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Violence and Vengeance: Purim and Good Friday

The following was delivered as a derashah (sermon) on the day after Purim in 2008. Purim celebrates the events of the Book of Esther and falls exactly a month before Passover. It is celebrated by reading the book of Esther and celebrating the downfall of Haman, giving gifts to the poor, giving gifts of food one to another, and in general by parties and having fun, including wearing costumes. All of these would be difficult to observe, confined to one’s home. On years when Jews add a “leap month” before Passover but Christians do not postpone Easter similarly, Purim will fall at some point during Holy Week.

Shabbat Parshat Tzav, 15 Adar II 5768 | March 22, 1998
Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, Newton Centre, MA

Can you imagine had we all been confined to quarters yesterday, as well as today and tomorrow? This was the reality, not because of Purim, but because of Christian Holy Week, for our ancestors in medieval Europe. Perhaps had we lived in a walled ghetto with the gates tight shut, it wouldn’t have been so bad, as we would have had freedom to celebrate within those walls. But medieval Jewish quarters often didn’t have their own walls, and Jews and Christians lived as neighbors. Under such circumstances, those occasional years when Purim and Good Friday coincided must have been very difficult; for Jews, the joy of Purim must sometimes have mixed with terror.

Medieval legislation frequently confined Jews to quarters during Holy Week, ostensibly for the Jews’ own protection. The ritual recollection of the events of Jesus’ passion regularly resulted in anti-Jewish violence that David Nirenberg has described as “annual, customary, and quasi-liturgical.”1 Christians, from early on, identified their contemporary Jews with the Jews portrayed in the Gospel narratives and considered their neighbors as personally and perpetually guilty for Jesus’ crucifixion.

As medieval Christianity evolved, the Good Friday commemoration of the crucifixion became increasingly representational, adding dramatic elements, including, especially, passion plays depicting the ancient Jews according to contemporary images and stereotypes. Little wonder that communities not infrequently sought vengeance against the Christ-killers in their midst, perpetrating acts of violence against Jews and Jewish property. Such violence is first recorded in 1018 in Toulouse, and it was common for centuries throughout the European communities of the Mediterranean basin, often led by the clergy (or teenaged clergy in training) and resisted by the governing bodies only if property damage was too extensive.

Often, Nirenberg claims, the violence consisted mostly of stoning the walls of the Jewish quarter, ringing bells and making lots of noise. In other words, the violence was more ritual than real. In fact, he argues that this ritualized violence helped to contain the potential for real violence that lay in the desire for vengeance. According to a reigning Christian myth, Jews ought to be killed in punishment for their crime, but Jesus desired that they remain alive so that his passion would be remembered.2 Hence, the violence could not be allowed to become too extreme.

Aspects of this persisted into the twentieth century in Spain, where Jews were mostly absent. Nirenberg cites a song from modern Asturias, sung by children (on Holy Thursday): Marrano Jews: you killed God, now we kill you. Thieving Jews: First you kill Christ and now you come to rob Christians.”

Now add Purim to this mix. When our leap-year calculations differ, Purim regularly falls during Holy Week, sometimes even on Good Friday precisely.3 In years like this one, while Christians mourn, we are having a wild party, wearing silly costumes, putting on our own dramatic productions, getting drunk. Place that juxtaposition in the intimate setting of a medieval town! In this context, some Jews have regularly burned, hung or even crucified effigies of Haman. Already in 408, Theodosius ruled against this on the presumption that Jews understood Haman to represent Jesus. As Elliot Horowitz demonstrates in his book, Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence, this presumption was often correct, and Haman came to represent, if not Jesus himself, then the Christian oppressors among whom Jews were living.

Eventually, the Jewish customs of reenacting Haman’s death contributed to the formation of the blood libel accusation against Jews. In the course of the Damascus blood libel in 1840 (not a year in which Easter and Purim coincided), one of the accusations raised was that on Purim, “Jews would annually perform a homicide in hateful memory of Haman, and if they managed to kill a Christian, the rabbi would bake the latter’s blood in triangular pastries [themselves mocking the trinity], which he would send as [mishloah manot (gifts of food)] to his Christian friends.”4

What we have then is a season of enormous tensions, of two communities recalling and reenacting stories that embed within them potentials and even spurs to violence against each other. Christian communities had ways to work out this violence publicly, usually in contained fashion. For Jews, as a suspect minority, it had to be much more subtly expressed, for the most part. But it became a season of distrust.

Let’s now focus on the Jewish side of this dynamic. On the one hand, this is the place where we really have a responsibility and a say in what we think and do. On the other hand, the most egregious elements of Christian anti-Jewish rituals connected with Holy Week have disappeared with time and especially with the post-Holocaust thinking about the consequences of Christian anti-Judaism. There are Christian theologians who are working hard to confront and rework what remains – not an easy task, and one complicated by the current Pope’s recent actions.5 But that is their work to do and we can at best be available to listen to and support their work.

But what about this legacy of Jewish violence? Horowitz’s book points to its historical existence, encouraging us to be self-critical rather than self-righteous. But while there are aspects of Purim that encourage popular violence, there are also very strong voices from our authoritative traditions that steer us away from actually acting on this tendency. Just as very little Christian violence against Jews had official support from official Church teachings, so too Jewish tradition deflects our violent emotions into calls for God to take vengeance. This may be because until the rise of Zionism and the modern state of Israel, Jews had little ability to take matters into their own hands, at least collectively. But I think there is something bigger going on.

Where does Purim encourage violence? Today we ritualize it as noisemaking, blotting out the name of Haman. But as Jews were coming into modernity in the 18th century, this was something that various communities tried to restrain, trying – often unsuccessfully – to impose “no frills” readings exclusively. To a certain extent, they were concerned merely with decorum and making Judaism seem like a worthy religious community in gentile eyes, but there seems also to have been a discomfort with the vengeful message of blotting out Haman, especially as this found other more dramatic expressions. I’ve mentioned the re-enactments of Haman’s hanging. Italian Jews, from at least the 13th c., had a custom of smashing a jar. According to a Jewish source, this was accompanied by the recitation of Isaiah 30:14, “And its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel, which is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a sherd is to be found...” According to Christian sources, this was accompanied by a curse against Christians: Just as Haman was brought to grief, so too may the reign of Christianity be immediately brought to grief.6

Destroying the memory of Amalek also contains seeds for violence. We have managed better to remember about this mitzvah than to destroy Amalek’s memory, mostly because our people have pretty consistently dubbed their current enemies with the title. Shabbat Zakhor is the Sabbath before Purim whose special reading is about remembering Amalek. Kalir's poetry, recited on that day in Ashkenazi tradition pretty universally until the 19th century, identified Amalek with Christendom. And the tendency has been very strong in some circles today to find Amalek’s presence in Palestinian terrorists. At the funerals of the students recently murdered by a terrorist at the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Rabbi Ya'akov Shapira said, "The murderers are the Amalek of our day, coming to remind us that Amalek has not disappeared, just changed its appearance."7

Elliot Horowitz worries about the fact that, in contemporary Israel, Jews have the power to act on this identification. He begins and ends Reckless Rites with Baruch Goldstein and his massacre of Arabs at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim in 1994. This he presents not as an isolated occurrence, but within the context of annual Purim parades through Hebron, past Palestinian shops and dwellings, with an effigy of Haman draped in a kaffiyeh.

My point in raising this is not to be overly political but to acknowledge this folk tradition of overt and even active expressions of vengeance, and to contrast it with our liturgical responses to the same emotional situations. On the one hand, we need communal responses to our situations of persecution and oppression, to validate our anger and our pain, and to allow us to deal with them; but on the other hand, what our liturgy traditionally does is to divert us from active personal responses by placing the onus for actually solving the situation in God’s hands. In general, this is not the way that Judaism works; in most situations, we are expected to do our human best to solve the situation. That is what makes this liturgical response so powerful and deserving of attention.

Some examples:

  • Av Harahamim (Father of Mercies) is a memorial prayer written in the aftermath of the massacres that accompanied the First Crusade in the Rhineland. Its entire second half is a call for divine vengeance.
  • Shefokh Hamatekha (Pour out Your wrath) in the Passover haggadah.
  • Less well known is that in the blessing following the haftarah, our text is a censored text. Where we recite ולעלובת נפש תושיע במהרה בימינו "to the one who is deeply humiliated bring salvation speedily in our day,” all medieval manuscripts that I’ve checked (and that is many of them) read ולעלובת נפש תנקום נקמה “ "for the one who is deeply humiliated wreak vengeance…”
  • The same theme enters the post-Crusades Ashkenazi versions of אבינו מלכינו (Our Father our King), recited primarily on the High Holy Days but also part of other penitential liturgies.
  • And of course, when we recited Psalms two weeks ago in response to the massacre in Mercaz Harav, we began with Psalm 94, that opens: א-ל נקמות ה' א-ל נקמות הופיע "God of vengeance, Hashem, God of vengeance, appear!” and ends by calling on God to cut off the enemies of Israel in punishment.

But our most timely example is the blessing that concludes the megillah reading, the reading of Esther on Purim. It praises God, הרב את ריבנו , “who fights our fight,” והדן את דיננו , “who judges our claim,” והנוקם את נקמתינו , “who takes revenge for us,” והנפרע לנו מצרינו , “who punishes our oppressors,” והמשלם גמול לכל איובי נפשנו , “and repays all our mortal enemies as they deserve.” The blessing then concludes, praising God, הנפרע לעמו ישראל מכל צריהם, הק-ל המושיע , “who deals out punishment to the oppressors of Israel Your people, redeeming God.”

Why this superfluity of language? On the one hand, it adds emphasis to the statement that vengeance belongs to God. Rabbis of the High Middle Ages, like the Meiri8 and Abudarham, suggest that these six phrases correspond to the six interactions that Israel had with Amalek in Tanakh. But the most powerful explanation that I found is that of the Beit Yosef.9

We need to hold in mind that Yosef Karo, the Beit Yosef, was expelled from Spain when he was three or four and then from Portugal five years later. Amalek must have been very real for him. He gives each of the five phrases of the body of the blessing specific intent, referring to different ways that nations can be Israel’s enemies.

הרב את ריבנו (who fights our fight) applies to nations who persecute Jews for no reason; הדן את דיננו (who judges our claim) applies to nations who persecute while making a specific accusation; sometimes persecutions come as punishment for Jewish sins, but after we have suffered appropriately, God, הנוקם את נקמתנו (who takes revenge for us), still wreaks vengeance on our persecutors. המשלם גמול לכל אויבי נפשנו (and repays all our mortal enemies as they deserve ) refers to cases where enemies do this from hatred of Jews and God repays them measure for measure; הנפרע לנו מצרינו (who punishes our oppressors) to cases where they are acting on the orders of their lords.10

The Beit Yosef then concludes with a discussion of the juxtaposition of language in the concluding eulogy. Where the anonymous voice of the Talmud concludes the blessing הנפרע לעמו ישראל מכל צריהם , “who deals out punishment to the enemies of Israel,” Rava suggests an alternative text, הק-ל המושיע , “the God who saves,” and Rav Papa characteristically comments הלכך נימרינהו לתרוייהו "therefore let us recite them both” – which is what we do. According to the Beit Yosef, the significance of this is that, “It is not good behavior to cause harm or to rejoice over the harm to any human being, even though he might be evil… Therefore the blessing concludes with הנפרע לעמו ישראל מכל צריהם הק-ל המושיע (who deals out punishment to the enemies of Israel, the God who saves), that is to say that the Holy One exacts recompense from Israel’s enemies, but the purpose of the vengeance is only to save Israel, so that those who are left and the coming generations will hear and see and will no longer deliberately sin (Dt 17:13).” He concludes with a comparison to human kings. Unlike humans who wreak vengeance even when there is no benefit, God does so only in order to save Israel.

Vengeance, then, is only God’s, but beyond that, even God turns to it only sparingly. Even under the most dire of circumstances, to reiterate, “It is not good behavior to cause harm or to rejoice over the harm to any human being.”

In a season when tensions between Jews and their neighbors have historically run high, this is a good teaching to remember. According to the JTA, the same Rabbi Shapiro who compared Palestinians to Amalek, also on the Monday after the attack at Mercaz, “convened all the yeshiva’s students to make clear he would oppose any revenge attacks or other provocations in east Jerusalem, where the Palestinian gunman lived.”11 That some didn’t listen is beside the point.

We have traditions of violence; we have reasons to desire vengeance. But we also have traditions calling on us to leave vengeance to God, yes to defend ourselves, but with deep sadness that it is necessary and with minimum damage to others. God is הנוקם את נקמתנו (the one who takes revenge for us) – and we are not.
It seems appropriate to conclude with the final words of today’s haftarah:

כִּי אֲנִי יְקֹוָק עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ כִּי בְאֵלֶּה חָפַצְתִּי נְאֻם יְקֹוָק :
"For I am the Eternal who acts with lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness, for these are what I desire, says the Eternal.” (Jeremiah 9:23b)


1. “The Two Faces of Secular Violence Against Jews” reprinted from his Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages” Ch. 7, in Medieval Religion: New Approaches, . 379.

2. Nirenberg, 390. He adds another layer of complexity to this discussion, that the stoning was a re-enactment of the destruction of Jerusalem. Royal defense of the Jews also meant that attacks on the Jewish quarter were clerical attacks on the crown – yet another layer of complexity.

3. It has not been simple to find historical examples responding to this coincidence. But see The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: A Historical Reader, ed. Wilma Abeles Iggers (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992), p. 62, which presents a police report responding to an illegal Jewish ball held to celebrate Purim in Kasejovice on April 24, 1799, Good Friday, in contravention of court decrees of March 5, 1796 and February 15, 1799. Note that there is likely some error in the dates, as April 24 is too late for Purim.

4. Horowitz, Reckless Rites, 219, citing Relations Historique des Arraires de Syrie depuis 1840 jusqu’en 1842.

5. Referring particularly to the new Good Friday prayer for the Tridentine Rite.

6. Horowitz, 272. My rough translation from the Latin.

7. Haaretz 3-7-08 “Yeshiva head: Jerusalem killing is continuation of 1929 massacres”

8. B. Megillah 21b.

9. OH 692. This material was censored out of the standard printed editions, but appears in the 1993-4 edition on the Bar Ilan CD version 15.

10. This is the part of the commentary that apparently led to the censorship of the whole…

11. 3/12/2008, http://www.jta.org/cgh-bin/iowa/breaking/107485.html