What is the origin of wearing costumes and masquerading on Purim?
One theory relates to the fact that the Jews in the Purim story live in the Diaspora. Haman says to the king: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom and their laws are diverse from those of every people, neither they keep the king’s laws.” And given that many Jews in the Diaspora have been forced to disguise themselves, or mask their identities, we now commemorate this fact by doing so on Purim.
It has also been written that in Jerusalem in the 7th to 8th centuries, poor people dressed up as Mordechai and Haman and went from house to house frightening children and asking for money.
Probably the best explanation as to why we wear costumes is because Esther masqueraded as a non-Jew and dressed up as a queen. Esther also hid her assertiveness and her strength until she had no other choice. Since Esther hid her Jewish identity, one theory says that we wear costumes to imitate the costume parties of the court that are mentioned in the story.
Another theory states that traditional Jews believe that God is hidden behind all the events of the megillah. Although there is no mention of God in the Book of Esther, we believe He had a hand in saving the people. In a sense, He was masked or disguised, and rabbis referred to God’s role as hester panim, or “hiding of the face,” which is also said to be a play on the words Megillat Hester, rather than the Hebrew name for the Book of Esther, Megillat Esther.
On the other hand, Jewish philosophers and commentators believe that God’s name is omitted in order to emphasize the point that God remained hidden throughout the story, but was nonetheless present and played a large role in its outcome. Megillat Esther may show that although God may not be conspicuously present at times, he nevertheless plays (and has played) an important role in everyone’s lives and in the future of the Jewish nation. In order to remind us of how God remained hidden throughout the Purim miracle, many Jews dress up on Purim and hide their faces.
Another explanation is that the costumes represent the non-Jews who pretended to be members of the tribe, after the Jews were victorious. As is stated in the megillah, “And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews for the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them.”
We do know for sure that the Book of Esther and the Talmud never discuss Purim costumes.
The tradition of wearing costumes and masks may have originated in 15th-century Italy, coming from the tradition of Roman carnivals. From there, the custom spread to Europe and to all countries where Jews lived, except maybe Asia.
Judah ben Eliezer ha-Levi Minz, a 15th-century Venetian codifier, was the first Jewish author to discuss the custom. In his Responsa no. 17, he expresses the opinion that, since the purpose of the masquerade is merrymaking, it should not be considered a transgression of the biblical law regarding cross-dressing, but he does not provide the origin of wearing Purim costumes.
Some have speculated that the custom commemorates when Mordecai was dressed in regal clothing and was escorted by Haman, a clear turning point in the plot of the story.
Another theory contends that the custom originated in medieval Germany and was an imitation of Christian carnivals, which took place around the same season.
Although some authorities issued prohibitions against the custom, the people did not heed them, and the more lenient view prevailed. Jews of the Middle East, however, did not start wearing costumes on Purim until the 19th century.
Whatever its origins, dressing in costumes is today enjoyed by adults, as well as children, on Purim.