Unmasking An Odd-Sounding Purim Custom

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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)

About Akiva Males

Rabbi Akiva Males is the rabbi of the Young Israel of Memphis and a frequent writer on Torah topics. A longer bio and links to many of his articles are available on his shul website.


  1. It’s a nice theory.

    If we’re throwing out theories, how about this one:

    Ahashverosh wore the Bigdei Kehuna, according to the gemara Megilla 12a, which were also made of Sha’atnez (see Arachin 3b). Since Purim often falls out near Parshat Tetzaveh, as it does this year, people might want to recreate these garments either due to the portion of the week or due to the gemara’s connection to what Ahashverosh did – or both.

    As for the justification of the custom:

    If the Kohen Gadol could wear such garments, it is only at the time of Avodah, but not at other times (see the last Rambam in Hilchot Kilayim). The celebration of Purim is our Avodah during the Galut and beyond. The Avodah on Yom Kippur is only Yom HaKe-purim, as the Zohar says, which makes Purim a greater Avodah. And it’s everybody’s Avodah – and it’s even Bizmaneinu.

    Perhaps. Perhaps not.

  2. Rabbi Y.H.Henkin

    For an even more difficult Purim custom of Mahar”i Mintz’s Padua —
    mixed dancing– see Bnei Banim vol. 1 no. 37 (4-6).

  3. doesnt the ramo permit wearing women’s clothing on simchat torah, too? and women on the mens side of the mechitza?

  4. MiMedinat HaYam

    on the mens side of the mechitza on simchat torah (nite, i believe).

    2:43 was me

  5. So I’m curious. What exactly does “rabbinically prohibited shaatnez” consist of? And on a related note, is checking (typical modern) clothing for shaatnez actually necessary?

  6. I have a problem with this. How far can it be taken? It doesn’t sound right to me at all.
    Can I start using bead necklaces ala mardi gra in New Orleans because it’s all just for fun?

  7. I just finished reading (and enjoying) the full article.

    Shlomo, please read the article.

    See section III (and the footnotes there) where Rabbinically prohibited Shaatnez is explained.

    Avi, please read the article.

    See section IV for many strong opposing views. Also, you’ll see that the Ramo himself encouraged people not to follow a custom which he himself felt compelled (so no one would say bad things about our ancestors) to provide justification for.

  8. I don’t see anything in section IV which addresses my concern.

    Personally, after reading something about Sabateans and their view on tefilin, and seeing what is done today in various communities, it seems like people enjoy doing things which are forbidden, but which they don’t really understand or care about, on Purim.

    There seems to be an attitude of “let’s break as many rules as we can.”

  9. Avi, section IV brought down many of the Rema’s contemporaries who strongly objected to this custom for a bunch of various reasons.
    He also showed that although Rema provided a halachic justification for a wide-spread minhag, he himself pretty much counseled against keeping the minhag.
    Happy Purim!

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter