Masks that Conceal; Masks that Reveal - A Text Study and Mask-Making Activity

Text study and activity created by Dr. Dahlia Topolosky, Psy.D., Licensed Psychologist​​​​​​​

Purim is among the joyful holidays in the Jewish calendar and the custom to dress up and wear masks on Purim adds to its distinctly celebratory atmosphere. Though the custom's earliest mention is from the 15th century in Italy, the Megillah (Scroll of Esther) itself is replete with masks - worn by heroes and villains alike, both sung and unsung. Studying the Megillah will show that masks are actually a powerful technology to both reveal and conceal. This program will help both students and educators internalize how we all wear masks in life to show and hide different parts of ourselves. What an important message for us all during a period some call "the year of the mask."

Essential Questions

  • How do masks function in the Megillah?
  • In what ways do masks conceal parts of ourselves? How do they also reveal parts of ourselves?

Learning Objectives

  • Students appreciate the motif of masks in the Megillah.
  • Students are able to relate a message from the text to their own lives.
  • Students express themselves through text study and visual art.

Audience

  • This is designed for students in high school and older. They can learn these texts in Chavruta or small groups

Supplies for the activity


Ask your students:

  • When do you like to dress up and what do you like to dress up as? What has been your favorite costume or character to play?
  • Beyond simply being fun - which is great! - why do you like dressing up as those figures? How do you feel in those costumes?
  • When do you wish you had a mask handy - literally or figuratively - and when do you wish you could take off your mask? Why?

Dr. Norman J. Cohen, Masking and Unmasking Ourselves: Interpreting Biblical Texts on Clothing & Identity (2021)

Although clothing indeed can mask that which lies under the surface, concealing what is essential, it can also reveal the nature and status of those wearing the garments and give us insight into what eventually will happen to them. In seeing how the garments worn by the three principal characters in the Esther story bind them together and what the clothing can tell us about each, perhaps we will be able to uncover larger lessons about ourselves and our own changing circumstances.

Dr. Norman J. Cohen is a rabbi, professor of midrash and former provost of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. He frequently lectures on Bible study and midrash—finding contemporary meaning from ancient biblical texts.

Esther’s Mask
(י) לֹא־הִגִּ֣ידָה אֶסְתֵּ֔ר אֶת־עַמָּ֖הּ וְאֶת־מֽוֹלַדְתָּ֑הּ כִּ֧י מָרְדֳּכַ֛י צִוָּ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־תַגִּֽיד׃

Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred; for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.

Discussion Question

  • How is keeping secrets a way of wearing a mask, and how do you think that affects a person emotionally?
(א) וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַתִּלְבַּ֤שׁ אֶסְתֵּר֙ מַלְכ֔וּת וַֽתַּעֲמֹ֞ד בַּחֲצַ֤ר בֵּית־הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַפְּנִימִ֔ית נֹ֖כַח בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְ֠הַמֶּלֶךְ יוֹשֵׁ֞ב עַל־כִּסֵּ֤א מַלְכוּתוֹ֙ בְּבֵ֣ית הַמַּלְכ֔וּת נֹ֖כַח פֶּ֥תַח הַבָּֽיִת׃

Now it came to pass on the third day, that Esther put on her royal apparel (tilbash malchut), and stood in the inner court of the king’s house, over against the king’s house; and the king sat upon his royal throne in the royal house, over against the entrance of the house.

Discussion Question

  • What mask does Esther wear and why? What does that reveal about her?

The following text is the from the Talmudic tractate called, "Megillah," which was codified in Babylonia (modern day Iraq) around 450-550 CE. This volume of Talmud generally discusses the reading of the scroll of Esther at Purim, and the reading of other passages from the Torah and Prophets in the synagogue.

אסתר דכתיב (אסתר ה, א) ויהי ביום השלישי ותלבש אסתר מלכות בגדי מלכות מיבעי ליה אלא שלבשתה רוח הקדש כתיב הכא ותלבש וכתיב התם (דברי הימים א יב, יט) ורוח לבשה את עמשי וגו'

Esther was also a prophetess, as it is written: “And it came to pass on the third day that Esther clothed herself in royalty” (Esther 5:1). It should have said: Esther clothed herself in royal garments. Rather, this alludes to the fact that she clothed herself with a divine spirit of inspiration. It is written here: “And she clothed herself,” and it is written elsewhere: “And the spirit clothed Amasai” (I Chronicles 12:19). Just as there the reference is to being enclothed by a spirit, so too Esther was enclothed by a spirit of divine inspiration.

Discussion Question

  • What do you make of Esther "clothing herself with a divine spirit of inspiration?" How might one reflect God through their clothes or mask?

Dr. Norman J. Cohen, Masking and Unmasking Ourselves (2012)

Esther's royal garments gave her a facade of power and authority that was necessary as she presented herself publicly. The link between clothing and political power is something we witness every day in politics and that has always been apparent in human life.... Interestingly, in describing the royal garments that Esther wore, the text actually says that Esther 'wore kingship' (tilbash malchut), when we would have expected it to read, 'Esther dressed in royal garments'. The royal garments, made up of beautiful robes, a train of pure gold, and the finest of ornaments, may have masked the anxiety she must have felt as she stood in the inner courtyard, waiting for the king to extend his scepter, inviting her to approach his throne. Nevertheless, the clothing both symbolized her position as queen and underscored the new identity she had assumed; she now acted forcefully, as befits both the queen of the palace and the leader and protector of her people.

Discussion Question

  • Do you think it was necessary for Esther to wear garments to carry out her goals? Does the way we dress affect our ability to make an impact?
Mordechai’s Mask
(א) וּמָרְדֳּכַ֗י יָדַע֙ אֶת־כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֣ר נַעֲשָׂ֔ה וַיִּקְרַ֤ע מָרְדֳּכַי֙ אֶת־בְּגָדָ֔יו וַיִּלְבַּ֥שׁ שַׂ֖ק וָאֵ֑פֶר וַיֵּצֵא֙ בְּת֣וֹךְ הָעִ֔יר וַיִּזְעַ֛ק זְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה וּמָרָֽה׃ (ב) וַיָּב֕וֹא עַ֖ד לִפְנֵ֣י שַֽׁעַר־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ כִּ֣י אֵ֥ין לָב֛וֹא אֶל־שַׁ֥עַר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ בִּלְב֥וּשׁ שָֽׂק׃ (ג) וּבְכָל־מְדִינָ֣ה וּמְדִינָ֗ה מְקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר דְּבַר־הַמֶּ֤לֶךְ וְדָתוֹ֙ מַגִּ֔יעַ אֵ֤בֶל גָּדוֹל֙ לַיְּהוּדִ֔ים וְצ֥וֹם וּבְכִ֖י וּמִסְפֵּ֑ד שַׂ֣ק וָאֵ֔פֶר יֻצַּ֖ע לָֽרַבִּֽים׃

(1) When Mordecai learned all that had happened, Mordecai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly, (2) until he came in front of the palace gate; for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth.— (3) Also, in every province that the king’s command and decree reached, there was great mourning among the Jews, with fasting, weeping, and wailing, and everybody lay in sackcloth and ashes.—

Discussion Question

  • Is Mordechai wearing a mask when he wears sackcloth? What is he hoping to reveal or express?

Haman's Mask
(ז) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָמָ֖ן אֶל־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ חָפֵ֥ץ בִּיקָרֽוֹ׃ (ח) יָבִ֙יאוּ֙ לְב֣וּשׁ מַלְכ֔וּת אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָֽבַשׁ־בּ֖וֹ הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְס֗וּס אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָכַ֤ב עָלָיו֙ הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר נִתַּ֛ן כֶּ֥תֶר מַלְכ֖וּת בְּרֹאשֽׁוֹ׃ (ט) וְנָת֨וֹן הַלְּב֜וּשׁ וְהַסּ֗וּס עַל־יַד־אִ֞ישׁ מִשָּׂרֵ֤י הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ הַֽפַּרְתְּמִ֔ים וְהִלְבִּ֙ישׁוּ֙ אֶת־הָאִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ חָפֵ֣ץ בִּֽיקָר֑וֹ וְהִרְכִּיבֻ֤הוּ עַל־הַסּוּס֙ בִּרְח֣וֹב הָעִ֔יר וְקָרְא֣וּ לְפָנָ֔יו כָּ֚כָה יֵעָשֶׂ֣ה לָאִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ חָפֵ֥ץ בִּיקָרֽוֹ׃ (י) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ לְהָמָ֗ן מַ֠הֵר קַ֣ח אֶת־הַלְּב֤וּשׁ וְאֶת־הַסּוּס֙ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבַּ֔רְתָּ וַֽעֲשֵׂה־כֵן֙ לְמָרְדֳּכַ֣י הַיְּהוּדִ֔י הַיּוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ אַל־תַּפֵּ֣ל דָּבָ֔ר מִכֹּ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ׃

(7) So Haman said to the king, “For the man whom the king desires to honor, (8) let royal garb which the king has worn be brought, and a horse on which the king has ridden and on whose head a royal diadem has been set; (9) and let the attire and the horse be put in the charge of one of the king’s noble courtiers. And let the man whom the king desires to honor be attired and paraded on the horse through the city square, while they proclaim before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!” (10) “Quick, then!” said the king to Haman. “Get the garb and the horse, as you have said, and do this to Mordecai the Jew, who sits in the king’s gate. Omit nothing of all you have proposed.”

(יב) וַיָּ֥שָׁב מָרְדֳּכַ֖י אֶל־שַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְהָמָן֙ נִדְחַ֣ף אֶל־בֵּית֔וֹ אָבֵ֖ל וַחֲפ֥וּי רֹֽאשׁ׃

(12) Then Mordecai returned to the king’s gate, while Haman hurried home, his head covered in mourning (va-chafui rosh)

Discussion Questions

  • In what context is Haman wearing a mask in the above texts?
  • What is the function or purpose of his mask? What does the mask conceal and what does it reveal about his character or role?

Dr. Norman J. Cohen, Masking and Unmasking Ourselves (2012)

Meanwhile, Haman returned home with his head covered (in Hebrew, he was chafui rosh) as a sign of mourning (Esther 6:12). Chafah does mean 'to cover,' but the meaning is intensified when we realize that the similar verbs chafar and charaf mean 'to shame' and 'to revile.' Note, for example, Psalm 34:6: 'Let their faces not blanch' (using the verb chafar). Simply put, Haman was shamed and disgraced. Subsequently, following Esther's revelation that it was Haman who sought the death of all the Jews, Haman's face was also covered (chafu) in shame (Esther 7:8). Ironically, Haman is described as 'wearing [he was literally 'covered in'] his shame,' though in reality his shame was uncovered. Note, in this regard, Isaiah's comment about an idolatrous Israel (Isaiah 47:3). Both covering and uncovering can reveal much about what a character is feeling and experiencing.

The following text is from Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah. It does not discuss the holiday of Purim (it precedes it by many years), but the rabbis of the Talmud taught that this verse foreshadows the story of Esther. Click the title of the source ("Deuteronomy 31:18") to see the verse in context.

Hashem's Mask
(יח) וְאָנֹכִ֗י הַסְתֵּ֨ר אַסְתִּ֤יר פָּנַי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא עַ֥ל כָּל־הָרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה כִּ֣י פָנָ֔ה אֶל־אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֲחֵרִֽים׃

And I (God) will surely hide (astir) My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.

Discussion Question

  • (How) does Hashem hide in this text? Does Hashem wear a mask?
  • Everything we see of God is masked bc we don't see him directly? Why does God wear a mask? how dose that affect relationship with God?

Dr. Norman J. Cohen, Masking and Unmasking Ourselves (2012)

The Scroll of Esther is all about revealing and concealing. On the deepest theological level, even God is concealed; God's name is never mentioned. Ironically, however, the Rabbis (Chullin 139b:12) stress that the very name of Esther (Ester) reveals God's absence, applying God's own promise to Moses prior to his death.... The circumstances alluded to in this verse from Deuteronomy are applied to the days of Esther and Mordechai, perhaps implying God's abandonment of the Jewish people and their eventual destruction. Similarly, much of what is apparent on the surface of the narrative masks a different reality.

Discussion Question

  • What is the meaning of why God’s name is hidden in the megillah? Would God abandon the Jewish people?

Dr. Norman J. Cohen, Masking and Unmasking Ourselves (2012)

On Purim, Jews dress up and wear masks that change faces etched in pain and suffering into joy and frivolity. On the surface, it seems that Purim involves an escape from reality, one moment in which we can mask the pain and difficulties we experience and don fanciful carnival masks and costumes. All is turned on its head on Purim; even gender roles are ignored, and men and women can dress up as the other. Yet in a deeper way, this Jewish carnival experience allows us to challenge the inevitability of things as they are inherited identities and fates. And in so doing, Purim provides us with the hope that the garments we put on that seem only to mask our present realities can reveal the deep-seated consciousness of our potential for change, our ability to bring happiness and fulfillment to our lives. Purim's masks may seem to conceal, if just for a moment, the chaos and pain of our present lives and enable us to escape this reality, but they may really offer us the chance to don serious masks of conscious determination to bring the light of the Divine into our world.

Discussion Question

  • Now that we've studied these texts, let's revisit the question we asked at the beginning: how does dressing up allow us to reveal parts of ourselves?
  • We think we're hiding by dressing but actually it reveals different parts of ourselves. Masks seem to conceal but might enable us to bring ourselves/aspects ofGod in different way

Instructions for Activity:

  • Everyone gets a mask. On one side of the mask, draw/decorate how you feel others perceive you?
  • On the other side of the masks, draw/decorate how you view yourself or how you want to be seen/understood?
  • You can use markers, paint, magazines, stickers - anything!

Questions to consider:

  • What different masks do you wear?
  • Do you sometimes feel judged?
  • Are there parts of yourself that you wish you showed others more?
  • Do you feel as if you struggle with accepting all parts of yourself?
  • Who are people in your life that you often judge?
  • Do you judge yourself?

After everyone is finished, you can go around and ask students to share both sides of their masks.


Conclusion:

  • Have everyone say one thing they want to do differently to reveal one aspect of their true selves that they don’t always share with others.
  • Is there a part you don't share? How can you actualize this?