[From an article I wrote for our Toronto Torah two weeks ago.]
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 façade 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.
Regarding shatnez, the Maharil argued that costumes are not truly “worn.” Just as the gemara (Yevamot 4b) notes that merchants who sell Shatnez goods may drape them on their own bodies for display and we do not consider this an act of “wearing clothing,” so the Maharil considered dressing up in costume as an act of display rather than an act of donning clothing.
Regarding the prohibition against cross-dressing, the Rambam ruled that intent is irrelevant; the phenomenon of cross-dressing is, in itself, an act associated with idolatrous rites. However, other authorities viewed it as an issue of leading to sexual license, and so they argued that it depends on intent, and so Maharil, Rav Yehuda Mintz and other early authorities permitted the cross-dressing costume, so long as it was limited to the special occasion of Purim.
And so we are heirs to a centuries-old tradition of dressing up on Purim, mirroring the events of Purim, inducing joy and marking our transition. We might also mark two other Purim practices described by Rav Klonymus ben Klonymus: “They send portions to each other from the seven species, but gifts to the poor are minimized, like the rest of the year.”
Sending mishloach manot which include the seven species for which Israel is known is an excellent way to connect Purim to our national return from Persia to Israel, which was advanced by the miracles of the day and which we have merited to witness in our own time.
As far as the observation that people stinted on matanot la’evyonim in centuries past, may we merit to see ונהפוך הוא, a Purimesque reversal, such that we will follow the Mishneh Berurah’s advice (694:3) and make sure that our primary Purim expenditure is not on costumes, or even on the feasting and mishloach manot of the day, but on ensuring that we provide for the needy.