Temple Beth Shalom is the center for Reform Jewish religious life in the entire West Valley, so our members are used to getting asked a wide range of questions about different aspects of Judaism. These inquiries come from a broad spectrum of individuals, many of whom are not Jewish and want to know about specific books of the Bible or a holiday they may have heard about. As rabbi of the temple, I have gotten several calls recently from people living in different parts of the area about Purim – which one inquisitive soul referred to as “the Jewish equivalent of Mardi Gras”. The question was, Why do Jews dress up in costumes on Purim? And why is this holiday so contrary to established Jewish norms? 

Before answering these questions allow me to give a bit of background. The Jewish holiday of Purim falls this year on March 6th and 7th and we will celebrate with special Purim readings on Friday night, March 10th. It is in the month of Adar about which the Talmud declares, Mi She-nichnas Adar, Marbim B’Simcha!!! When Adar begins, joy multiplies. 

Purim centers on the reading of the Scroll of Esther, which tells the story of how a young Jewish girl wins a beauty contest, becomes the wife of King Ahasuerus (possibly Xerxes I or Artaxerxes I), and saves the Jewish people of Persia. According to the scroll, the Day of Deliverance should be celebrated with gladness and celebration. There should be feasting (what religious holiday is complete without a good meal?) and there should be as much partying as possible. 

In the Jewish Encyclopedia, Reform Rabbi Emil Hirsch writes that “The object of Esther is undoubtedly to give an explanation of and to exalt the Feast of Purim, of whose real origin little or nothing is known.” That is to say, the holiday came first and the scroll came after in order to provide context for a popular celebration that was already well established. This is a position that would not be accepted by traditional Jews, but it is nevertheless likely to be true. Wherever the holiday came from, we live it up and have a lot of fun on Purim. 

We read the Scroll of Esther out loud and cheer every time one of the ‘good guys’ is mentioned, and boo or twirl our noisemakers vigorously every time Haman – the ‘bad guy’ – is spoken from the text. In this story, Haman wore a distinctive 3-point hat, which has been transformed into an iconic 3-cornered pastry called a hamantaschen (literally translated “Haman’s ear”). We are trying to build up the number of families with children and this holiday provides a great vehicle for tasty baking. Both young and not so young have been busy baking these triangular, pocket-filled cookies in a variety of flavors. I asked the students in my bar mitzvah class to tell me which flavor they liked best, and most of them chose chocolate. Personally, I prefer the raspberry ones.

What makes Purim so well-known and so beloved is the custom of masquerading in costumes. The costumes may be one of the characters from Esther’s story or something more modern like superheroes or princesses. This has been retroactively attributed in part on Chapter 2 verse 10: “Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred; for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.” Esther was essentially masquerading as someone she was not and so too do we dress up in a fictional identity to celebrate Esther’s successfully hiding of her true identity, which allowed her to save the entire Jewish community of Persia from destruction. 

Traditional commentators point out that while God is never mentioned in the text even once, God’s presence is felt throughout. There are many “coincidences” which seem to be anything but coincidences. 

Although the holiday itself goes back considerably more than 2,000 years, according to the historical reconstruction of late 19th century scholar Moritz Steinschneider, the practice of dressing up may have originated among Italian Jews at the end of the 15th century. The earliest reference to dressing up on Purim is a bit earlier, in the 14th century, in a poem composed by Provençal Jewish writer Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, who had apparently seen the custom in Rome. The first mention of wearing masks on Purim is by Rabbi Judah ben Eliezer ha-Levi Minz of Padua, just outside Venice. These innovations appeared to have been started spontaneously by the “Jews in the pews” since neither rabbi seemed to approve of these practices.

In these difficult times in which so many have been forced to seek assistance, it is important to note that one of the central practices of Purim is to donate to those in need, called in Hebrew Matanot L’evyonim. On the day of Purim, a person is obligated to give one gift each to at least two people who are less fortunate. At minimum, the gifts should be either the food eaten at a regular meal or the amount of money required to buy that meal. However, it is preferable to give more than this. In the rabbinic writings, the sages say that there is no greater joy than gladening the hearts of orphans, widows, and needy people. One who does this is compared to God who, according to the Book of Isaiah, “revives the spirit of the humble and revives the heart of the downtrodden” (57:15). 

Here also there is a connection to masquerading. The sages felt that Purim was a perfect opportunity to give Tzedakah because everyone was in costume and therefore no one knew who anyone else was, thereby providing the perfect chance to personally give to those who may be needy without embarrassing them. We also give presents of food to everyone, called Mishloach Manot, and that too makes it less embarrassing to receive economic assistance since everyone is carrying all sorts of food presents.

Why would the Jews of Italy have started masquerading? Every year, they witnessed the practice of Carnival, which was part of the Christian festive season before Lent, and they probably saw how much fun the Christians were having and how easily they could adapt masquerading for their own holiday festivities. People just started doing these things and the rabbis could not stop them. Eventually, masquerading became an accepted part of the holiday of Purim. 

The theory certainly sounds logical. Lent was observed in February or early March, pretty much at the same time that Purim was celebrated. Carnival included parades similar to what you would see during Mardi Gras today in Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Mobile, Alabama and other cities around the world. Costumes and even masks allow us revelers to exchange our normal, personal identities for those of religious, historical, or popular figures. The wackier and weirder, the better.

That is so because we dress up on Purim as an act of transgression. Transgression involves a deliberate violation of moral or social boundaries. But in this case it is not done to do wrong but rather to temporarily upset the natural order of things in order to give us the ability to gain perspective on what is considered normative as opposed to what is considered social deviance. 

Everything that is normally true in the regular world is turned upside down on Purim. Fortuitous events just happened. People overhear things that they’re not supposed to overhear. Nothing is as it seems. But how far can we take it? There’s even a halachic dispute over whether it’s permissible to cross-dress on Purim. On one hand what could be more transgressive? On the other hand, the sages did not want to be so transgressive as to destroy normative behavior during the rest of the year. Times have changed and what is considered transgressive has shifted considerably. We still aim to flip everything over – temporarily – just for a day in order to put everything back together again in a better, more logical, more meaningful manner. 

While we each may dress up as vastly different characters, the impact of everyone being dressed up altogether paradoxically heightens our sense of communal unity. At this time when we feel that our society is at risk of fracturing, anything that can create more social cohesion is of potentially great value to all of us. Purim is one of the most joyous of holidays in the Jewish calendar, and yet it also includes some important lessons about familial loyalty, communal cohesion, and how good people can band together to stop evil in its tracks.


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