Masks, Rattles and Purim Customs

Alegre Savariego

Masks and Rattles from the National Treasures Collection

It is customary to dress up when celebrating the happy holiday of Purim. The custom, which enhances the joyousness of the festival, is based on folk traditions and the story in the Book of Esther.
Dressing up at Purim is not explicitly mentioned in the sources; the assumption is that the custom of dressing up at Purim was also influenced by the traditions of the peoples of Europe, who used to hold masquerade balls in the spring, the period when the holiday of Purim falls.

The custom of dressing up at Purim is very old (dating from the 13th century CE) and was practiced by all of the Jewish communities. In Jewish tradition the connection between a costume and the holiday of Purim is based on two ideas drawn from the Book of Esther: the reversal of fate and the concealment of one’s true identify.

According to the story in the scroll, Esther keeps her Jewish identity a secret when she comes to the palace of Ahasuerus (Esther 2:20). The scroll also recounts how fate was overturned in favor of the Jews (Esther 2:22) and it tells about the reversal of fate whereby the dreadful lot that Haman planned for Mordechai ultimately became that of Haman himself.


The mask is simultaneously a means of concealment and discovery. It hides and changes the outer appearance of the person wearing it, while at the same time reveals that person’s true, hidden nature. Symbolically the mask represents a need for protection and concealment, by transitions from one state to another, ignoring the surroundings, demonstrating a certain identity or change of form, symbolizing a different character or personality, or by the representation of one deity or another. There are masks which are used to identify oneself with fauna, with the character of certain animals or with what they symbolize. The tiger for example, epitomizes power; the peacock represents an aspect of beauty and the falcon embodies the speed of flight. The mask may bestow power or inspire the fear of death.

Man always used masks, costumes and a variety of outfits in performing acts of worship. They have been used in ceremonies from the time of antiquity until the present. The masks that articulate ritual metamorphosis are considered one of the basic expressions of human nature. Masks and costumes have also found their way into art and they appear in the pictures that illustrate stories about myths and history, and they portray the images of not only real animals but also those of imaginary creatures, demons and ghosts.

Usually a mask covers one’s face, that part of the human body that so prominently portrays a person’s personality, and it can hide the face, either partially or completely. The mask may change the identity of the person, his age and his gender, his social status and his everyday appearance. Many ceremonial masks were used for ritual purposes such as rainmaking, curing disease and exorcising spirits and demons. Oftentimes such masks were in the image of deities or demons.


Rattles, as their name implies, are objects that are used to make noise. One of the commandments at Purim is the reading of the Book of Esther and it is customary to shake the rattle every time Haman’s name is mentioned.
When Haman’s name is called out during the reading of the scroll in the synagogue, the worshippers boo, whistle, stomp their feet and of course make a commotion with their rattles.
The use of rattles during the reading of the scroll is a symbolic expression of the extermination of the Amalekites, the first people whom the Israelites fought when they were wandering in the desert (Exodus 17:8-13). Haman, according to tradition, is a descendant of the Amalekites.

Clay rattles that contain small stones or other materials for making noise were found in archaeological excavations in the country. The rattles occur in a variety of shapes, some are adorned with a painted or engraved decoration, but all of them produce the same noise that is characteristic of a rattle.
Ancient rattles are known from the third millennium BCE to the first century BCE. In later periods, from the first century onwards, bell-like rattles appear, oftentimes made of metal.
Typically the ancient rattle is geometric in form; however, we do know of several examples that are shaped to resemble a pottery vessel (jug) or an animal.
Most of the rattles were found in a cultic context or inside tombs and therefore there are those who believe that they were primarily used for ritual purposes.
The frequency with which rattles occur in excavations throughout the country is explained by the fact that they are small objects that were relatively easy to manufacture and were used by the general population. There is the assertion that the clay rattle was an important musical instrument in the religious practices of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah during the First Temple period.

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