New York – Purim Costumes – A History – Reasons and Origins


    Charedi Boy looks at masks for the Jewish holiday of Purim February 10, 2010 . photo by Abir Sultan/Fflash 90New York – It is surely not one of our run-of-the-mill Minhagim.

    Generally, our Minhagim deal with simanim – signs that indicate good mazel rather than bad fortune. They deal with eating or not eating specific foods- Example: Shvuos we eat milchigs, Chanukah – latkes, Rosh HaShana – honey. We don’t eat nuts or chrein during Yomim Noraim. Our other Minhagim deal with special Tefilos at special places: Kaparos with chicken or money, Tashlich by the water.
    But dressing up? Where and when did this come from?

    The first mention of the notion of Jews dressing up in costume seems to be in the responsa of one of our Poskim from Italy, Rav Yehudah Mintz (Responsa #17). Rav Mintz lived in the late 1400’s and was niftar in Venice in 1508. The Teshuvah says that there is no prohibition involved in dressing up on Purim even in dressing like a woman – since the reason is for Simcha and not for the purpose of immorality – to violate Torah law. The Ramah quotes the Psak in Shulchan Aruch Orech Chaim (696:8).

    Moritz Steinschneider, (1816-1907) the great bibliographer whose impact and opinions are still felt today, brilliant though he was, cannot fathom that the minhag developed independently. He attributes the development of the Minhag to the direct influence of the Roman Carnival. Carnival is a festive season which occurs immediately before the Catholic season of Lent. The Roman Carnival involved a public celebration and or parade that combined elements of a circus, the wearing of masks and public street partying. People would dress up in masquerade during these celebrations. Carnival is a festival traditionally held in Roman Catholic and, to a lesser extent, Eastern Orthodox societies. It originated in Italy and was held in February.

    But our Minhag did not come from Roman Carnival. It is not that we believe that cultural diffusion does not exist. We do.

    But its application must be tempered with rational precision and reason. We must always display a cautious intellectual approach. Scholars who know what Klal Yisroel is actually all about, know that this particular type of cultural diffusion is about as likely as eggnog consumption and Chrismas Carolling affecting the behavior of Yeshiva boys on a Purim.

    It simply would not have happened. End of story. The apperception of the Roman Carnival in Torah circles was beyond the pale of acceptable activity even to mimic. This cannot be the source – especially so close to the time of Rav Yehudah Mintz, who sanctioned it’s use.

    No, we must look for other sources in order to find truth. Steinschneider’s theory is just too pat. We must also bear in mind that silence in the Seforim and responsa literature does not necessarily indicate absence in normative Jewish practice. A Minhag could exist and yet not be mentioned in the Seforim or Teshuvos until much later.

    The Apter Rebbe, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel, was known as the Ohaiv Yisroel. He writes (Ohaiv Yisroel Shmos Section on Parshas Zachor) that one of the reasons why we dress up in masquerade on Purim is to show that the miracle of Purim came from something that actually would have initially caused us much grief. This, says the Apter Rebbe, stresses that the greatest joy lies in the knowledge that the opposite result might very well have happened. A good theory, but one that, perhaps, may sound more likely to be a post-development rationalization than the original cause of the Minhag.

    Rav Yitzchok Weiss zatzal, author of the Siach Yitzchok and student of the Shaivet Sofer, explains (Siman 380) that the origin of the custom to dress up in masks is to highlight the fact that Haman hid his hate for the Jewish people when approaching Achashveirosh for permission to destroy Klal Yisroel. Hashem responded, midah Keneged midah – measure for measure – by sending Eliyahu – disguised as Charvonah. Eliyahu too was hiding his real intent – to defend the Jewish people. Here, the idea of hiding, and a mask as a central theme of Purim seems likely. It may very well have been the idea that spurred on the Minhag in Klal Yisroel to wear masks.

    The Bnei Yissaschar (on Adar 9:1) cites a Maharam Chagiz who quotes the Gemorah in Megillah (12a). The Gemorah explains that the Jewish people only did things “Lifnim” – hidden – So Hashem as well only did things “Lifnim” – hidden.

    The theme of hiding and its association with Purim, therefore, is found explicitly in the Gemorah itself. Could it have developed just then? Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine that it developed back then and no mention of this custom was made from 500 CE until the late 1400’s.
    The mystery continues.

    However, there is a Tosfos in tractate Rosh haShana (3a) that might be very enlightening here. The Tosfos deal with a fascinating episode in Parshas Chukas in the book of Bamidbar (21:1). The Cnaani in the Negev (the south) hear that Klal Yisroel has arrived and go out to do battle with them. Rashi identifies the incongruity. The Negev?? Why, that is Amalek!

    Rashi’s conclusion is that it was Amalekites who spoke in the Cnaani dialect so that Klal Yisroel will pray to Hashem that the Cnaanim be handed over to them and not the Amelikes!

    Our Tosfos, however, add more. They write that the Amalekits changed not only their voices and dialect, they changed their clothing too. They cite the person who wrote the piut for Parshas Zachor – Ksus VeLashon Shineh – Clothing and language he (or they) did change!
    So here is the theory, then.

    It is France and Germany, not Italy. The Paytan for Parshas Zachor has written that they changed their clothing – referring to the Amalekites. Jews see it. Parshas Zachor is close to Purim. Very close. Some regular people read the piut. They may think, perhaps, that it refers to Jews.. The scholars among them realize that it refers to Amalekites, but Haman is from Amalek anyway.

    On Purim we are Marbeh BeSimcha. It is in the Piut. They begin to dress up, like Haman. The Minhag catches on. The Talmidei Cgachomim of Germany accept it.

    Soon the practice travels to Italy. Steinschneider cannot resist and attributes it to the Roman Carnival. But he errs. It is much likelier that it came from the Piut for Parshas Zachor. The origin is a kasher minhag b’Yisroel from German-Jewry.

    And now we go back to the Apter Rav – the Ohaiv Yisroel. He writes that one of the reasons why we dress up in masquerade on Purim is to show that the miracle of Purim came from something that actually would have initially caused us much grief. This, says the Apter Rebbe, stresses that the greatest joy lies in the knowledge that the opposite result might very well have happened. It is a Minhag that brings us ever closer to the true Dveikus Bashem and Simcha that lies at the heart of what Purim is all about.

    Let us, with this in mind, remember the words of the Nesivus Shalom regarding drinking on Purim. He writes that the word “wine” is absent in the formulation of the Shulchan Aruch. “Chayav adam libsumei bePuraya ad delo yada.”

    The reason is clear. We must become inebriated with the concept of Purim and not with wine. The concept of Purim is that Hashem is very close and that we can achieve remarkable Dvaikus Bashem at this time. No matter how distant we are – even if we are “Arur Haman” in terms of our general distance from Hashem– we can become, at this particular time of Purim, as close as Boruch Mordechai.

    The nation of Israel can achieve a remarkable degree of real genuine Dveikus Bashem. We can do so like no other people can. When we dress up, therefore, let us appreciate the significance and the Taamim brought down by the Apter Rav, the Bnei Yissaschar and the Siach Yitzchok. This Purim, let us discover the talent that lies within us in this area. If we can do this, we can achieve both a personal Geulah as well as one for all of Klal Yisroel Amain.

    The author can be reached at

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      • Well Good Morning America. Obviously a talmid chochom. Actually kudos to you sir comment #1 for it takes courage to admit a mistake. Rav Hoffman is not only a very learned talmid chochom but a very straight thinking individual, a pikeach and an ish yoshur meod.

      • We are a nation of thinkers, Rabbi Hoffman says in a previous article. You like him have a right to agree or disagree even with a talmid chochom. You should have no regrets.

    1. Purim 1943, just before the Nazis invaded Hungary, the Satmar Ruv, zya, said that we see many Jews are temporarily dressing like non-Jews to avoid being caught, so too during the time of Haman this was probably the case. He said only that he hopes after the war they will not have the taavah to continue in non-Jewish styles but to go back to wearing Jewish clothes.

      • What nonsense.
        In 1943 – in the middle of the war, The goyim wanted to kill the Jews and it was saconos nefoshos, which is why they had to act & dress as goyim.
        In the time of the megilla, the Jews freely dressed & acted as goyim and went to Achashverosh’s party because they wanted to. No one listened to the Godol of the time – Mordechai who said not to go. Nevertheless, Homon still knew who the Jews were so they could obviously not be hiding behind clothing.

      • A correction to your correction. It is brought in one of the Seforim (maybe in Korois Yisroel) that the Mahr”i Mintz attended the Kiddush Hachamoh and he was a hundred years old. Now, that Kiddush Hachamoh was in 1505, therefore he was born in 1405 and died in 1508 at age 103.

        On the other hand, the hundred years might have been an approximation or maybe even an exaggeration.

    2. [Streicher was sentenced to death by hanging at the Nuremberg Trial. On October 16, 1946, Streicher was executed. When he went up to the scaffolding, he spat at the hangman and said, “The Bolsheviks will hang you one day!” Just before he fell to his death, he shouted, “Purim Festival, 1946!” apparently referring to the Jewish celebration commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from Haman, who had advocated their extermination, but had instead himself been hanged.*]

      • I believe it was the rosha merusha, may his name and memory be blotted out Obergruppenfuhrer Ernst Kaltenbrunner who said “Purimfest 1946” and not the shweinhundt Streicher.

    3. Instead of courageously coming down on the side of intellectual integrity and recognizing that this nihug may very well be a gross violation of the Torah’s issur of b’chukoseihem lo seileichu the author chooses to collect the rationalizations of a couple of achronim and downplay anything that smacks of reality. The Rema actually holds that it is appropriate to dress in Shabbos clothes on Purim (OC 695:2). And on the issue of transgender dressing which the Torah prohibits, the Bach, Yoreh De’ah 182 and the Mishna Berura 696:30 both hold that it is still assur to dress up as the opposite sex on Purim… Want to “achieve a personal Geulah for oneself and for Klal Yisroel”? Take d’oraisa issues more seriously! Present Torah ideas with yashrus!

    4. rabbi moshe zoberman in the shamor shabbos shul daf yommy shuir
      quoted in some godals name that one reason we go with masks on purim
      is because it would not embarass the needy people who went door-to-door
      for money,food and bare neccesities to make ends meet
      at times these would be down on the heels well to do people

      in our economic enviorment we can very well understand that this happened

      so please give with an open hand you never know it might be someone
      you think you know but really dont know his matzev

    5. “this particular type of cultural diffusion is about as likely as eggnog consumption and Chrismas Carolling affecting the behavior of Yeshiva boys on a Purim.”

      And yet we spin a dreidel on Chanukah, a blatant copying of the Christmas tradition of spinning a teetotum!

      As painful as is may be to some, dressing up on Purim is almost certainly a case of cultural diffusion, a borrowed and then adapted custom.

      • Cultural diffusion only to the extent that a style of celebration was not adopted but rather adapted; not commingled but rather co-opted. It is no different that the minhag of heseiba on Pesach, which was a Greek way of expressing freedom and tranquility at their banquets. Our seder is not at all like a Greek banquet; but we adapted this manner of expressing cheirus. It is no different than using fur hats to express dignity and grandeur. It is no different than standing up for a Chassan and Kallah. We adopt/adapt behaviors only when our re-casting serves to emphasize a uniquely Jewish idea. Calling it ‘cultural diffusion’ creates a false implication of parity, denigrating our minhag by association with the louts and hedonists of Venice. When we start carving pumpkins, call me.

    6. Hamman wanted to kill all jews because yaakov took away the bruches from eisuv (thats written in Trgum on the megileh 3:6) so on purim we dress up like yaakov did and we show that we got the bruches.

    7. What about the fancy flower-designer satin beckeshis that the rabbonim wear on shabbos afternoon . Anobody, familiar with womens ‘ high fashion knows that the satin outfits are worn by women . Look at the Japanese women outfits. Can someone tell me : who is copying whom ?

      • Silk robes are menitoned in Gemara as a garb of nobles, and it was considered a bracha to wear one (i.e. to afford one). Lehavdil, this (silk robes for men) was and is the case by umos olam (Arabs, India, China etc.)


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