Skip To Content

Costumed as Our Greatest Fears for Purim

Come Saturday night and Sunday, Jewish homes, parties and synagogues will be full of sugared-up little Queen Esthers, superheroes and other assorted costumed children, clad in their Purim guises.

I’ve never been the kind of mom willing, or able, to sew artfully constructed costumes with complicated details. When I was in Boro Park once the Sunday before Purim, I was excited to go to one of the Purim stores that pop up before the holiday there, thinking we’d find all sorts of cool get-ups. But the store had only a range of bride-like Queen Esther costumes for the girls, a range so limited that it was perhaps as predictable as it was disappointing. Usually, when my kidlets start wondering aloud what they’ll be for Purim, they’re most likely to hear “go check what’s in the dress up box,” where they choose from clown, hippie, Rasta and Hasidic garb to put on.

I don’t usually dress up for Purim myself, but last year, I had more time to think about the inner meanings of Purim while I studied the holiday in classes at Drisha, a center for women’s Torah learning in Manhattan. So on my way home I stopped on Atlantic Avenue, a focal point for New York’s Arab community, and bought everything I needed to dress in full purdah. Covered head to toe in abaya and niquab, I went to shul to hear the reading of Megillat Esther, and wrote about it here.

The practice of hiding oneself on Purim, is, historically speaking, of recent vintage.

According to Wikipedia:

Most evidence suggests that the concept of “masquerading in costumes” (on Purim) is a fairly recent addition to Purim, which was added sometime during the past five hundred years – in Europe. The exact date is debated. The practice probably did not exist in Middle Eastern countries earlier than 150 years ago. Sources in the oral law (or even some mystical works), which describe the validity of “hiding” (as it relates to Purim) are referenced to support this practice.

The custom of masquerading on Purim was first introduced among the Italian Jews about the close of the fifteenth century under the influence of the Roman carnival. This custom spread over all countries where Jews lived, except perhaps the Orient. The first among Jewish authors to mention this custom is Judah ben Eliezer ha-Levi Minz (d. 1508 at Venice) (known as the “Mahari Minz”) in his Responsa no. 17, quoted by Moses Isserles on Orach Chayim 696:8.

He expresses the opinion that, since the purpose of the masquerade is only merrymaking, it should not be considered a transgression of the Biblical law regarding dress. Although some authorities issued prohibitions against this custom, the people did not heed them, and the more lenient view prevailed. The custom is still practiced today amongst religious Jews of all denominations, and among both religious and non-religious Israelis.

One of my favorite aspects of Purim is its psychological angle, and when a mom this week posted on a local parenting listserv looking for a “cool Purim party” for her 3-year-old, she described her daughter as wanting “to dress up like a tiger so she can get over fearing him.”

I love that idea – dressing for Purim not just to be pretty or cool or witty, or to reflect a character in the Purim story, but to reflect our greatest fears.

And I wonder – if you were going to dress up as your greatest fear, what would you be wearing?


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.