Word of the Day / Masekha: The Word That Came to Mean Mask by Mistake

It actually meant veil in the days of Isaiah, or statue in the case of the golden calf. Today it is the word that characterizes Purim.

When Moses tarried in descending from Mount Sinai, the people of Israel became fretful, and went to their missing leader’s brother Aaron for comfort. Aaron - not having his brother’s confidence in the god of the flaming bush - told them, “Break off the golden earrings, which are in the ears of your wives, of your sons, and of your daughters, and bring them unto me." He then "fashioned it with a graving tool, after he had made it a molten calf” (Exodus 32:2-4).

This statue, the golden calf, is called masekha. In this and other biblical instances, masekha means a statue of molten metal. Its root is n-s-kh, which is related to pouring, as in pouring molten metal into a mold.

But in the Book of Isaiah we find another kind of masekha, formed from an unrelated n-s-kh root related to weaving: ״And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail [sic] that is spread over all nations.” (25:7) This veil is also called masekha. That is closer to its Modern Hebrew meaning.

Ancient Hebrew texts do not refer to masks, which didn't become part of Jewish culture until the late 13th century. That's when Italian carnivals began to take place every year before Lent, which usually fell near Purim.

That is how masquerading began to be a part of the Purim holiday tradition, first among Italian Jews, and spreading to Jews the world ove.

Our first reference to mask-wearing on Purim is indeed by an Italian rabbi, Rabbi Judah Meintz of Padua, who referred to masks as parzufin, a Hebrew word for "faces". This remained the word for masks through to the end of the 19th century.

Thus while masks were called parzufin, the word masekha was mostly used in reference to banned idols. But gradually, the use of the second sense of the word, the sense borrowed from Isaiah, became more frequent. In the 19th century the expression “to remove a veil (masekha) from their faces” appeared again and again (freeing people from their misconceptions).

People mistook this masekha being metaphorically taken off peoples' faces to be a mask and not a veil, mostly because it sounded so much like the European words for masks, and it quickly became the Hebrew word for mask in the turn of the 20th century. Even a gas mask is referred to as masekhat gaz.