Mask up for Purim! What’s with the Costume Custom?

By Wendy Jackler

Happy Purim Masks

Purim is coming!  That wonderful time each year when we all get to wear masks! Yay?

Purim 2020/5780 was our last “normal” holiday. There won’t be traditional Purim carnivals and parties this year, but maybe it will be the only day in a year that we can happily wear masks.

On Purim, costumes and masks are intended to disguise who we are. But hiding ourselves is just an unfortunate, or sometimes fortunate, by-product of the masks we’ve been wearing for a whole year(!). I can’t count how many times I have found myself smiling under my mask at people before I remember that they can’t see my smile.  And all too often I don’t recognize the masked person looking at me before one of us can figure out who the other is.

The origins of Purim come from Queen Esther’s story, one of the most well-known stories in Judaism.  But the tradition of wearing costumes, common to every Jewish community in the world, isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Megillat Esther, the Book of Esther. There are a few reasons for wearing costumes that are traditionally cited, all related to the idea of hiding or disguising ourselves: Esther needed to hide her Jewish identity from King Achashverosh;  the name “Esther” has the same root as the Hebrew word, l’haster, “to hide;” the Megillah is one of only two books of the Hebrew Bible that does not mention God, so obscuring our faces represents that God is “hidden” in the text.

But it seems the actual origin of the tradition isn’t about Esther or the Megillah at all–it comes from Medieval Italy. (Jewish historians, please be nice when you tell me I’m wrong.) The first mention of wearing costumes at Purim is found in 15th century European Jewish texts. One thing that was true in the 14th and 15th centuries, and is still true today, is that Purim in the Jewish calendar roughly syncs with Fat Tuesday, aka Mardi Gras, in the Gregorian calendar. And as is still the tradition in some places, Mardi Gras is the last chance for a little debauchery before the restrictions of lent.  In Medieval Venice, that meant carnivals and elaborate costumes. Jews already celebrated Purim with feasts and followed the Purim tradition of getting drunk, which is referenced in the Talmud. So the Mardi Gras tradition was easily, perhaps with the help of a little alcohol, absorbed into the Purim festivities of the Venetian Jews.

The costume custom was originally condemned by rabbis and other authorities, but quickly spread to the rest of Europe. By the 19th century, it became entrenched in Purim celebrations worldwide and is still the most well-known of Purim traditions to this day. The rabbis needed a more acceptable reason for it, so the connection of costumes to “hiding” might have been a little retroactive shoehorning of the tradition into the Purim story.  Who knows which of our 21st century customs will still be around in the future? ? Let’s just hope that in the very near future, Purim is the only day we have to mask up!

Wendy Jackler is the director of operations for Hebrew Helpers.

Want new articles before they get published
Subscribe to our Awesome Newsletter.