked people such as Amalek and Haman. But once we slack off our observance and begin to alter our belief, we lose our divine protection.
That is the message of Amalek: the gragger is like an alarm clock that comes to remind us to remember to eliminate the memory of Amalek from this world; that we all should return to G-d with a whole and pure heart. In this manner, we will reach the joy of G-d's divine protection and only then shall we live secure.
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For more articles on Purim, see our Purim Archives
from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine