Purim–Parashat Ki Tissa 5778
Israel in general, and Tzfat in particular, are pretty good at doing Purim. In the week before the dress code is haute couture – the other haute. Little children are sent to school in costumes which look colorful and cute from outside, but seem a bit hard to manage from the inside, and the look on their faces peeking out from paper bags and floppy hoods is not so much “this is fun” as “why did Ima do this to me”? The older children are into it, the boys waving light sabers and plastic weapons of all kinds and the girls with face paint. Adults also dress in costume during the week – you see people at bus stops, in banks and government offices or out shopping with odd headgear and bizarre accessories. Some shopkeepers and salespeople are tricked out in full costume. Tzfat actually has a bit of a trippy Purim vibe all year long – on Purim it just ramps up.
The wearing of costumes on Purim is a minhag endorsed by no less an authority than Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the Shulchan Arukh:
שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות מגילה ופורים סימן תרצו סעיף ח
ומה שנהגו ללבוש פרצופים בפורים, וגבר לובש שמלת אשה ואשה כלי גבר, אין איסור בדבר מאחר שאין מכוונין אלא לשמחה בעלמא; וכן בלבישת כלאים דרבנן. וי”א דאסור, <ה> אבל המנהג כסברא (ל) הראשונה.
That people have the custom to wear masks on Purim, and a man wears a woman’s dress and a woman men’s clothing – there is no prohibition in the matter, since they are only intending to be joyful… There are those who say it is prohibited, but the custom is like the former opinion.
Hurray for halakhic good sense! Rabbi Moshe Hagiz, of Jerusalem and Tzfat (1671-1750), asks why it is that this custom of masks and costumes is connected to Purim and suggests it expresses the essential theme of the day. In the Gemara Hullin, Papunai asks Rav Matnah:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת חולין דף קלט עמוד ב
אסתר מן התורה מנין? ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא )דברים פרק לא פסוק יח(
Where is Esther hinted at in the Torah? [Rav Matnah answered:] And I will hide, surely hide My Face on that day (Dt. 31:18).
“Esther” in Hebrew can be read as “I will hide,” and interpreted as an allusion HaShem’s warning that we will be exiled from the Land if we do not observe Torah. The theological basis of exile is God hiding His Face, seeming to be distant and not protective, and the events of Megillat Esther convey the vulnerability of the Jewish People in Galut. But is Esther’s name only a reference to divine alienation?
Rabbi Hagiz explores this association more deeply with reference to the custom of wearing masks on Purim:
The Holy One, blessed be He, informed them in His Torah that “I will hide My Face,” similar to wearing a mask, which hides a person’s face from his friend. Even so, the hearts of both of them are equally together and they recognize each other. Therefore, since this is the situation, it is not wondrous or a far stretch to permit them [to wear costumes] in these days and at this time.
According to Rabbi Hagiz, a mask only hides the face superficially – friends still recognize each other behind the masks. We wear costumes on Purim as an expression of this relationship, connecting behind the mask. This is what Rav Matnah is saying by punning on Esther’s name. Esther represents the hope of Am Yisrael in exile, to be able to sense HaShem’s intimate presence even in hiddenness. God’s Name does not appear in the Megillah, yet the events of the Megillah are suffused by His Presence and exquisite guidance.
In truth, the hiddenness of HaShem is not just a condition of exile. It’s the condition of creation and existence itself. In this week’s parashah Bnei Yisrael commit the terrible sin of worshipping the Golden Calf while Moshe was away on Mount Sinai receiving the full Torah and the Luchot, the two Tablets of the Law. Realizing that the Jewish people need a greater sense of HaShem’s reality, Moshe asks for a deeper revelation so he can teach them more effectively:
שמות פרק לג
)יח) ויאמר הראני נא את כבדך:
(כ) ויאמר לא תוכל לראת את פני כי לא יראני האדם וחי:
And [Moshe] said “Show me, please, Your Glory.”
And [God] said “You cannot see My Face, for a person cannot see Me and live.”
So the hiding of God’s Face is not a punitive condition of exile, it’s the necessary condition for all life and existence. The Rambam explains that God is hidden not because He is distant from existence, but because His Presence is so overpowering that our minds are overwhelmed and cannot grasp it:
We are dazzled by His beauty and He is hidden from us because of the intensity with which he is manifest (Guide of the Perplexed 1:59)
God is hiding in plain sight, appearing as if hidden, as it says in the Gemara Hagigah:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת חגיגה דף יב עמוד ב
וחשך וענן וערפל מקיפין אותו, שנאמר ישת חשך סתרו סביבותיו סכתו חשכת מים עבי שחקים. ומי איכא חשוכא קמי שמיא? והכתיב: הוא (גלי) +מסורת הש”ס: [גלא]+ עמיקתא ומסתרתא ידע מה בחשוכא ונהורא עמה שרא! – לא קשיא: הא בבתי גואי, הא – בבתי בראי.
Darkness and cloud and thick fog surround Him, as it says “He make darkness His hiding place, and around His dwelling is dark waters and thick clouds (Ps. 18).” But is there darkness before Heaven? Behold it is written: He reveals deep and hidden things and knows what is in darkness, and light dwells with Him. (Dan. 2).”
God’s infinite presence is too bright for us, appearing to our weak minds as darkness and hiddenness. The spiritual skill Torah asks of us is to be able to sense HaShem’s presence even with our mind’s eye closed, so to speak, to know He is behind the mask of hiddenness. The mistake of idolatry begins with difficulty in relating to God as hidden, trying to use a representation of God as a stand-in. But not only is this lese majeste, a treasonous insult, it’s fatally misleading. In trying to concretize God’s presence, the idol, whether physical or mental, actually gets in the way of real personal relationship with God. That’s the serious sin of idolatry: subverting true relationship with God.
These days we should be pretty accustomed to sensing presence without representation. We’re fine talking heart to heart on a cell phone with earbud to a person who is hidden from view. Facetime and video conferencing aside, we don’t need an image of the other person, it would just get in the way and block real communication. We’re fine just talking out into the ether and trusting that the hidden person we are communicating with is receiving our words and responding. It’s similar with HaShem: we can talk in tefillah heart to heart and be confident He is listening and responding – and with HaShem reception is always good.
So the custom of wearing masks and costumes on Purim is not just tolerated by halakhah; it’s endorsed as expressing a deeper spiritual awareness, an awareness of Presence behind hiddenness that is the Torah skill we need throughout our lives. This is why Purim is considered the eternal holy day, as the Rambam says:
רמב”ם הלכות מגילה וחנוכה פרק ב הלכה יח
כל ספרי הנביאים וכל הכתובים עתידין ליבטל לימות המשיח חוץ ממגילת אסתר הרי היא קיימת כחמשה חומשי תורה וכהלכות של תורה שבעל פה שאינן בטלין לעולם, ואף על פי שכל זכרון הצרות יבטל שנאמר +ישעיהו ס”ה+ כי נשכחו הצרות הראשונות וכי נסתרו מעיני, ימי הפורים לא יבטלו שנאמר +אסתר ט’+ וימי הפורים האלה לא יעברו מתוך היהודים וזכרם לא יסוף מזרעם.
All the books of the Prophets and Writings are destined to be null in the days of the Mashiach, except for Megillah Esther, which will remain in effect like the five books of the Torah and the laws of the Oral Law which are never nullified. And even though all memory of the troubles will be nullified, as it says “for the earlier sufferings shall be forgotten and hidden from My eyes, (Is. 65),” the days of Purim will not be nullified, as it says “and these days of Purim shall not pass from the Jews and their memory shall not cease from their offspring (Esther 9).”
Which is why Tzfat actually should have a bit of a trippy Purim vibe all year long!
חג פורים שמח!