Unmasking An Odd-Sounding Purim Custom
Guest post by R. Akiva Males
Rabbi Akiva Males serves as rabbi of Harrisburg’s Kesher Israel Congregation. This article appears in the Winter 2012 issue of Tradition and is reprinted here with permission. Image courtesy of R. Jeffrey Saks.
The following little-known story is related about the famed R. Moshe Isserles (Ramo).
Ramo passed away on the thirty-third day of the counting of the Omer (Lag Ba’Omer) in Cracow, Poland. As such, one of his eulogizers thought it fitting to share thirty three praises of Ramo with those in attendance. After listing thirty two of his meritorious attributes, Ramo’s eulogizer struggled to think of one last appropriate accolade. Finally, an elderly member of Cracow’s Jewish community came forward to offer one final praiseworthy custom of their beloved rabbi: Each year on Purim afternoon, Ramo would disguise himself in a costume and go from house to house summoning everyone to return to the synagogue for evening services.
It is unlikely we will ever know for certain whether it really was Ramo’s custom to wear a Purim costume each year. However, Ramo himself records an enigmatic ruling regarding Purim costumes that is far more surprising than the custom attributed to him above.
In his second to last gloss to the Shulhan Arukh’s first section, Ramo writes:
. . . and regarding the customs of people wearing masks on Purim, as well as a man wearing a woman’s garments, and a woman a man’s garment – there is no prohibition in the matter since their intentions are for mere rejoicing. This is also true regarding the wearing of garments containing Rabbinically prohibited mixtures of wool and linen. There are some authorities who forbid this, but the practice is according to the fi rst theory. Similarly, people who snatch items from one another while rejoicing do not transgress the prohibition of “Thou shall not steal.” This is what has become the custom – providing that one does nothing which has been deemed improper according to the community’s leaders.
Ramo attributes these eyebrow-raising Purim allowances to R. Yehuda ben Eliezer ha-Levi Minz, who had migrated from Mainz, Germany to Padua, Italy in 1462. R. Minz’s responsum, cited by Ramo, is the first to deal with – and sanction – the custom of people wearing costumes and clothing associated with the opposite gender on Purim. These behaviors certainly needed halakhic sanction, as the Torah seems to explicitly prohibit such practices9 in Deuteronomy 22:5 where the verse states:
A woman shall not wear garments of a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s clothing; for whoever does these things is an abomination unto the Lord your G-d.
R. Minz’s responsum is certainly one of the most fundamental sources in any discussion over the halakhic appropriateness of one gender wearing the attire of the other. However, nowhere in that responsum does one find mention of the other clothing-related Purim custom mentioned by Ramo – i.e. allowing for the wearing of Rabbinically prohibited shaatnez as part of one’s rejoicing on Purim.
Thankfully, Ramo’s glosses to the Shulhan Arukh are not the only place where he writes about this odd-sounding Purim custom…
Continued here: link (PDF)
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