Sunday, January 27, 2013

Origins of the Purim Masquerade Custom

Have you ever wondered when the Purim masquerade custom began?

The honest truth is that it's embedded in the Book of Esther, but we'll get to that later. If we want to stick to global custom origins, the first recorded source of dressing up in costume on Purim is a 15th century German document discussing women wearing men's clothing, drunkenness and other related Purim issues.

Any other global connections? There is a school of thought connecting Purim masquerades with the Carnival of Venice which dates back to the 11th Century. By coincidence, the calendar date of this festival famous for superb leather, porcelain and glass Venetian masks is not all that far from Purim. Hmmm...many Jewish customs have been "borrowed" from Christian neighbors, so this sounds like a definite possibility.

Speculation aside, let's take a look at the Book of Esther -- a story chock full of disguises.

The most obvious example is Queen Esther herself, depicted in this mosaic. Hiding her Jewish identity by competing in and winning Achashverosh's beauty pageant was the biggest masquerade of all. Even the name Esther, possibly taken from the Persian name Ishtar, is part of the cover up. Esther's given Hebrew name? Hadassah -- as in the name of the women's organization.

The carnival of poses doesn't end with Esther. Let's take her husband, the mighty king Achashverosh. He wears the mask of a strong ruler when actually his advisors -- most notably Haman -- rule him. Mordechai hides behind the mask of a loving uncle when he really is a mastermind pulling strings in order to save the Jewish people.

Haman? Is he as smart as he presents himself to be? Indeed, the story of Purim is one big charade. Speaking of which, maybe a good old fashioned game of charades should be part of this year's Purim curricula or family Purim feast? Not only does it enhance the masquerade custom, it sets the stage for it.

What do you think?

Mask photo credit

Queen Esther mosaic photo credit

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