The most visible sign that Purim has arrived is that Israelis go to work wearing costumes.
They dress up to synagogue, the kids dress up for school and everyone dresses up for costume parties. Haaretz employees take this custom quite seriously, showing up at the news desk wearing anything from silly wigs to Batman ears and cape. But why?
Dressing up, costumes, and masks aren’t mentioned in the Book of Esther. There is no indication that anyone ever dressed up for Purim in the Mishnah, Talmud, or in the literature of the Gaonim. Nor is the practice so much as mentioned in the writings of Rashi and Maimonides in the High Middle Ages. So where did it come from?
The earliest reference to dressing up on Purim is in a poem by Provençal Jewish writer Kalonymus ben Kalonymus in the 14th century. Kalonymus had strong ties with Italian Jewry and evidently learned of the practice while living in Rome. He seems to be critical of the practice, though he does not specify why.
As for masks on Purim, we find the first record in the 15th century, by the Paduan rabbi Judah Minz, who is also critical of the practice.
Dressing up on Fat Tuesday
So, it seems that the tradition originated with Italian Jews in the 14th century. But why actually would they start dressing up on Purim?
The custom seems to have originated in the Italian practice starting in the 13th century, of holding carnivals in the days leading up to Lent. They were especially festive on "Fat Tuesday," (also called "Shrove Tuesday"), the day before Lent began.
These wild pre-Lenten carnivals included masquerading, and happened to take place more or less on the same time as Purim, give or take a few weeks, due to differences between the Catholic solar calendar and the Jewish Lunar calendar.
Since Jews were already holding banquets on Purim since the time of the Talmud, banquets that included heavy drinking, it isn’t surprising that some of the carnival atmosphere got infused into the merrymaking of Purim. And with time, the tradition of dressing up on Purim spread from Italy to other Jewish communities around the world - despite the fact that rabbis often remained critical of the practice.
Rabbis were especially appalled by men dressing up as women and vice versa, since cross-dressing is explicitly forbidden in the Bible (Deuteronomy 22:5): “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman's garment." Yet some Jews continued to cross-dress on Purim, leading some rabbis to allow the practice on Purim despite the biblical censure.
Once the tradition of dressing up on Purim had firmly gelled, some effort was seems to have been made to explain the tradition retroactively. For example, some rabbinical teachers argue that Esther was hiding her Jewish identity when she married King Ahasuerus (better known in the West as Xerxes) – which was a kind of costuming. Others argue that God’s work is "hidden" in the actions of men throughout the Book of Esther (which makes no mention of God) - once again a kind of dressing up. There are other such unpersuasive arguments. Don’t be fooled though. Apparently, it’s really because of Lent.
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This article was originially published in March 2015 and updated March 2019