This Wednesday evening marks the start of the festive holiday of Purim. There are four central mitzvot to be done on Purim: listening to the reading of Megillat Esther, sending gifts of food to one’s fellow, giving charity to two or more people in need, and enjoying a holiday feast. In addition to these, there are two well-known and widespread Purim customs: dressing up in costumes, and getting inebriated. Although these two customs are unfortunately sometimes taken to improper extremes, the meanings behind them are quite profound.
Searching For Yourself
The practice of wearing costumes comes from the Megillah itself. One of the major themes of the Purim story is the characters “dressing up”. First there’s Vashti, who is asked by her husband to get dressed up in her royal garments and present herself before all of his guests (Esther 1:11-12). She refuses to do this, thereby losing her queenship. A search for a new queen begins, and the winner is a modest Jewish girl who has no interest in being a royal. The humble Hadassah is dressed up and transformed into the Persian Queen Esther. (Ironically, while “Esther” is a very common Jewish name today, Esther’s own Jewish name was Hadassah; “Esther” was her non-Jewish name, from the very non-Jewish idol Astarte, or Ishtar. Of course, Esther does have a Hebrew root as well, meaning “hidden”, which fits neatly into the Purim story.)
There is more dress up to follow: Haman wishes to be dressed up in the king’s robes and, in another bit of irony, it is Mordechai who ends up being costumed as king (Esther 6:6-11). The Talmud (Megillah 12a) adds that King Ahashverosh came to his banquet dressed up in the special garments of the kohen gadol, the Jewish high priest. Some are of the opinion that the reason he held the banquet in the first place was to mark the end of the prophesied 70-year exile of the Jewish people, which he miscalculated. With the Jews remaining in exile as his subjects, he felt a victory banquet was in order. Dressing up as the kohen gadol was meant to symbolize the end of Jewish hopes of returning to their Promised Land and rebuilding their Temple, with Ahashverosh himself now being their “high priest”.
So, wearing costumes is a major Purim theme right from the Megillah. And the Megillah is full of many more hidden identities. The Talmud (Megillah 12b) reveals that Memuchan (Esther 1:16), the advisor who instructs King Ahashverosh to get rid of Vashti, is the same person as Haman. Meanwhile, Hatach (4:5), Esther’s trusted attendant, is one and the same as the prophet Daniel (Megillah 15a). The Talmud also brings an opinion that Mordechai was really the prophet Malachi. (“Mordechai”, too, appears to be his non-Jewish name, based on the name of the supreme Babylonian deity, Marduk.)
Therefore, the custom of getting dressed up and taking on a different identity is very much in the spirit of Purim. In ancient times, Purim was more specifically celebrated with a masquerade. Why wear a mask? Why hide who we really are? The truth is, we don’t just get “dressed up” on Purim. Each of us puts on a metaphysical mask every day of our lives, and we wear different masks in different settings. There is the mask that we wear at work, and the one that we have in front of our kids, and a different mask entirely when we’re out with friends. When can we really be ourselves?
In yet another irony (irony is a major theme of Purim, too), we only get the chance to truly be ourselves when we hide behind a mask! It is behind a mask—when no one can recognize us—that we finally feel free to let go and be ourselves. This is hinted to in the Hebrew word for getting costumed up, l’hitchapes (להתחפש).
In Hebrew, a verb that begins with the prefix l’hit (להת) is reflexive, ie. something that you do to yourself. For example, lirchotz (לרחוץ) is to wash something, while l’hitrachetz (להתרחץ) is to wash one’s self. To dress a child is lehalbish (להלביש), while to get yourself dressed is l’hitlabesh (להתלבש). The verb for putting on a costume, l’hitchapes (להתחפש), is reflexive. What does it mean when we remove the reflexive prefix? Rav Yitzchak Ginsburgh beautifully points out how it becomes l’chapes (לחפש), “to search”. In other words, l’hitchapes—to put on a costume—literally means “to search for yourself”!
It is often only when we mask our identity that we can act as we truly are. This can be a powerful tool for introspection and self-discovery. It can especially reveal one’s vices, and this will hopefully allow a person to recognize what they have to work on to become a better person. On Purim, there is huge potential for real teshuva, “repentance”, like no other time. No wonder that our Sages compared Purim to Yom Kippur, and it is commonly said that Yom HaKippurim (the way it is referred to in the Torah) can be read Yom k’Purim, “a day like Purim”.
Alcohol has a similar function.
What Alcohol Does to Your Brain
The human brain is a complex network of billions of neurons that interact chemically and electrically with each other. The molecules that turn these neurons on and off are called neurotransmitters. The brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter is glutamate, while its main inhibitory neurotransmitter is gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA for short. Alcohol in the brain causes an increase in GABA. (Others hold that alcohol doesn’t necessarily increase the amount of GABA, but binds the same receptors, causing the same inhibitory effect.)
The result is a steady “shutting down” of more and more of the brain. Inhibition in the prefrontal cortex would cause poor decision making. Inhibition in the motor cortex would affect movement, and in the occipital lobe, vision. Speech is slurred, hearing is affected, and the more alcohol that is consumed, the more of the brain is suppressed. If a person drinks far too much alcohol it could be fatal because eventually even the brain stem, which controls vital functions like breathing, will be inhibited.
Now, a person should certainly not drink anywhere near that amount. But, alcohol in moderation does allow a person to mellow out, loosen up, and act more like themselves. In this way, drinking alcohol is similar to putting on a costume. By drinking a little bit, a person can discover who they really are. This is further assisted by the fact that GABA is also involved with reorganizing the brain, and causing the formation of new neurons and new synapses, or connections. (Note: this does not mean that alcohol is somehow healthy or that it should be imbibed regularly. On the whole, it is damaging to the brain and possibly even worse for the liver.)
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 38a) states nichnas yayin, yatza sod, “when wine goes in, secrets come out.” One can understand this statement on two levels: the simple meaning is that, as everyone knows, a person who gets drunk is quite likely to let their mouth run wild and spill their secrets. On a deeper level, “secrets” may refer not to one’s own inner secrets, but to the secrets of the Torah.
One who has a few drinks, inhibits their conscious mind a little bit (maybe even stimulates the formation of some new synapses here and there) might be able to peer deeper into the Torah, revealing previously unknown secrets. One such mini-secret is hidden within that Talmudic statement itself, where the gematria of “wine”, yayin (יין), is 70, equal to the value of “secret”, sod (סוד). Nichnas yayin, yatza sod; seventy goes in and seventy comes out. What the Talmud is saying (and what neuroscience has now confirmed) is that alcohol may lead one to think more creatively, or outside the box, or differently than the way they usually do.
The Kabbalah of Ad d’Lo Yada
When it comes to drinking on Purim, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) famously states that a person should drink to the point of ad d’lo yada, “not knowing” the difference between “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman”. This statement is highly problematic. One would have to be incredibly intoxicated not to know such a basic distinction, yet Jewish law prohibits a Jew from ever being so heavily under the influence. Most halachic authorities maintain that a person should drink just enough to feel soft and sleepy. So, why describe such an extreme state of intoxication on Purim?
In reality, drinking on Purim isn’t at all about getting smashed to the point of losing control. On the contrary, what we should be doing is drinking just enough to allow us to see beyond. Nichnas yayin, yatza sod—take in a little to reveal those hidden secrets. The clue is in that very maxim, where “wine” and “secret” had the same gematria, 70. Now, look at “Blessed is Mordechai” (ברוך מרדכי) and “Cursed is Haman” (ארור המן). The gematria of these two terms is also the same, 502! When the Talmud states that one should drink until they can’t tell the difference, what it really means is that one should drink until they can look more acutely, and recognize that the two are numerically the same. The message is to look deeper into the text to find the secrets hiding within. That is, after all, the main theme of Purim. It is the very meaning of Megillat Esther, which can literally be translated as “revealing the hidden”.
Why would the gematrias of “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman” be the same to begin with? This brings us back to the first idea that Purim is about discovering our true selves. Mordechai and Haman are equal because they represent two forces which reside inside each person. There is Mordechai, the yetzer hatov, the good inclination; and Haman, the yetzer hara, the evil inclination. The two are in a constant struggle with each other, each seeking to gain the upper hand, and it is our duty to nurture the former and restrain the latter.
On Purim, when we wear costumes and get a little inebriated, one or the other may get the upper hand. For some, hiding behind a mask and mellowing out makes them a better person, while for others it makes them worse. If we take the time and effort to observe ourselves carefully in that state—observe our thoughts, words, and actions—we can thereby understand ourselves more thoroughly, and discover what we need to do to maintain the right balance of “Blessed is Mordechai” and “Cursed is Haman”, 502 and 502. We can learn how to better nurture the good inclination, and more effectively restrain the other one. In fact, this is alluded to in another term from the Megillah which has that numerical value. At the end of the narrative, we read the following important verse:
Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on its thirteenth day, when the king’s commandment and his decree drew near to be put in execution, in the day that the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them, it was turned to the contrary: that the Jews had rule over those that hated them… (Esther 9:1)
In this verse we find the key term v’nahafoch hu, that everything was “turned upside down”. On Purim, sibru oivey haYehudim lishlot bahem, “the enemies of the Jews hoped to rule over them”, but then everything flipped around and the Jews dominated their enemies instead. The words haYehudim lishlot bahem, literally “the Jews, dominated over them”, has a gematria of 502 as well. Perhaps there is a latent message here for each of us today, all Jews, to dominate over them, our inclinations, our 502s. To learn to become fully in control of ourselves. That way, regardless of whether we are inebriated or sober, in costume or not, we will always be completely righteous and holy.
This Purim, look deeper inside the text, and deeper into yourself. Drink a little and get in costume; be yourself, observe your actions and words very carefully, and aim to discover who you really are.