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  • Writer's pictureRabbanit Dr. Liz Shayne

אסתר פנים: Seeing Esther's Face Neurodivergent Torah for Purim

The custom of dressing up on Purim is an interesting one. Dressing up as someone else is not a formal minhag in the sense that it is a custom with halakhic weight behind it; there’s no obligation to do so and no one looks twice at the person who shows up to the reading of the Megillah in their regular clothes or in a slightly more ostentatious hat than usual. Yet there are people for whom Purim costumes are the most important part of the holiday and the effort they put into appearing as something they are not is truly impressive. Jewish texts themselves are not particularly invested in the custom beyond legislating its parameters, which complicates the project of tracking down its origin or purpose. In those legal sources, however, we can sometimes uncover an explanation for the custom. Some suggest we dress up to commemorate how Mordechai was dressed up in the king’s clothes, or perhaps we hide ourselves in costume like God hides in the Megillah. This may even be a custom that arose first because the societies that Jews lived in had carnival days at this time of the year and the custom was only retroactively incorporated into Purim1. Out of all the explanations, I am drawn most to the reason that links costume and pretense with Queen Esther, who disguises herself so carefully and successfully for most of the story.


We first meet Esther in the Megillah under another name—Hadassah—only for the verse to immediately interject that she is Esther. The Megillah needs us to know exactly who our protagonist is from the moment she appears but, in doing so, enacts the first moment of hiding that Hadassah/Esther experiences. From the reader’s perspective, Hadassah disappears the moment she is introduced. The person Hadassah was before the story began is gone; she becomes Esther upon entering into the story of the Megillah. We meet Hadassah, but it is Esther who is taken to the king’s palace one verse later. There is some debate in the Talmud as to which of her names was her “real” name and which was a nickname given to her based on her attributes2. Rabbi Yehuda’s answer suggests that her real name was Hadassah, but she was called Esther because she hid (מסתרת) her truth. Though not etymologically related to the Hebrew root ס-ת-ר, to hide, the commentaries like to play with the similarity between אסתר (which probably comes from the Persian word for star) and hiddenness. From there, it is just a small jump to הסתר פנים, the hiding of God’s face that describes the absence of manifest divine intervention, which is also one of the most notable features of the Megillah. The story of Purim is the story of a hidden God, but it is also the story of a hidden girl.  Esther is the mask that Hadassah wears in the Megillah.


What happened to Hadassah? I have a fondness for positing narrative counterfactuals as a way of understanding a text, and I could imagine a version of the Megillah where, in the thirtieth verse of the ninth chapter of the Megillah, we hear that Queen Hadassah wrote down this story about Purim. Or even that Queen Esther, who was once again called Hadassah, wrote down this Purim story. But Hadassah is never mentioned again in the text of the Megillah. Her absence resounds in all the places where Hadassah could have reappeared. At the most dramatic moment, Queen Esther reveals her Jewishness, but she remains Esther, the hidden queen. She whose name is linked to concealment does not return to her previous state of openness. It turns out that taking the mask off is even harder than putting it on.


Within a neurodivergent context, masking has a very specific connotation. It refers to the way that a person changes or covers up the parts of themselves that make them seem too different from others or incompatible with those around them. It is, at its worst, cutting off your nose so that others do not spite your face. Masking is often a distressing experience for neurodivergent individuals because it requires that we suppress the urge to move, or requires that we remain in places with overwhelming sensations so as not to make a scene, or that we tolerate cruel behavior because we have learned that people do not support us when we speak out. If we are shamed for being ourselves, we hide ourselves away and show only a mask to the world because to do so is safer. That is the key difference between masking and simply adapting to different situations. Masking is specifically about hiding one’s own needs and putting up with painful experiences in order to look like anyone else. I might wear different shoes in different social situations, but masking is more like walking around with rocks in your shoes because you believe—often rightly—that the social cost for stopping to remove them will be high.


As should be clear by now, masking has its price. When neurodivergent people mask, we are constantly monitoring every single part of our lives and remain in a state of constant stress and vigilance. We may also end up filled with shame and self loathing; if we only show our masked face to our friends, then no one truly sees us for who we are. We might even believe we are unworthy of love because those who love us do not know the real us and we worry that if they learned who we really are in all our neurodivergent messiness they would leave. Not even being queen protects a person from that kind of emotional distress. Masking can lead to depression, anxiety, and burnout and it can take us years to recover and to unmask. It takes tremendous courage for us to be ourselves.


Purim, interestingly enough, is a day that actually might help some people unmask. Purim is a complicated holiday for neurodivergent people; the tumult and chaos of shul and Megillah reading could be a sensory nightmare for those who experience heightened sensations, but the permission to dance and have actual noise-making fidgets in shul and dress in bold and bright colors can also be a gift. Purim is the day when the rules about “normal” are relaxed and, on the day when everyone is invited to be weird, us weirdos fit right in. Perhaps the part of ourselves that we hide on Purim is the part that is always watching to see what other people think and the part that worries that we are too childish, too silly, too much. It is a delightful irony that a day when people pretend to be something they are not turns into a day for some people to be more truly themselves.


Like the Megillah, though, the story does not end on Purim. After the festivities are over and the celebrations end, the costumes go back into the closet and the masks go back on. The theme of Purim is ונהפך הוא, the upending of bad things into good things. Mourning becomes celebration, Mordechai takes Haman’s job, and nearly all that was  out of joint is upended again and set right. Even Purim is not enough to break Hadassah out from the mask of Esther. Megillat Esther is a triumph, but Hadassah’s story still feels like a tragedy. A true upending would be a Purim where Esther could find her way back to Hadassah. A true revolution would be a world where neurodivergent Jews felt a sense of belonging every day of the year, not just on Purim. 


This essay is dedicated to my daughter, Ayelet Hadassah. May you never need to hide.

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Rabbanit Dr. Liz Shayne is the Director of Academic Affairs at Yeshivat Maharat as well as a recent alumna. She came to Maharat after completing her PhD from University of California, Santa Barbara, where she studied the past, present, and future of digital reading. She loves old books in new forms, analyzes how halakha and technology can work together, and is a teacher committed to the idea that studying Torah can and must be for everyone. Rabbanit Liz has authored a series of thinkpieces on neurodivergent torah. You can read them here, here, and here.

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1.See Rabbi Shlomo Brody’s article “Ask the Rabbi: Are all costumes allowed on Purim?” for details about the sources.

2. See BT Megillah 13a for the full conversation.

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