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March 14, 2014 11:12 am

The Role of Masks in Purim

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

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Celebrating Purim. Photo: Wiki Commons.

The great “Carnivales” of the Catholic world have always coincided with the period preceding Lent, when the righteous avoid pleasures of the flesh and atone. Traditionally, you said goodbye to meat (carne) and you celebrated being forgiven your sins. Many Christian ascetics and killjoys objected strongly to the levity that came with carnivals. Indeed, in places like Venice they were occasions of mass debauchery. The tradition of wearing masks or dressing in disguise to preserve anonymity or to assist secret assignations came to be part and parcel of Carnivals, a tradition that continues to this very day.

The Bible knows only too well the link between religion and sexual impropriety. The Golden Calf led to an orgy. In the pagan world in general, religious worship involved “giving of oneself” to the deity, or its willing priests and priestesses. Biblical Judaism was not opposed to fun and pleasure. But it did emphasize self-control and restraint. Time and again, the Bible admonishes the Children of Israel not to follow the corrupt religious rites of the peoples they were trying to dispossess.

Just as festivals of light were universal and each religion found its own way of celebrating it, so too carnivals were universal. This does not mean that each culture did not have its own and original reasons for celebration. Either you did win a battle against the Greeks or you didn’t. Either there was a plot to destroy you in the Persian Empire or there was not. But if the reason to celebrate varied from culture to culture, the carnivals came to resemble each other through the inevitable cross fertilization that comes when different cultures share the same space.

You will find examples of lights for the dead or covering mirrors to keep out evil spirits throughout the ancient world, long before they appear as Jewish customs. You will find lighting flames as the depth of winter approaches long before Chanukah was celebrated. And you will find masks and fancy dress and getting drunk well before Purim.

The fact is that for all the drunken excesses and self-indulgence of Purim, it has never been known as a time when sexual misconduct was rampant (one or two historical exceptions notwithstanding). If it happened, it was not part of the culture. As the Talmud says, you can judge a person by how he drinks; so too I would argue you could judge a religion by what happens when you remove restraints.

Purim has come to be associated with masks. Which normally means “to disguise” or “to cover.” It has different usages, but the one thing these uses have in common is that when you are masked, you are not whom you appear to be. No one was supposed to know who “The Man in the Iron Mask” really was! In a good person, disguise may be no more than a game; but in a bad person, such as a robber, you are covering your face to get up to monkey business. So it usually has been with carnival masks.

In general, masks and disguise have played an important role in religious ceremonies going back well before the Biblical period and all around the world. From Oceania to Africa and the Andes, they were and often still are used to control, to instill fear and obedience. Chiefs and witch doctors wear them to reinforce their authority. In Africa, to frighten and discipline the child, mothers often paint a frightening face on the bottom of her water container. In many cultures judges wore masks to protect them from the fury of those they punished and their families. Disguise and uniforms are associated with authority and power. And of course masks are still used in war to frighten the enemy or ward off evil spirits.

In the Bible, masks only appear once. In Exodus 34: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of Testimony in his hands, he did not realize that the skin of his face shone…When Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses and his face was so bright, they were afraid to come closer to him…So Moses put a mask/veil on his face. When he went in to speak with God he took the mask/veil off, until he came out, and then he put the mask/veil on his face again until the next time he went in to speak to God.”

This does seem strange. He was not wearing the mask to frighten anyone or to hide his identity. Quite the contrary. He was scarier without it. It seems he was wearing a mask in the way a disfigured person might to make him appear less alien. In his case, the mask was making him more accessible. You might think that the process of religious inspiration itself was the scary part.

Once you transmit it to ordinary people, it is less frightening but it is also less pure; it has been modified to make it accessible. This is why Moses is the only one in the Bible who wears a mask. He was uniquely close to the source. It’s a symbol of the degree of proximity and distance from the ideal. We all of us are somewhere along that line that runs from one extreme to the other.

That is why, even if the custom of masks and disguises on Purim has come from somewhere else, it still finds a place in our tradition. Just as pagan harvest festivals have been adapted to a monotheistic purpose, so too masks and disguise. We can all be Hamans or Mordechais. Different potentials lurk beneath our surfaces. It is up to us to choose which one, which mask to wear, for better or worse.

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  • Steven

    To the moderator:
    I find it disgraceful that someone like Dacon9 gets to post – either this is a serious forum or an outlet for morons please let me know – if it is for morons then I and many others will just stop reading your online edition

    • Jeremy Rosen

      And why, pray, is he any different to you?

      • Steven

        You should read my comments and his and by the way your comment speaks volumes shame on you!

        • STEVEN YOU SHOULD READ…
          then think about what you just read.
          Internalize it.
          The arrogance you displayed by objecting to both Rabbi Jeremy Rosen and me a reader says you need to check yourself out.Do that then
          write your comment. Hashem made us different and within our parameters of Torah we should look for a brief moment of kindness to share.

          My writings are not damaging anyone.
          Rabbi Rosen is educated way above you and I
          both in secular and Torah. I dont agree with him at times but its not like others in this site that preaches to love the artwork of jesux or that jesux was a goodman. They are heretics that the Torah world turns away from.
          Again my opinion is that you were to harsh.

          I write in a silly childish way
          I make fun of myself at times.I joke. I write silly when I see silly.who am “I” harming.
          If your wisdom is above me then you must exercise patience with lesser mentalities and not arrogance like esauv.

          You are self centered because you do not see others as individuals,you dont ask, you assume, then conclude and pass judgements.
          WHY DO YOU THINK THIS COMMENT SECTION IS EXPRESSLY FOR YOU ALONE?
          I understand you may not have patience for lesser moronic people.That is a symptom of todays world.
          The ancient rabbis of the Gemarah had extreme patience and a warmth and love for fellow man that we cant even begin to comprehend.
          They recognized that ‘we’ are not ‘them’ and ‘they’ are not ‘we’.
          OUR LACK OF THIS ABILITY to respect other Jews as they are and pray for them and for us to have the patience
          IS FURTHER PROOF MASHIACH IS ARRIVING SOON.

          STEVEN WHAT YOU CHOOSE TO ‘KNOW’
          IS ALL IN YOUR HANDS.
          AFTER ALL THESE YEARS I REALIZE
          I KNOW NOTHING.
          ASK YOURSELF…..
          WHAT DO YOU KNOW IN RELATION TO THE TORAH…

    • steven..
      who is JUDGING.
      THATS MY POINT THAT WENT OVER YOUR HEAD

      WHO ARE YOU TO JUDGE IN SUCH A *DEMEANING* WAY.

      I find it “disgraceful” that you insult a Rabbi in such a manner.
      You don’t have to agree but also you dont have to insult.

      I would rather insult peres the ‘pres of Israel’out of frustration, that says abbas is a true partner to peace, press release this morning

      steven, In fact…
      I and *many others*
      will never invite you to any of our parties again

      • by the way, there are so called rabbis in this site that deserve insults.Those that praise and search for ways that JEWS should praise the dead mandod that has been the instrument of death to millions of JEWS throughout the centuries and continue to kill JEWS to this very day spiritually by opening churches missionary centers to look like shuls with hebrew writings on the outside and missionaries dressed like rabbis seducing young students from ‘Hayim Berlin’
        and Ateret Torah on coney island ave brooklyn.

        WE JEWS HAVE REAL FIGHTS ON OUR HANDS THAT WE DISMISS. A FIGHT FROM A GROUP THAT GROWS AND STEALS OUR CHILDREN “”””BECAUSE OF OUR SILENCE”””

        I mock many even our Rabbis,that are so small minded and blinded to the *REAL PROBLEMS FACING OUR NATION OF ISRAEL WHERE EVER WE MAY RESIDE UNTIL MASHIACH ARRIVES AND WE HEAR THE GREAT SHOFAR.

      • Steven

        I dont ever want to be part of anything that you are part of

  • STEVEN;
    first I’d like the invitation returned back to me, I decided I dont want you to come to my party.
    YOU ARE A PARTY POOPER.

    Now onto the issues at hand. Both spiderman and batman wear masks and the great mystery is are they Jewish or converts.If converts then YOU have to treat them with great respect, NOT ME. First I would HAVE TO KNOW,who converted them, how lomng ago where did they study for how long.
    You spelled ascent incorrectly.

    The persian king subjects Mordechai and Esther are spehardic therefore you disrespected them with your ashkanaz accent.
    You made the ‘ta’ into a ‘samech’
    ahasveros another error..

    A rabbi once told me that.
    “the one who shows everyone how humble he is when heenters into a shiur by sitting in the back of the room is really showing his arrogance by separating himself to be noticed that he is separating in humilty.

    steven I dont have a clue why the Rabbi would tell that to me, I never even went to his shiur, I made sure to sit in another room alone where no one saw me at all.

    steven allow me to continue please.
    you go on in some german/yiddish thing as if the world of Jews are german/yiddish and according to the Shulchan Aruch AND RAMBAM and ramban the world is NOT germa/yiddish. In fact as a sephardic man I AM QUITE CAPABLE OF THINKING FOR MYSELF AND NOT..YA KNOW..I WOULD NEVER LET RABBI JEREMY ROSEN INFLUENCE ME AS ONE OF THE UNLEARNED AS I WAS DEEMED TO BE UNLEARNED BY MANY GREAT RABBIS. YO ROSEN’ YA BETTER NOT INFLUENCE ME…
    I CAN THINK FOR MYSELF YA KNOW…

    steven do you think an unlearned hamor donkey would be able to understand this site in particular? yes? then now I understand when you speak of the unlearned would be influenced..putting a fence around yourself huh?

    and then you part with “simchas purim”
    Thats what my ex wife told me walking away from divorce court..”have a good life you son of a ____”

    steven.remember please return my invite you party pooper

  • Steven

    Of course the reason for masks on Purim have zero connection to anything written by Jeremy – the true reason for masks on Purim is as it is recorded in the Gemara that as a result of Mordechais accenting to power and the granting by Achasveros the right of self-defense to the Jews, many Goyim were afraid that the will be killed by the Jews so they disguised them selves as Jews ( Esther 8 -17 ) and to commorate that the minhag – custom – developed to dress up in a disguise.
    What is very troubling for me is that Jeremy leaves no stone unturned to twist minhagim that fit into “his” welt anschaung”, and thus influence the un learned.
    As usual Jeremy does not live up to his Yeshivah education – simchas purim!

  • Jeremy Rosen

    Nice thought for Purim. Its all topsy turvey. Olam Hafuh. But your task and mine is to survive and do what’s right.
    Purim Sameach

  • some of us get married to someone wearing a mask.
    AND WE DONT FIND OUT UNTIL LATER.

    funny thing is no one else sees the mask….
    so I figure
    “the whole world is a stage and YOU are all actors in it”
    ELVIS SAID IT..

    I am not of part of this world…..I am different…
    Rabbi Nachman of Breszlauv SAID SOMETHING LIKE THAT, I’LL GET BACK TA YA WITH THE EXACT PHILOSOPHY.

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