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SBL e-journal

René Bloch





Mask and Masekhah: Are the English and Hebrew Terms Related?



APA e-journal

René Bloch





Mask and Masekhah: Are the English and Hebrew Terms Related?






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Mask and Masekhah: Are the English and Hebrew Terms Related?

Partzufim, “faces,” is the original term for Purim masks. Modern Hebrew uses the biblical term masekhah instead, which sounds suspiciously like the English term “mask,” whose etymology is itself a riddle. Thus the mask succeeds in staying anonymous.


Mask and Masekhah: Are the English and Hebrew Terms Related?

Mosaic with two masks leaning on a socle projecting out from two walls that meet at an angle, 2nd century C.E. Capitoline Museums, Wikimedia

A Biblical Term?

At first blush, the Modern Hebrew word for mask, מַסֵּכָה (masekhah), seems to be from the Bible. When Moses delays his descent from Mount Sinai, Aaron makes the golden calf from the smelted earrings of men and women. The idol is referred to as עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה ʿegel masekhah, “a cast calf” (Exod 32:4, 8, Deut 9:16), i.e., a calf made from pouring or casting (root: נ.ס.כ) metal, in this case gold. In Deut 9:12, the calf is referred to simply as masekhah, “a casting,” and this is how divine images are referred to elsewhere in the Torah:

שמות לד:יז אֱלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה לֹא תַעֲשֶׂה לָּךְ.
Exod 34:17 You shall not make cast idols.[1]

In short, the biblical term מַסֵּכָה (masekhah) refers to statues, never masks.

A Woven Cover

Another biblical meaning of masekhah comes from a different root (II נ.ס.כ), which means “to weave.”[2] Thus, the book of Isaiah speaks of a veil or mantle that will no longer be cast over all peoples:

ישעיה כה:ז וּבִלַּע בָּהָר הַזֶּה פְּנֵי הַלּוֹט הַלּוֹט עַל כָּל הָעַמִּים וְהַמַּסֵּכָה הַנְּסוּכָה עַל כָּל הַגּוֹיִם.
Isa 25:7 And He shall swallow up on this mountain the veil that covers all the peoples and the mantle (masekhah) cast over all the nations.[3]

Elsewhere the book of Isaiah describes a “covering” too narrow to wrap oneself in it:

ישעיה כח:כ כִּי קָצַר הַמַּצָּע מֵהִשְׂתָּרֵעַ וְהַמַּסֵּכָה צָרָה כְּהִתְכַּנֵּס.
Isa 28:20 For the couch is too short to stretch out on, and the blanket too narrow to cover one up.[4]

This root seems to offer a better etymology for a mask covering someone’s face, but this usage does not exist in the Bible. The same is true for another Biblical word that sounds like “mask”: masakh (from the root ס.כ.כ), which means “cover” or “curtain,” but not “mask.”[5]

Partzuf: From Face to Purim Mask

Partzuf, the original term for a Purim mask, goes back to Greek prosōpon.[6] This word, literally “before the eyes,”—means face, façade, person. Later it can also mean mask, as does prosōpeion.[7] The Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (37 C.E.–ca. 100), uses the word when he generalizes from King Saul to politicians as a whole:

Jud. Ant. 6:264 But when once they attain to power and sovereignty, then, stripping off all those qualities and laying aside their habits and ways as if they were stage masks (epi skēnēs prosōpeia), they assume in their place audacity, recklessness, contempt for things human and divine. (LCL)[8]

This Greek term entered rabbinic Hebrew as partzuf (or partzof), meaning face. In the Renaissance, Jews began wearing masks on Purim, apparently influenced by Italian carnival festivities, and they repurposed this word to describe masks.[9] An early example of this is a 15th century responsum by Rabbi Yehudah ben Eliezer HaLevi (c. 1408 –1506 Padua) discussing wearing masks on Purim:

שו"ת מהר"י מינץ סימן טו על דבר לבישת הפרצופים שנוהגין ללבוש בחורים וגם בתולות זקנים עם נערים בפורים...
Responsa of Mahari Mintz §15 With regard to wearing masks (partzufim) that young men and also women, both old and young, are accustomed to wear on Purim…

He continues by defending the practice even though it often includes cross-dressing, forbidden in Deuteronomy 22:5:[10]

מה ראו על ככה גדולי' וחסידי עולם ז"ל שנתגדלתי אצלם אשר ראו בניהם ובנותיהם חתניהם וכל{ו}תיהם לובשין אותן פרצופים ושינוי בגדיהם מבגדי איש לבגדי אשה וכן להיפך. ואם היה ח[ס] ו[חלילה] נדנוד עבירה חלילה וחס להם לשתוק ולא ימחו
What did the great and righteous ones, may their memory be blessed, with whom I grew up, [think]—when they saw their sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law wearing those masks, and changing their clothes from male clothing to female clothing and the opposite? If this, God forbid, were even the tiniest bit forbidden, God forbid they would have been quiet about it and not objected.

This responsum is quoted by no less an authority than R. Moses Isserles (1530–1572) of Cracow, in his glosses on the 13th century halakha book, Tur, called Darchei Moshe HaQatzar (OḤ §696). He rules in accordance with it in the Shulḥan Arukh:

הגהות הרמ"א שלחן ערוך אורח חיים תרצו:ח ומה שנהגו ללבוש פרצופים בפורים, וגבר לובש שמלת אשה ואשה כלי גבר, אין איסור בדבר מאחר שאין מכוונין אלא לשמחה בעלמא.
Rema Shulchan Arukh OḤ 696:8 With regard to the custom of wearing masks on Purim, whereby a man wears a woman’s garment and a woman a man’s attire, this is not prohibited since they are only doing this to be joyous.[11]

Partzuf is obviously unrelated to the modern word masekhah.

Masekhah: A Modern Hebrew Word

Eliezer Ben Yehudah (1858–1922) in his classic dictionary of Hebrew, under the entry for masekhah as “covering,” writes:

והתחילו להשתמש בשם זה בזמן החדש במשמ[עות] סֵתֶר פָּנִים, Maske; masque; mask.
They have begun to use this term in modern times with the meaning of face-hiding, “Maske, masque, mask.”[12]

Avraham Even Shoshan (1906–1984) also lists the meaning “mask” for masekhah as חדש “new/modern.”[13] For his textual example, he quotes lyrics from זמר לפורים “A Song for Purim,” a children’s song written by Levin Kipnis (1894–1990):

ומסכה על כל פנים, איש לא יכיר אותנו
A mask on every face; no one will recognize us.

Kipnis also wrote שיר המסכות “The Song of Masks,” but his most famous Purim song is חג פורים “The Festival of Purim,” which also uses this word, in addition to רעשנים (ra’ashanim), an updated Hebrew term for the traditional Yiddish word grager (גראַגער, a Purim noisemaker):

חג פורים, חג פורים, חג גדול ליהודים!
The festival of Purim (x2), a great festival for Jews.
מסכות, רעשנים, שירים וריקודים!
Masks, noisemakers, songs, and dances.
הבה נרעישה: רש רש רש! הבה נרעישה: רש רש רש! הבה נרעישה: רש רש רש! ברעשנים
Let’s make some noise: noise, noise, noise! (x3) With noisemakers.

Masekhah rings suspiciously similar to the English “mask,” German “Maske” (with its Yiddish equivalent מאַסקע), French “masque” etc., and it seems likely that the biblical term masekhah entered Modern Hebrew with this new meaning, replacing partzuf, because it sounds like the familiar non-Hebrew word – and because there was a similar sounding biblical word at hand: masekhah.[14]

The Origins of the Word Mask?

Notably, the origin of the non-Hebrew word is itself a mystery.

French/Italian—Scholars agree that English “mask” or German “Maske” are a borrowing from French “masque” and that the French word goes back to Italian “maschera” and its variant “mascara” which is attested in the 13th century.[15] However, there is no agreement on the roots of the Italian word for “mask.”

Arabic—Already the Deutsches Wörterbuch, once upon a time launched by the Brothers Grimm, mentions the possibility that Arabs from Sicily brought Arabic masḵara, “buffoon,” to Italy.[16] This possibility was upheld by some modern scholars, but rejected by others, as was a possible Germanic etymology (from Masche, “mesh”).[17]

Latin—In classical Latin, the word for mask, such as worn by actors, is persona. Possibly of Etruscan origin, persona can also designate a character in a play, and already Cicero knows the word in the meaning of “actual being of someone,” “individual personality” (Cic. Att. 8.11 D7). In this latter meaning the word entered many European languages, including English, and clearly has no connection to the English “mask.”

Postclassical Latin, however, has the word masca, “evil spirit” or “spectre,” and some scholars have suggested a connection between this word and “mask.” According to this interpretation, masca is cognate with a root *máskaro-, meaning “black.” That root is used in a number of Romance forms in the meaning “smear” and “blacken.” Daubing the face would then stand for hiding, masking it.[18] However, this too remains speculative.

No one knows for sure the origins of the word “mask.” Somehow, it continues to escape, playing hide and seek with us, and laughing at all those philologists trying to catch it.

Rest In Peace

Sarcophagus of Faustina, 3rd century CE, Rome, Nick Thompson, Flickr

A Jewish sarcophagus from Rome from the third century C.E. contains a funeral inscription for a woman that reads in Greek “Here lies Faustina.”[19] It sits atop a shofar, menorah, and lulav and is bookended by masks. It is tempting to assume that Faustina was an actress or at least had sympathies for the theater, but at the time masks were also just a common motif on sarcophagi. The bottom is inscribed with one Hebrew word: שלום (shalom), “peace.” Like Faustina, we may need to allow the origin of the word to rest in peace, and to allow the masks to keep hold of some of their age-old mystique.


March 18, 2024


Last Updated

April 7, 2024


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Prof. René Bloch is Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Bern (Switzerland), where he holds a joint appointment in the Institute of Jewish Studies and the Institute of Classics. He obtained his Ph.D. (Dr. phil.) as well as his “habilitation” from the University of Basel. Bloch’s most recent publications include: “Bringing Philo Home: Responses to Harry A. Wolfson’s Philo (1947) in the Aftermath of World War II,” “Dying in Egypt: Philo’s Joseph as a Cosmopolitan Citizen,” and “Jüdische Bibelkritik in Antike und Mittelalter: Von Philon von Alexandrien bis Spinoza.”