The Purim Shpiel Throughout History

Celebrate Purim with Historical Humorous Plays

Purim spiel performance at The Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland in March 2009.
Purim spiel performance at The Jewish Theatre in Warszawa, Poland in March 2009. Henry Kotowski/WikiCommons

One of the most endearing aspects of Judaism is the evolution of Jewish traditions over time, and the Purim shpiel is a prime example.

Meaning and Origins

Shpiel is a Yiddish word meaning “play" or "skit." Thus, the Purim shpiel (more accurately spelled Purim spiel, and, alternatively, Purim schpiel) is a special performance or presentation that takes place on Purim. This holiday takes place in the Spring and features joviality, shpiels, and the recitation of Megillat Esther (the Book of Esther), which tells of the saving of the Israelite people from Haman, who was planning to murder them all.

This festive activity started out as family, holiday entertainment and turned into professional performances — sometimes so vulgar that they were banned — for a paying public. In many cases, the Purim shpiel has become an outreach tool for American Jewish synagogues and communities.

The 1400s

In 15th century Europe, Ashkenazi Jews celebrated Purim with silly monologues. These monologues were generally rhymed paraphrases of the Book of Esther or parodies of holy texts or funny sermons to entertain audiences. 

The 1500s-1600s

By the beginning of the 1500s, it became customary for Purim shpiels to take place during the festive Purim meal in private homes. Yeshiva students were often recruited as actors, and they would wear masks and costumes.

Over time, the Purim shpiel evolved to have more rigid traditions and even competitions:

  • Amateur and professional entertainers were recruited for the Purim shpiels, with groups of touring players known as "Shpielers" performing in costume in people's homes.
  • A single narrator introduced, conducted, and concluded the shpiel.
  • Conventional prologues developed and included blessings for the audience, with an outline of the contents of the performance and an introduction of the actors. Conventional epilogues also were created and included parting blessings and appeals for contributions.
  • The humor in the shpiel often derived from erotic profanity and obscenity.
  • Purim shpiels sometimes included contests between cantors.

The 1700s-1800s

Although the content of early Purim shpiels was based on contemporary Jewish life and well-known humorous tales, by the late 17th century Purim shpiels began to incorporate biblical themes. The Achashverosh Shpiel refers to a shpiel specifically pulling from the story in the Book of Esther. Over time, Biblical themes expanded, and popular themes included The Selling of Joseph, David and Goliath, The Sacrifice of Isaac, Hannah and Penina, and The Wisdom of Solomon.

Profanity and obscenity — like other traditional Purim shpiel elements such as prologue, narration, epilogue, parodies, and current events — remained a part of these biblical-themed Purim shpiels. The city fathers of Frankfort, Germany burned a printed Achashverosh Shpiel because of its vulgarity. Leaders of the Hamburg community banned the performance of all Purim shpiels in 1728, and special investigating officers fined anyone violating this ban.

Although early Purim shpiels were brief and performed by a few performers in private homes, 18th century Purim shpiels evolved into longer dramas with musical accompaniment and large casts.

These shpiels were performed in public places for a fixed admission price.

Modern Times

Today the Purim shpiel is still performed in many communities and synagogues. Some are brief, rhyming, humorous monologues, while others include puppet shows performed for small children. In other cases, the Purim spiel is an elaborate parody of a Broadway play, with scenery, costumes, singing, dancing, and more.

Whatever their format, today's Purim spiel is an example of Jewish continuity through a tradition begun hundreds of years ago and, because of their fun nature, are likely to help this Jewish holiday tradition persevere in the future.

Scripts for Purim Plays

    Edited by Chaviva Gordon-Bennett in January 2016.