Things are Not Always as They Seem

Masks have a long history in the world's culture, and they play an important role in the Purim story.

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The Masquerade Motif in the Bible

The masquerade motif appears in the Bible on two different levels: an attempt to fool people and an attempt to fool God. Although the Bible was written by men, it does not indicate any differences between male and female masks, as is the case in other cultures.

Twice women are described as masquerading, as in the wife of Jerobam who masquerades before the prophet in a failed effort, because a person looks at the outward appearance and God looks at what is in the heart. When Tamar masquerades and changes her identity in order to fool Judah, she is successful.

In addition to references in Scriptural texts, the authors of the Mishnah, Tosefta, Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, and the Midrashim discussed changes of clothing and facial coverings at great length. Women are a major component of these discussions as they masqueraded for different reasons relating to marital relations, an attempt to seduce a man, etc.

The Purim Masquerade

Masquerading on the festival of Purim has become a norm in the Jewish community.

The Book of Esther, which describes the origin of the festival, is written in a roundabout style that is a comedy of errors involving one masquerade after another and was therefore performed over the generations until it became one of the symbols of the festival. The Book of Esther features disguises and masquerades portrayed by changes in clothing and statuses. It has three pairs of protagonists, Vashti and Xerxes, Zeresh and Haman, and Mordecai and Esther.

A reading of the book reveals that all the characters depict men and women at the same time. Xerxes masquerades as a tough ruler but turns out to be ruled by his ministers. Haman, who seeks power and respect, is revealed in all his misery, and his disgrace is apparent to all when he is hanged in public. Mordecai sits wearing a sack and ashes outside the palace gate and is presented with royal garments and brought into the palace.

The Book of Esther is named after the heroine, who hides her identity until she puts on "the garments of royalty."

These garments actually help her to reveal the truth and drop her obedience and submission. She is transformed from a passive and sheltered girl into an active woman with a royal status. Vashti, who is depicted as a successful queen, throws a banquet for women and is assertive and experienced in the ways of the world, actually is revealed in her failure--she starts out as someone with status and is sent away with none left. Zeresh, the wife of Haman, who does not think too highly of her, turns out to be quite wise behind her mask, in comparison to Haman. who is obtuse and stupid.

The Book of Esther, whose characters are all masked, promoted the custom of wearing different facial masks.

This practice is documented in 15th-century German sources, which discuss women wearing men's clothing, drunkenness, and other issues. Today it is commonly thought that the Italian carnival influenced the custom of dressing up on Purim, as indicated by illustrated miniatures of the Book of Esther and other Jewish manuscripts, although it should be noted that in Muslim countries the practice of masquerading on Purim was unknown.

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Dr. Pnina Galpaz Feller, teaches Bible and Ancient Studies at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She is the author of Exodus: Reality or Illusion, and most recently, Women Be Upon Thee, Samson.