Rabbi Shlomo Sobol
Former Rosh Kollel in Detroit
Although neither the Gemara nor the poskim refer to Purim costumes as an obligation, the Rama does state:
“They had a custom of changing themselves (lehishtanot) on Purim, and it is not nonsense (davar reik).”
Several reasons have been cited for Purim costumes:
The Megillah story is, at its core, a disguised miracle which arrived in a seemingly natural fashion.
In the Megillah, non-Jews turned into Jews – “many of the peoples of the land professed themselves Jews” (Esther 8:17) – and essentially disguised themselves as Jews.
Costumes are part of ad d’lo yada (literally, “until he does not know” – BT Megillah 7b). People are not recognizable because of their costumes.
Costumes alleviate the poor’s embarrassment while asking for money.
Costumes add to the Purim spirit, because they are funny and amusing. Also, by escaping one’s normal sartorial routine, one feels free to rejoice and reveal one’s love for one’s friends. Furthermore, different styles of clothing lead to schisms and separations; in contrast, when one’s alters one’s attire, partitions are removed, and unity increases. In addition, costumes permit us to become aware of how influenced we are by external appearances and, therefore, enable us to see the interior. Finally, costumes suggest that even when the Jewish people look like non-Jews on the outside, deep down they remain Jewish – as the Purim story indicated.
May a man dress up as a woman on Purim and vice versa? Moreover, may boys wear makeup and color their hair on Purim?
Some authorities rule that these things are forbidden – because of the prohibition of lo yilbash (literally, “a man shall not wear etc.” – Devarim 22:5). However, others insist that this prohibition – which is meant to prevent lewdness and immorality – does not apply on Purim, when the goal is to increase simcha (joy and happiness). As the Rama (696:8) writes:
“And that which they wore ‘faces’ (partzufim – i.e., masks) on Purim and a man would wear the clothing of a woman and a woman the garb of a man – there is no prohibition in this matter, since their only intention is for simcha. And similarly, with respect to wearing kila’im (i.e. shatnez) dirabbanan (which is prohibited on a rabbinic level). And some say that it is forbidden, but the custom follows the first opinion.”
Several poskim are lenient in this regard – as long as the person switches only one item of clothing while retaining the remainder of his or her normal attire.