Traditional Jewish life is rarely associated with theater or satire, but Purim is a time for turning things on their head. The Spiel (pronounced/also written: shpiel or schpiel), best defined as a satirical play, is one of the many well-loved customs associated with Purim.

That historians trace the origins of the Purim Spiel, which is an Ashkenazic tradition, to Medieval Europe is not surprising given the concurrent re-emergence of theater in the late Middle Ages. What began in the 14th century as humorous monologues about the Megillah, was transformed by the late 15th century into actual plays. The spiel began as creative retellings of the Purim story using costume and staging, and starring yeshiva students as actors. (Women did not perform in Middle Age theater.) In some towns the spiels were performed in the private homes of the wealthy following the holiday’s festive meal.

By the 18th century, the topics of the spiels expanded to include other Biblical stories in addition to the Book of Esther. All of these narratives were retold with melodrama and humor. Sometimes, however, the revelers got carried away, and performances became lewd to the point that there were communities that banned the spiels for several years.

Despite the occasional ban, Purim “spieling” became a beloved tradition. Imbued with the topsy-turvy spirit of Purim, many spiels were written to poke clean fun at the often “untouchable” leaders of their communities. The custom holds strong to this day, and in many communities, spielers take great pride in their communal contributions.

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