In this issue, we will examine the propriety of a number of unusual behaviors that some have tolerated on Purim, but would hardly tolerate throughout the year. We will discuss the phenomenon of the “Purim Rav,” men dressing as women, and people grabbing items from each other. Our discussion is based on Rav Ovadia Yosef’s Teshuvot Yechave Daat 5:50.
The Purim Rav
The phenomenon of the Purim Rav is traditional in many Ashkenazi Yeshivot. This practice seems to have been common even in pre-war Europe. Presumably, the practice is based on the Talmudic teaching that a Rav enjoys the right to waive the respect that is due him (Kiddushin 32a and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 242:32).
Rav Ovadia Yosef, however, strenuously objects to the practice. He notes the Gemara (Bava Metzia 59a) that states that one who embarrasses another it is if he has spilled his blood. Tosafot (Sota lOb s.v. Noach) teaches that we must even sacrifice our life in order to avoid embarrassing another. The prohibition to embarrass a Torah scholar is possibly even a greater sin, as the Gemara (Shabbat 119b) states that Jerusalem was destroyed because of the denigration of Talmidei Chachamim.
Rav Ovadia writes that the prohibition rests on the audience as well as the individual who plays the Purim Rav. He cites the Gemara (Bava Metzia 84b) that states that Rabbi Elazar the son of Rabbi Shimon was punished for failing to respond to the insult of a Talmid Chacham. Rav Ovadia notes the Teshuvot HaRivash (number 220) who rules that one may not denigrate a Rav even if the Rav has waived his rights to the respect that is due him. The Rama (Y.D. 242:32) codifies this ruling of the Rivash. He records reports that Rav Shimon Sofer, the son of the Chatam Sofer, died from the anguish that he experienced from the insults hurled at him during a “Purim Shpiel” (play).
He concludes that one must object forcefully to instituting a Purim Rav in a Yeshiva or anywhere else. Rav Moshe Shternbuch (Moadim Uzmanim 2:186-187 in a footnote) also decries against the practice of poking fun at Talmidei Chachamim on Purim. He writes that it is a grave sin to poke fun at anyone on Purim. He writes, though, that one may mock Amalekites and their ideological successors.
Accordingly, it is not appropriate for Sephardic Yeshivot to “import” this practice from the Ashkenazi Yeshivot. However, we may defend the practice of Ashkenazi Yeshivot to stage a Purim Rav, if it is conducted reasonably. First, the Rav must fully consent to the practice. Second, the “Shpiel” must be done in good taste and participants must assiduously avoid crossing the fine line between making a good-spirited joke and denigrating the Rav. Rabbanim usually do not take umbrage at a good-spirited Shpiel as they understand that it is part of the Purim spirit and positively contributes to Talmid-Rebbe bonding.
A Man Dressing as a Woman
The Rama (O.C.696:8) quotes a practice of some Ashkenazi men to dress as women and women to dress as men on Purim. The Rama defends this practice by stating “there is no violation of Torah Law involved since their intention is merely for entertainment.” This explanation appears odd. When does a prohibition not apply if it done for entertainment? In fact, the Rambam (Hilchot Ginaiva 1:2) and Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 348:1) rule that we may not steal even as a joke.
The source of the Rama’s assertion seems to be Rashi’s comment on the Pasuk (Devarim 22:5) that forbids men and women to wear the clothes of the opposite sex. Rashi writes, “this is done to gain access to areas that are off-limits to them, and the intention is for promiscuity.” Accordingly, one could say that if one’s intentions are honorable, such as creating Simchat Purim, then he does not violate the prohibition. The Rama notes that there are those who forbid this practice, but he writes that the practice is to be lenient.
The Taz (Yoreh Deah 182:4) cites his father-in-law the Bach who vigorously opposes the practice of cross-dressing on Purim. The Taz writes, “one who listens [to the Bach] will be blessed, because many problems are created when one cannot differentiate between men and women.” The Bair Hagola (YD. 282:7) adds to the Taz, “many evil decrees have befallen the Jews as punishment for this practice, and praised be one who puts an end to it.” The Mishna Berura (696:30) cites the Shla and the Knesset HaGedola who urge all to refrain from engaging in this practice. In fact, the admonitions of the Bach, Taz, Bair Hagola, Shla, and Knesset Hagedola succeeded, as the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 696:12) writes that Jews no longer follow this practice.
Rav Ovadia Yosef also vigorously opposes this practice. It seems that this bizarre custom never took root among Sephardic Jewry. He notes that the Chida (Shiyurei Beracha Y.D. 3) cites a Teshuva of the Rambam where he strenuously objects to the practice of some to cross-dress at weddings to create a festive atmosphere. The Rambam notes that the people adhered to his ruling and ended this practice. Accordingly, the Minhag quoted by the Rama is defunct. Hence, one should not attempt to resurrect a controversial Minhag that took the Poskim hundreds of years to eliminate. Rav Ovadia adds that one should not even permit one’s small children to wear the clothes of the opposite sex for Purim. One might have thought that for children we may rely on the Rama. However, Rav Ovadia’s strenuous objection to this practice leads him to conclude that it is forbidden even for children. He thus objects to children’s plays on Purim where the boys or girls wear outfits of the opposite sex. Rav Ovadia believes that this is poor Chinuch for children.
The Rama (O.C. 696:6) notes a practice for people to grab items from each other on Purim. The Rama again condones this practice since it is part of the festive atmosphere of Purim. He cautions, though, that this practice should be controlled by the standards established by the local community leaders. The question again is why does the Rama tolerate this practice? In fact, the Mishna Berura (696:31) approvingly cites the Eliyahu Rabbah who quotes the Shla who states, “One who guards his soul should avoid this practice.”
An answer (see Biur Hagra O.C. 696:8 s.v. Ma Shenahagu) is that this practice is based on a Gemara (Sukkah 45a) that teaches (according to Rashi’s interpretation) that on the final day of Sukkot a game was conducted in the Bait Hamikdash where the adults chased after the children, grabbed their Lulavim, and ate their Etrogim. We should note that this is not a cruel activity, as it is reasonable to assume that the children were told in advance that it would happen. I am certain that the children enjoyed the game of the adults chasing after them and trying to grab their Lulavim and Etrogim. Rashi (ad.loc.s.v. Viochlin Etrogeihem) explains that this practice does not constitute theft because this is an accepted practice as part of the festive holiday spirit. This is analogous to one who tries to “steal” a basketball while playing the game or trying to make a football player fumble a football. These do not constitute acts of theft, nor are these acts considered theft in jest that the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch forbid. It is simply part of the game and is part of the fun. One who has a basketball “stolen” from him as part of a basketball game does not find it morally offensive even if he is the owner of the ball. He entered the basketball court knowing this might happen and he accepts the rules of the game he is playing.
Tosafot (ad.loc. s.v. Meeyad) writes, “One may learn from [the practice in the Bait Hamikdash on the final day of Sukkot] that those young men who joust at weddings and damage their “combatant’s” clothes or horse, are excused from paying damages, because this is the accepted practice in creating a festive wedding meal atmosphere.
Rama codifies this comment of Tosafot (Choshen Mishpat 378:9). The Rama, though, notes that if the local Bait Din wishes to stop this practice, they have the right to do so.
The Rama by Purim seems to be based on the same approach. He condones the practice of people grabbing things from each other, since one’s entering the Shul on Purim constitutes consent to this practice. The individual is not surprised that his items are grabbed from him on this day, nor is he coerced to enter the Shul on Purim. Nevertheless, the Aruch Hashulchan (O.C. 696:12) writes that this practice has expired and if someone decides to revive this practice, he will have to pay for any damages he might create.
Interestingly, this Tosafot might apply to the question of whether one must pay for damages to another while playing a sport such as hockey or basketball. Entering the ball field might constitute a waiver to any potential claims one might make. Nevertheless, a Bait Din might have the right to declare that these games are unacceptable. For example, the rabbis of the Summertime Morasha Kollel do not permit the students to play hockey during their free time.
Although the Rama records his approval with the strange customs, cross-dressing and grabbing items from each other, these customs have been discarded. We often stress the importance of observing venerated Minhagim. Venerated Minhagim are valued because they have passed the scrutiny of Halachic authorities of many generations. The Minhagim of wearing the clothes of the opposite sex and grabbing items from each other have been discarded because they did not pass the scrutiny of the Torah scholars of the generations subsequent to the Rama. Rav Ovadia notes that the statement of the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Metzia 7:1) “Minhag Mevatel Halacha,” a Minhag overrides a Din, has become a popular folk saying among Jews. However, he notes that this only applies to a Minhag that has met consistent rabbinic approval throughout the generations. It also seems to apply exclusively to monetary matters, as that is the context where this idea is presented. Poskim constantly review the propriety of Minhagim. Ours is an example where the Poskim did not merely “rubber stamp” the Rama’s approval of these Minhagim. This leads us to appreciate those Minhagim that have been approved and acknowledged.
The practice of staging a Purim Rav and conducting a Purim Shpiel have survived in Ashkenazi Yeshivot, despite the objection of Rav Moshe Shternbuch and Rav Ovadia Yosef. It remains to be seen whether this practice will persist in the coming generations. This practice has a chance of survival only if it will be conducted with restrain and sober judgment.
We also see from this essay that it is preferable to conduct Simchat Purim with sobriety and restraint. Authentic Simcha emerges from a healthy soul that does not require outrageous behavior to generate joy.