The Mask of Purim

Rabbi Dr. Geoffrey Haber, Director
Spiritual Care

I saw a cartoon the other day. A little school boy stood stark naked with a bottle of booze and dark shades before his terrified mother who cries out, “No, you won’t dress up for Purim as Charlie Sheen.” For Purim, we will dress in masks. Some will come as Esther; others as Haman. What will you wear?

The custom of dressing in costumes for Purim has an interesting history. There is no actual reference to masks in the megillah. We know that Ahashverosh had parties but it doesn’t say anything about a costume party. We know that Mordechai was dressed in royal garb as he was paraded around town and that Esther donned the royal crown before approaching the king. But none of these references are cited as the source for dressing up on Purim. The earliest written record mentioning masks on Purim comes from the middle ages in Europe. The custom was popularized through the influence of medieval Italian carnivals. Not surprisingly, therefore, it is less common among Sephardi Jews.

Nowadays, Purim is a day of levity and rejoicing. But the celebration hides a much darker story. The merriment masks a fear, a fear of evil. There is danger lurking all around. Today, we laugh in the face of the near annihilation of Persian Jewry thousands of years ago.

Although the word “mask” does not appear in the megillah, we understand well the connection. Esther hides her identity. Prompted by Mordechai, she changed her name and kept a secret. To her husband Ahaverosh, Esther was present upon demand. Yet part of her remained hidden. Essentially, she wore a mask until it was safe to remove it. And thank God she did. The mask Esther wore saved her life and the life of her people.