Purim – the Jewish Mardi Gras

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

A well-known English proverb, ‘Clothes don’t make a person’ is understood to mean that appearances can be deceiving. 

What you see on the outside might not be a true reflection of the person you are interacting with. Most youngsters today are very conscious of what they wear, and the marketing of designer labels is a very strong force within the fashion industry. It is staggering that one even finds designer label baby wear!

Yet fashion statements are not new. Since the dawn of civilization when human beings began to wear clothing to protect themselves from the elements, people dressed according to their social station or their roles in society. The more wealth one possessed the more flamboyant one’s garments. Most societies developed uniforms to be worn by functionaries and practitioners of certain professions. 

This was also true of Israelite society. Sefer Shemot (the Book of Exodus) describes the priestly garments worn by the kohanim who officiated in the Temple. Indeed dressing Aaron and his sons in uniform formed part of the ordination ceremony. This part of the induction ritual served to demonstrate that the tunic, robe, ephod, embroidered sash and headdress were indispensable to the office of the kohen. An ordained priest not wearing his garments of office could not officiate at the altar. He had to look the part.

Similarly in modern Jewish society people dress according to their ideology. Thus observant Orthodox Jewish men wear kippot and tzitziyot and married women wear long skirts and head coverings. If the man wearing a kippah and tzitziyot is clean-shaven then he is modern Orthodox, but if he has a long beard and long payot then he is ultra-Orthodox. Similarly if a man known to be Jewish does not wear a kippah then he is either non-Orthodox or secular. In Israel the type of kippah (whether crocheted or velvet) is an indication of whether the wearer is Modern Orthodox or Hasidic, and of course each Hasidic movement has its own uniform that distinguishes its followers from those of other movements. 

Many Jews deliberately choose not to wear clothing that distinguishes them from members of general society. While proud of their Jewish identity they also feel the need to be a part of the secular community in which they live. Thus the garments they wear reflect their philosophy as do the clothing worn by their Orthodox counterparts.

Jewish prayer also requires a uniform. Thus some sort of head covering is considered mandatory for men in the Orthodox world. In Liberal Jewish movements many women elect to cover their heads when praying. The tallit worn during shacharit is an obligation commanded by Torah, as is the wearing of tefillin during weekday morning prayers. 

The rabbinic festival of Purim highlights the importance of our choice of clothes. One of the themes of the story of Esther is that of hiding one’s true identity. Indeed the very name Esther is not a Jewish one. The heroine who stood up to Haman and foiled his evil plan was given the Hebrew name Haddasah (myrtle) by her parents (Esther 2:7). Esther is a Persian name meaning ‘star’ from the Greek asteri. The name is also a pun on the Hebrew verb nistar (to be hidden). Like all biblical names, the name Esther was chosen deliberately because the young Jewess who became Queen of Persia was instructed by her cousin Mordecai to keep her true identity hidden (Esther 2:10). Dressed in fine clothes and cosmetics, she appears before King Ahasuerus as a Persian beauty by the name of Esther. Esther’s concealment of her Jewish origins allowed her to become queen, and her timely disclosure of her true identity saved the Jews from annihilation.

The theme of concealment and disguise in the Purim story is played out in our celebration of Purim. A major feature of the celebration is the masquerade. Dressed in costume, we play a part — either one that reflects our personality and reveals our true nature to others, or a role that purposely hides our true selves and expresses the inverse of our true character. 

All cultures have a tradition of fancy dress, one need only think of the Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, Nice and Cologne. The celebration of Purim parallels these carnivals. It is the one time in the year when observant Jews are permitted to be rowdy, and decorum in shul is dispensed with. Even cross-dressing — forbidden by the Torah — was permitted on Purim in communities influenced by the Italian carnival.

The topsy-turvy nature of Purim, with its masquerades and concealment inspired the sages to declare that while the prophetical and hagiographical books of the Tanach will be nullified in the Messianic Age, the Book of Esther will be remembered and Purim will continue to be celebrated (Talmud Yerushalmi Megillah 1:5a, Mishneh Torah Hilchot Megillah ve-Chanukkah 2:18). Perhaps the idea behind this statement is that in the changed social and political order of the future redemption, all current boundaries and limitations which curb the development of our neshamot will be eliminated. Just as Purim allows for the unconventional in dress and manner, so the messianic era will lead to the overthrow of regressive and oppressive norms that stifle our intellectual and spiritual development. This is the true meaning of Purim, a meaning that is hidden behind the joviality and parody, the fancy dress and noise. Perhaps that is why the kabbalists esteemed Purim so highly, stating in the name of Rabbi Isaac Luria that Purim and Yom Kippur are comparable in importance.

Thus on reflection clothes often do make a person, since our outer appearance when deliberately chosen does reflect who we are, or sometimes the opposite of who we are. With this in mind we should give some careful thought to the fancy dress costume in which we will celebrate Purim this year. 

Temple Israel www.templeisrael.co.za

• Published in the March 2023 Digital Edition – Click here to start reading.

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