Of Costumes, Carnivals and Customs

elegant venetian, mardi gras mask on glitter backgroundPURIM IS OFTEN called the Jewish Halloween – primarily because we are encouraged to dress up in costumes. But there is also the hamantaschen, the giving of gifts, groggers, carnivals, and of course, the story of Queen Esther.  And while it has become a festive holiday – celebrating Jewish survival – does anyone know how it really began? 

According to Hayyim Schauss, Purim originally appeared among the Persian Jews who along with their neighbors, held an annual festival in the middle of the last of the winter months celebrating the coming of spring that included masquerades, plays and pranks. Because it was so popular with both Persian and the Babylonian Jewry, it eventually spread to Israel.

In his book “Festivals of the Jewish Year” Theodore Gaster presents several possible theories of Purim’s origin.  One theory dates back to the Babylonian New Year Festival celebrating the day when it was believed the gods determined the fate of men by lot; the Babylonian word for lot was puru.  Other aspects of the festival included a ritual pantomime that portrayed the conquest of Babylonian gods over those of its neighbors.  However, the Babylonian New Year Festival fell in Nisan (April), not in Adar (March), and it lasted a full 10 or 11 days.

A second theory stems from the ancient Greek version of the Bible (the Septuagint) and the historian Josephus – both identifying the festival not as Purim but “Furdaia,” a distortion of the Old Persian word “Farwadigan.” While this feast was held toward the end of the month of March, it lasted at least five days and was primarily a commemoration of the dead.

A third theory connects the name Purim with the Hebrew word purah — “wine press.” This theory assumes that the festival was as an adaptation of the Greek festival of Pithoigia, or “Opening the Wine Casks.”  Here again there are problems. The opening of wine casks did not occur in the spring, but in the fall; and the plural of the word purah is purot, not purim.

Some scholars have suggested that the Scroll of Esther was written long after the Persian period and was a kind of historical novel intended to comment on the situation of the Jews under Hellenistic rule.

Regardless of what the true history of the festival of Purim, by the second century of the Common Era it had long become established when a whole tractate of the Talmud, called the Megillah, was devoted to the details of the observance.

Along with the observance came some particular traditions.  In accordance with a passage in the Midrash, we are instructed as follows: “Thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek” (Deuteronomy 25:19). Since Haman was identified as an Amalek, it has become traditional to engage in loud noise-making with groggers to blot out his name. A number of methods were used including knocking smooth stones together, and stamping of feet to show contempt.

Another tradition is to give misloach manot (literally “sending of portions”) on Purim day. These are gaily wrapped baskets of sweets, snacks and other foodstuffs. Its origin is traced to where The Book of Esther prescribes “the sending of portions one man to another, and gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22). Each adult is expected to  give two different foods to one person, and two charitable donations to two poor people. One can give either food or money equivalent to the amount of food that is eaten at a regular meal.

There is also a custom to have a festive meal and another long standing tradition of drinking wine at the feast. We know about the drinking of wine which is attributed in the Talmud to a rabbi named Rava that says one should drink on Purim until he can “no longer distinguish between arur Haman (‘Cursed is Haman’) and baruch Mordechai (‘Blessed is Mordecai’).”

Then, of course, there is the custom of masquerading in costumes and the wearing masks. This custom probably originated among the Italian Jews at the end of the 15th century possibly influenced by the Roman carnival. The practice was only introduced into Middle Eastern countries much later during the 19th century. Some authorities were concerned about the possible infringement of biblical law where men might put on women’s apparel. However, according to Yitzchak Sender in The Commentators’ Al Hanissim: Purim: Insights of the Sages on Purim and Chanukah “the accepted consensus was to permit all masquerades, as it was viewed as a form of merry-making. Some rabbis went as far to allow the wearing of rabbinically-forbidden shatnez.”

Sender provides yet another reason given for the custom as a way of emulating God who “disguised his presence behind the natural events described in the Purim story.

In addition to the reading of the Megillah and the Purim Spiels, one of the  most fun parts of the holiday is the carnival  – a daylong event that often includes rides, games, activities, and, of course food!  And it wouldn’t be Purim without the triangular cookie called Hamantaschen (literally “Haman’s pockets”).  The sweet pastry is traditionally filled with a poppy seed filling or prune, but today you will find all sorts of fillings from raspberry, apricot to and even chocolate chips!

For all the pomp and merrymaking, we celebrate Purim as another story of Jewish survival, hope and freedom.


Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.

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