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There's a fairly common custom to put on a play on Purim. Wikipedia has a short article about it here, which mentions that some are based on the story of the megillah, while others traditionally performed the story of Joseph (and his technicolor dreamcoat), Daniel, or Akeidas Yitzchak.

What's the earliest reference to a Purim shpiel in Jewish literature?

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    Fwiw, the Mir Yeshiva in Brooklyn stopped having their annual Purim shpiel when part of the play included the insight that המן is the same gematria as הנהלה. They replaced the entertainment with music and dancing. – user6591 Feb 16 '15 at 2:31
  • @user6591 Oh wow, that's great! :) – Shokhet Feb 16 '15 at 2:32
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This article from Yivo seems pretty thorough. Excerpts:

Various sources, particularly the Talmud (BT Meg. 7a–b, 9a; Sanh. 64b), mention entertainment at such celebrations associated with the reading of the Scroll of Esther, including pantomimes, parodies of liturgical texts, the custom of the carnival rabbi (Purim rov), and plays performed in the vernacular during the festive meal.

The purim-shpil developed continuously from the fifteenth century (or earlier) until the present, testimony to its central role in Jewish culture. Often it was larded with mocking references to personalities well known in the local community. One of the first appearances of the term purim-shpil dates from Italy in 1555, in a poem by Gumprecht of Szczebrzeszyn (Poland) inspired by the Scroll of Esther. In time, the tradition of the purim-shpil evolved into two main forms, while conventions developed governing writing styles, themes, and comic banter. One type of play was a performance based on the Scroll of Esther, in which serious thoughts intended for the edification of the audience alternated with burlesque scenes filled with obscenities, insults, and transgressive parodies in the carnival tradition of “the world turned upside down.” In 1598, a satirical poem in Yiddish mentions that a play titled Shpil fun toyb Yeklayn, zayn vayb Kendlayn un zeyer tsvey zinlekh fayn (The Play of Deaf Yeklayn, His Wife Kendlayn, and Their Two Fine Little Sons) was performed at Tannhausen every Purim.

There is more in the article, and several references as well.

Interesting reading, and very interesting question!

  • So....1555, you think? – Shokhet Feb 16 '15 at 2:08
  • @Shokhet - "Rav" Google led me to a few links on the topic. The other, which I did not include in my answer also indicated it was in the mid 1500's, although, IIRC, it mentioned some notions as far back as the Spanish Inquisition, but shpiels per se, may not have been as formalized until 1500's. – DanF Feb 16 '15 at 2:11
  • Interesting. I thought it would be in he range of 1800, maybe 1700....though there's always room to be surprised :) – Shokhet Feb 16 '15 at 2:12

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