Ask the Rabbi: Are all costumes allowed on Purim?

Cross-dressing was a phenomenon at many medieval holiday and life-cycle celebrations.

By SHLOMO BRODY
March 11, 2011 11:02
4 minute read.
Holon Purim parade

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 lore.

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 22:5).

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 story.

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).

Whatever its 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 season.”

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).

The fear 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 excessive drinking.

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 instruments.

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 690:60).

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 5:50).

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 Hakotel.

JPostRabbi@yahoo.com


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