The Purim Grogger's Name Comes from Spain

The holiday noisemaker bears a suspicious resemblance to the Spanish carraca.

Jewish teens from Ukraine wave groggers as they celebrate celebrate Purim on March 17, 2022 in Berlin. Omer Messinger/Getty Images.
Jewish teens from Ukraine wave groggers as they celebrate celebrate Purim on March 17, 2022 in Berlin. Omer Messinger/Getty Images.
March 14 2024
About Philologos

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him yourself at [email protected].

It’s still not too late to order your Purim noisemakers. That’s how the “groggers” that drown out the name of Haman during the Megillah reading are generally known in English, and they range on Judaica sites from simple wooden ones to sterling silver. Yet “noisemaker” is a term that can denote anything from a clarinet to a kettledrum and from a kazoo to a vuvuzela. Doesn’t English have anything more specific?

It does. But let’s first start with the Yiddish word grager itself. Since nobody has managed to connect it with any of the languages from which Yiddish has derived its vocabulary, its origins are presumed to be indigenous and to lie in an onomatopoeic imitation of the grogger’s sound. Although “grogger” has essentially the same first syllable as Greek krotalon and Latin crotalus (“g” and “k” or hard “c” frequently interchange in the history of languages), two words that designated a variety of ancient percussion instruments like clappers, castanets, and rattles and that are still in use in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, there’s no reason to think it descends from them.

Groggers belong to the rattle category of the krotalon/crotalus group, and anyone familiar with them who has had the pleasure of encountering a rattlesnake, Crotalus cerastes, knows how much its warning signal resembles a grogger’s clackety whir. Shall we then call groggers “Purim rattles?” That’s better than “Purim noisemakers” but still not exact enough, there being many different types of rattles, too. A rattlesnake’s works by vibrations of the hollow scales in its tail; a baby’s by shaking a sphere filled with pellets. In the traditional grogger, on the other hand, a small wooden board whirled by a handle passes over the teeth of a cogwheel, thus producing a rapid succession of grating clicks. (In some varieties of the cog rattle, or ratchet, as it is also known in English, it is the cogwheel that is turned, often by means of a crank.)

Groggers are called groggers only by Jews, while cog rattles go by different names in different places. In England, they have been known as fire rattles, police rattles, trench rattles, gas rattles, and football rattles. What all of these names but the last (which derives from the cog rattle’s popularity with soccer fans) have in common is that the device they refer to was used to sound alarms or to call for help. The police rattle (or “Victorian police rattle,” as it is commonly called today by collectors and historians) was a standard piece of equipment in London’s police force from 1829 to 1884, when it was replaced by the whistle, which both was lighter and could be heard at a greater distance. Why, then, were cog rattles still being used to warn soldiers of gas attacks in the trenches of World War I? Try blowing a whistle with a gas mask on and you’ll know.

In southern Italy, a cog rattle is called a raganella, which is also the name of the tree frog Raganella sarda. (Whether the rattle gets its name from the frog’s croak or vice versa is unclear.) The raganella is particularly associated with Holy Week, the sixth and last week of Lent, which precedes Easter and marks the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Because this is a week of mourning, church bells are traditionally not rung during it, and the raganella takes their place in calling the faithful to Mass, punctuating prayers, and marking the hours of the day.

The same holds true for the Spanish cog rattle, the matraca. Its name derives from Arabic mitraqa, a hammer (found in the Talmud in the sense of a camel driver’s whip), and must originally have denoted a clapper with a wooden striker and striker plate. Such clappers, called crotalums, are used to this day in Catholic rites on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, the last three days of Lent, when they take the place of the altar or sacristy bells that are normally sounded at junctures of the church service.

The resemblance of the grogger to the raganella and matraca is particularly noteworthy because other Purim customs, too, are linked to Lent, during which Purim invariably falls. (Lent this year runs from February 14 to March 28.) The dressing up in costume that is widely practiced on Purim took its inspiration from the masquerading of the Catholic Carnival, which is customarily celebrated on Shrove Tuesday, the day preceding Lent’s onset on Ash Wednesday, while the Purim shpil, the theatrical re-enactment of the Scroll of Esther performed in parts of Central and Eastern Europe, was influenced by Lent’s passion plays. (It is instructive that neither of these customs were known to Jews in Muslim countries.)

It would not be surprising, therefore, if the grogger, too, originated as a Jewish borrowing of a Lenten custom. Although drowning out every mention of Haman in the Megillah was a pre-medieval practice based on the biblical verse “And thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek,” it originally consisted of the stamping of feet, the knocking together of stones, or other simple means of noise production. The use of the grogger is first mentioned in the 13th-century writings of the Tosafists of northern France and the Rhineland, which once again suggests a Christian provenance.

And here’s what may be the clincher. The matraca is also known in Spain as the carraca or carraco! Why the explanation point? Well, think for a moment of what has been said about “g’s” and hard “c’s,” They are identically articulated velar plosives, “g” being  voiced and “k” unvoiced—which means that carraca could change into garraga, at the drop of a linguistic hat, while from there to grager isn’t even a hat drop. Our Purim grogger, it seems, comes from Spain, from which it was brought by Spanish Jews to elsewhere in Europe sometime in the Middle Ages.

It’s true that the authoritative Spanish etymologist Joan Caraminas, in his Diccionario Etimológico de la Lengua Castellana, gives 1607 as the date of the earliest written appearance of carraca. (Defined by him as “a wooden instrument for making noise during Holy Week. An onomatopoeia, from the noise this instrument makes.”) But the debut of a word in writing, especially one not used in everyday speech, can follow centuries of unrecorded oral use and is no indication of its age. When it comes to the grogger’s origins, I’ll place my bet on the carraca even if no smoking gun—the remains of a 12th-century cog rattle unearthed, say, at the site of a medieval synagogue in Tudela or Tarragona—ever turns up.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him yourself at [email protected].

More about: Purim, Religion & Holidays