Saturday, February 27, 2010

Purim: Dressing for Success, or for Trouble? Part I


[From an article I published in Toronto Torah for Parshat Terumah this year.]

Today, Purim costumes are largely the province of children and shul rabbis, but historically Jews of all ages costumed themselves for Purim. Notwithstanding the Mishneh Berurah’s recommendation (695:3) to wear Shabbat clothes on Purim, for at least 750 years adult Jews have also dressed up in costume for Purim.

Rav Klonymus ben Klonymus, living in late 13th and early 14th century France, wrote in his Even Bochan, “And on the fourteenth of Adar, for the sake of honor and beauty, young men are glorified and exalted, acting in a manner of insanity and foolishness… One wears a woman’s dress and a necklace about his throat, one acts like one of the fools, with a drum and a dance and joy…”

Numerous reasons are offered for this practice, including:

• Relating to the events of Purim itself, Megilat Esther revolves around changes of clothing, from the clothes of Achashverosh’s party, to Vashti’s refusal to undress, to Esther’s pageant, to Mordechai’s sackcloth, to Mordechai’s parade, to Haman’s pre-party downfall, to Mordechai’s elevation to royal robes.

• The sefer Eleh haMitzvot suggested that since the gemara states that the Jews sinned “for show” in bowing to idols in the days of Nevuchadnezzar, and HaShem only acted “for show” in endangering us (Megilah 12a), and so we, too, display a fa├žade which does not match who we are underneath.

• Chassidic authors discuss changing clothing in order to induce the joy and laughter that comes with the unexpected and unusual.

• Anthropologists describe liminal festivals, in which individuals or societies mark a rite of passage by erasing their old identities and taking on something new. Jeffrey Rubenstein, in his Purim, Liminality and Communitas, mentions this as a possible explanation for why masks have such appeal on Purim, a day of transitions and reversals, a time when we re-accepted the Torah (Shabbat 88a), a moment when we were transformed from endangered vassals to a celebrated population en route to a new Beit haMikdash.

Despite these various explanations, the practice of dressing up has, historically, raised troubled halachic eyebrows. Two specific questions were raised regarding potential prohibitions against Shatnez and Cross-dressing, but prominent halachic authorities justified the practice.

(To be continued...)

Have a wonderful Purim,

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