By Rav David Stav
“In the matter of the custom of wearing masks on Purim, and the matter of men wearing women’s clothes – there is no prohibition, since the intent is happiness.”
– Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, Chapter 796
These are the words of “The Rema” (Rav Moshe Isserles, 16th century Poland), the greatest of the Ashkenazic poskim. This statement begs the question of how this strange custom of dressing up, a practice that goes unmentioned in Megillat Esther and the Talmud – came to be included in a halachic volume.
Some scholars tie the custom of dressing up to the historical assumption that many of the non-Jews of the city of Shushan tried to disguise themselves as Jews while Mordekhai and his followers tried to fight them off. This is an incident described in Megillat Esther itself:
“And many of the people became Jews, for fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”
– Esther 8:17
Others suggest that the source of this tradition lies in various festivals held in medieval Europe, where revelers would dress up. The Jews thought this was a fun tradition, and took advantage of the festive atmosphere of Purim to imitate their neighbors.
A Day Like Purim
The truth is that Purim is not the only day when the Jewish people have the custom of dressing up. On Yom Hakippurim, the entire nation dresses in white, making them appear like angels.
Ostensibly, these two annual events are located at opposite edges of the spectrum. One of the days is dedicated as a day when sins are forgiven, a day of judgment, and a day for personal and national soul-searching. It is a day of solemnity and pure holiness. The other day is happy and frivolous, defined by the presence of “masks and noisemakers, song and dance.”
Our Kabbalistic writings hint at the hidden connection between these two days. In the Tikkunei Hazohar, we read that “Kippurim” – i.e. Yom Kippur – is “KEpurim”. It is like Purim. What common traits did our sages see in these two days?
One commonality is the idea of dressing up, that is to say, the disguise. On Yom Hakippurim, we dress up, and in so doing, express the gap between the profundity of our souls and our everyday behavior. We dress up as angels as if to say that we would like to always be in a supernatural state, but we also recognize the fact that we are flesh and blood. One day a year, we talk about the place that our soul yearns to reach, but we also know that the gap between the world of deeds and the desires of our souls is often unsurmountable.
Dressing Up All Year Long
On Purim, in contrast, our disguises express how much we hide from ourselves the rest of the year.
How many walls lie between our genuine personalities and the person we want to present to the rest of the world, to Hashem and to others? Don’t we all feel that sometimes, we would like to divulge some of troubles to our friends or to those we love, yet hesitate to do so, because we constantly feel compelled to pretend to be happy and over-achieving? How often do we hold ourselves back from saying things, either positive or negative, because we are disguised (ashamed), and because we can’t express ourselves properly?
Our Purim costume allows us to say what we feel without any fear, and it also guides us toward removing the masks we wear every day, so that we can live a more honest and genuine life on the other days of the year.
Originally appears on the Ohr Torah Stone website