Why do we dress in costume for Purim?
Purim is an annual favorite in my house. Every year, my kids get to pick their costumes and parade around in character--one year it was the cast of the Broadway musical Hamilton.
This year, we’re going as our favorite synagogue resources--I know, I know! My 10-year old twins Hillel and Akiva will be Artscroll and Koren; 12-year old Noam will be the Stone Chumash, seven-year old Sophie will be the Kaplan Chumash; my toddler Yonatan will be a tiny Torah and I’ll be Sefaria, of course. And while it’s easy to overlook, there is a very real reason this tradition of playing dress-up on Purim has evolved.
When the rabbis of the Talmud read the Book of Esther, they saw a series of plot twists that could only be ascribed to divine intervention. These coincidences ultimately bring about salvation for the Jewish people. But God is never once mentioned in Megillat Esther, and the Talmud assumes that is because God is hidden; a masked presence operating undercover.
So when the Talmud wants to know where in the Torah the miracle of Purim is referenced, one opinion suggests this verse: God says that when the Jews aren’t at their best, God will hide or Haster astir panay - הַסְתֵּר אַסְתִּיר פָּנַי . The word for “hide” sounds a lot like...Esther! Just look at the Hebrew parallels: אֶסְתֵּר- אַסְתִּיר
In this reading, Esther is the embodiment of the hidden power of the divine in this world. Her name is a reminder that there’s always more to a situation than meets the eye.
Of course, there’s also a lot of literal disguising going on in the Purim story. Esther doesn’t reveal her identity as a Jew, Mordechai gets to dress up as royalty as a reward for saving the king’s life, and even Achashverosh is always throwing parties and putting extra finery around his palace. Dressing up on Purim reminds us of these characters adjusting their identities as circumstances warranted.
And of course, when Esther and Mordechai save the day and the Jews defeat their enemies, the Megillah emphasizes the way everything is flipped - from darkness to light, from sorrow to joy. When we change how we look to the outside world, we remind ourselves and each other of this theme.
Sefaria Education Director