As you surely know, Purim is nearly upon us! Many find it hard to believe that Purim is a legitimate Jewish holiday– as it seems to be so much at odds with the somber, historicised, self-flagellating tone which many ascribe to Jewish holiday observance. In contrast, Purim is all about inversion: the weak become powerful and the powerful weak, things revealed become concealed, and things concealed revealed. In this sense, it shares a remarkable degree of similarity with the Christian festival which occurs around this same time of year: Carnival.
Across the Christian world, Carnival is a celebration of inversion– from the masks of Venice’s traditional street fair to the pancake consumption of Mardi Gras, from Rio’s legendary parade of floats, to carnal parades of over-sexualised puppets– European traditions of Carnival have much of the same components as Purim. The Purim story is raunchy (Hebrew sexual euphemisms are particularly obtuse), campy, ridiculous, and ultimately– about the upturning of expectations. The powerful lose, and two protagonists from a despised minority save the day. Everything is topsy-turvy, concealed, mythologically-coded, and ultimately serves to be a controlled explosion of all those natural human impulses sublimated by religious tradition (as too is Carnival).
The similarities are profound, and this similarity (or potential syncretism) has provoked a variety of responses among rabbis. Earlier today I taught a learning session for the Noam staff where we looked at a teshuvah (legal responsum) by R’ Yosef Messas, who was working as a community rabbi in early 20th century Morocco. Someone asked him about the custom of wearing masks on costumes on Purim, and, suffice it to say, he is not a fan:
” […] anyone who has it in their power to erase this custom and to erase it from future observance, spilling no more ink discussing it, so it should be! We should speak to the people and the leaders of our communities who are lazily comfortable with it, and with God’s help, hopefully our words will bear fruit!”
Why was he so bothered by costumes and masks on Purim? It is precisely because he claims that these customs have just been borrowed from Christian Carnival. Yet, in North Africa, he likely would have had almost no exposure to the Christian custom of Carnival. Meanwhile, 500 years earlier, a rabbi who led the community of Padua, Italy (then part of the Venetian Republic) said exactly the opposite: “… there’s no prohibition on this, because no one intends by it anything other than typical rejoicing and happiness. There are those who say it is prohibited, but it is an established practice.”
What gives? The rabbi who lived in the centre of the original Carnival celebration (Venice) is completely calm about Jews dressing up on Purim, while a rabbi living 500 years later who never witnessed Carnival is stoking a moral panic about the danger of masks?! Actually, there’s something both unexpected and totally reasonable about this. Like anyone else, rabbis have often been afraid of things which they didn’t understand. Jews living in Christian countries thought Muslims were idolaters and Jews living in Muslim countries thought Christians were idolaters! Everyone is comfortable with what is familiar, and more willing to accept that there are many aspects of local, familiar religious practice which are shared across different religions and cultures.
Perhaps the most interesting component is where Purim and Carnival differ. Whereas Carnival is about the last burst of indulgence before the penitential season of Lent, Purim is relatively unmoored from the calendar around it. It has no obvious link to Pesach, nor to the months that precede it. In some ways, Purim is a stand-alone story, as part of a stand-alone book. Yet it serves many of the same purposes– for one day, we invert the narrative (nahafokh hu), celebrating the victory of the powerless, the power of hiddenness, and the absurd campy celebration of reading the Megillah.
Perhaps there is some syncretism between Purim and Carnival- but in true Purim fashion, does that matter? In the words of R’ Adin Steinsaltz, a contemporary sage with a very different approach:
“While there may have been outside influences, the masks seem to grow out of the very essence of the festival. The Purim story, then, is a kind of game; in the beginning one sees a frowning face, but eventually one sees that it is nothing but a mask. The terrifying threat not only vanishes, it turns into joy and salvation. Since Purim is a festival of the hiding of the Face, it ought to be celebrated by wearing costumes and masks. In this way we express the essence of Purim as a festival marked, from beginning to end, by concealing and revelation.”
Thus I hope you’ll join us, masked and costumed, for a celebration of inversion and a silly exercise in fantasy. We’re very excited to feature a Purim Shpiel called Green Eggs and SAMS, which will help tell the story alongside the Megillah (with a plentitude of puns, naturally), along with food, fun, and the festive foolishness of our own little carnival.
Shabbat Shalom (and Purim Same’ach),