Purim – the Festival of Masks

Purim is different. While other Jewish holidays can be serious and solemn, Purim has fun, games, and even clowning.

purim16For many generations, Purim has been considered the festival of masks. While there may have been outside influences, the masks seem to grow out of the very essence of the festival. The entire Book of Esther can be defined as a story of masks. The Book begins with a wine-drinking banquet. From that point on, the atmosphere of a drinking feast continues to reign in all the events and episodes of the story.

Some of the masks in the Book of Esther are explicitly described, while others are supplemented with Midrashic stories. Esther wears a mask from the beginning until practically to the end: she arrives at the king’s palace, and lives there for an extended period, incognito. The king and his ministers see only her mask. None of them knows who she really is. Mordechai, too, is a masked figure, partially revealed and partially hidden. While he openly sits at the gates of the king’s palace, his relationship with Esther – an important part of the plot – is hidden. Even when he saves the king’s life by uncovering an assassination plot to kill him, the king still has no idea who he is.

Haman, too, is a two-faced figure. Our Sages explain his relationship with Mordechai by positing that the two had known each other much earlier in their lives, when both were insignificant. They also tell us that Haman was a hairdresser and bath attendant in a small village.

At first, this Midrash seems quite odd. However, as we examine our history, we discover that many Jew-haters began as small, unimportant figures. Once they reached positions of power, they could reveal what had always been seething within them: Jew-hatred. Even the overt aspects of Haman’s story – such as his insistence that everyone bow down to him, and his inability to overcome his humiliation when Mordechai did not comply – create an image of a very small human being. Haman could not contain his own greatness, and was therefore insulted by a person who should have meant nothing to him.

Our Sages say something similar about Memuchan, one of King Ahasuerus’ most important ministers – the King’s supreme legal advisor. They say that he suffered greatly at his wife’s hands. That was why he was so eager for a royal decree giving him the right to rule over her. (Although it is unlikely that even the King’s decree, written, sealed and sent to all the corners of the kingdom, availed him at all).

Of all the protagonists of the Book of Esther, perhaps the only one whose outer appearance matches his inner essence is King Ahasuerus. The Book of Esther tells us that he knew the contents of this scroll. The Book, therefore, could not possibly contain any negative or mordant remarks about him. Even so, the book does express hidden – though highly elegant – scorn toward the king. It is seen in the gap between Ahasuerus’s real nature – a drunkard, profligate individual – and his external image as a stable, authoritative ruler.

This is evident from the beginning. In the first chapter, Ahasuerus does something that is quite unbecoming of a king: he demands that his wife be displayed in public (dressed or naked, according to different commentaries.) When she refuses, he asks his most senior jurist for legal counsel on how to handle her.

Later on, Ahasuerus is willing to condemn all the Jews – about whom he probably knows very little – to total annihilation, and then he changes his mind about it while, with uncharacteristic generosity, he also cedes the very generous compensation offered him by Haman. And all this happens as a gesture made at yet another wine-drinking banquet. The scene pegs him as a very unstable person who affects the lives of an entire people with little or no thought. Later on, however, he says that he cannot annul his earlier decrees regarding the Jews, by which he wishes to present himself as a law-abiding monarch who cannot budge an inch from the laws he had made.

The protagonists of the Book of Esther are not the only ones who wear masks: on a deeper level one can say that the entire Book of Esther is, in essence and content, a masked story. For one thing, while there is not a single supernatural event in the entire book, all the events described in it are inter-related, and their miraculous nature is quite obvious. The supernatural aspects of the story are explicitly revealed, both in Mordechai’s appeal to Esther and in her decision to fast and pray for three days in order to annul the wicked decree. Our Sages add (Massekhet Ḥullin 139b) that even Esther’s name (which in Persian is the name of a star) alludes to the Biblical verse (Deuteronomy 31:18) “and I will surely hide My face” (which in Hebrew reads, “va’anokhi haster astir panai – reminiscent of the name Esther”).

And with no mention of God’s Name in this book, it seems that even God Himself is hiding His face behind a mask.

This Divine hiding of the Face, this Godly mask, is the very heart of the festival of Purim. In the history of the Jewish nation, which is so full of tribulations, Haman’s decree is the most terrible: to annihilate the entire Jewish people. When that decree was sent to all the corners of the kingdom, every Jew must have surely felt that the Divine Face was one of fury, that this might indeed be the end of the Jewish nation. However, at the end of the story, this hiding of the face was no more than a mask. Once removed, it revealed a smiling countenance.

The Purim story, then, is a kind of game; in the beginning one sees a frowning face, but eventually one sees that it is nothing but a mask. The terrifying threat not only vanishes, it turns into joy and salvation. Since Purim is a festival of the hiding of the Face, it ought to be celebrated by wearing costumes and masks. In this way we express the essence of Purim as a festival marked, from beginning to end, by concealing and revelation.