Holon Purim parade 521.
(photo credit: Tal Kirschenbaum)
For many children and adults, Purim costumes are the highlight of a series of
festive customs that have developed on the holiday. While sometimes entertaining
and usually innocuous, they remain a contentious matter in Jewish law and
The Book of Esther and the Talmud never discuss Purim costumes, and
the custom seems to have originated in Germany in the medieval period. One of
the earliest halachic discussion appears in a responsum of R. Yehuda Mintz
(Padua, Italy, d. 1508) who permitted people to wear masks, despite the
opposition of some earlier figures (Shu’t Maharam Padua 16). He further
permitted men and women to wear clothing of the opposite gender, even though
this violates the biblical prohibition of cross-dressing (Deuteronomy
The responsum does not provide the origin of wearing Purim
costumes. Some have speculated that it commemorates when Mordecai was dressed in
regal clothing and escorted by Haman (Esther 6:11), a clear turning point in the
plot of the story (Eliya Raba OC 696).
Others believe that hiding one’s
identity symbolizes how God’s hand was involved in the miraculous salvation,
even as His name and intervention are never discussed in the
Noting that Esther similarly hid her own identity (2:19), Dr.
Zohar Hanegbi further contends that perhaps the intention is to mimic the many
costume parties of the story (Minhagei Yisrael Vol. 6).
commemorative message might be, several rabbis and historians have claimed that
this folk custom imitated medieval European Christian carnivals (fastnacht)
which took place at around the same season. If true, this would be akin to the
contemporary American custom of Hanukka presents during the “holiday
Yet costume wearing represents just one of many festive customs
which have developed to celebrate the jovial story of Purim, albeit not without
some controversy and dissent.
The Talmud, for example, seemingly
obligates people to become intoxicated at Purim feasts, yet immediately warns of
the potentially violent dangers of such inebriation (Megila 7b).
of such wayward behavior has led many prominent decisors like Rabbis Yisrael
Kagan (MB 695:5) and Yehiel Epstein (Aruch Hashulhan 695:5) to advocate against
The custom to make noise during the recitation of
Haman’s name has taken on many forms. In earlier times, children would bang
together stones with the name Haman written on them, thereby rubbing out his
name and symbolically fulfilling the commandment to wipe out Amalek, Haman’s
ancestor (Beit Yosef OC 690). Others would bang with their feet (MB 690:59), and
today people use rattlers (groggers or ra’ashanim) or other
Yet some decisors opposed this practice because it prevents
the congregants from properly hearing the megila reading and makes it difficult
for people to endure the lengthy reading (Sdei Hemed, Purim 10). Most continue
to allow this custom, but insist that the congregants maintain sufficient
decorum so that they can fulfill the central commandment of megila reading (MB
Another controversial custom is “Purim spiels,” plays which
might include clown performances or parodies. The frequency of personal insult
from these jokes, even when wellintentioned, led many to object to them (Mo’adim
Uzmanim 2:191). This was particularly true when students would mock their
scholarly teachers, with many contending that such denigration of Torah scholars
is never permitted, even if the teachers previously consented (Yehaveh Da’at
Some scholars recite “Purim Torah” which uses the style and
content of talmudic or halachic discourse to make jokes. Yet the line between
humor and irreverence gets easily crossed. One 14th-century literary parody,
known as Masechet Purim, drew the ire of many scholars who deemed it utter
depravity (Ba’er Hetev 696:13).
While the basic concept of Purim masks
and costumes was maintained, similar reservations were leveled against its
excessive forms. Rabbi Moshe Isserles defended the costumes that violated
certain prohibitions, including sha’atnez (clothing made from prohibited cloth
combinations) and cross-dressing, since the intent was to celebrate Purim, and
not to directly benefit from the forbidden action (OC 696:8). Indeed, as Prof.
Ya’acov Spiegel has shown, cross-dressing costumes were a phenomenon at many
medieval holiday and life-cycle celebrations, even as they sometimes drew
rabbinic condemnation (Bach YD 182).
Yet other scholars, such as Rabbi
Shmuel Abuhab (17th century, Italy), criticized all costumes as debauchery which
detracted from the genuine religious joy that one should feel on this holy day
(Shu’t Dvar Shmuel 247).
These strong reservations were shared by others,
especially with regard to cross-dressing (Ba’er Hetev 696:13), leading both
Rabbis Epstein (Aruch Hashulhan 696:12) and Yosef (Yehaveh Da’at 5:50) to
entirely ban such costumes, even for children. Costumes in good taste, however,
remain within the letter of the law – and the spirit of historical
practice.The writer, online editor of
Tradition and its blog, Text &
Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshiva