Long before the novel coronavirus made masks a fashionable part of a respectable wardrobe, Jews were wearing masks on Purim. And a thousand years before that, Moses covered his face with a mask because his face shone so brightly after descending from Mount Sinai (see Exodus 34:29-35).
The word the Torah uses in the latter context is “masveh.” The word early halachic authorities use in reference to masks on Purim is “partzufim,” which literally means faces (see Mahari Mintz 17, Rema to Orach Chaim 696:8, and Rabbi Yuzpa Shamash’s account of the old traditions of the Jewish community in Worms).
The Hebrew “partzuf” – which appears once in the Mishnah (Yevamos 16:3) and numerous times in the Talmud and Midrash – is actually a Greek loanword. The original Greek word, “prosopon,” literally means facing the eyes, as “pros” means toward and “ops” means eye (think “optometry” or “optical”).
Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the Latin “persona” (mask used by an actor) also derives from “prosopon” and is the etymological ancestor of the English word “person.”
Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Parchon, the 12th century compiler of Machberet HeAruch, defines “masveh” as a fabric placed over the face that has holes for one’s eyes, nose, and mouth. He follows early grammarians like Rabbi Yehuda Chayyuj (945-1000), Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach (990-1055), and Radak (1160-1235) in maintaining that “masveh” is the only word derived from the root samech-vav-hey. (Rashi suggests “masveh” comes from Aramaic, as he finds cognates of this word in the Talmud [Kesubos 60a, 62b0.)
Other commentators, though – such as Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, and Chizkuni – believe “suto” also derives from this root. This word appears in Genesis 49:11 in the blessing Jacob gave his son Judah: “he shall launder his garments in wine and his clothing (suto) in the blood of grapes.”
“Sutot” in the sense of fabric appears in the Mishnah (Keilim 16:7), and Maimonides connects this word to the Biblical “suto.” Interestingly, Donash Ibn Labrat (920-990) argues that “suto” means “kesuto” (his covering) with the letter kaf missing. Menachem Ibn Saruk (920-970) classifies both “suto” and “masveh” as derivatives of the monoliteral root samech.
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that “masveh” and “suto” are related to “stav” (autumn or fall) and refer to soft, spongy fabrics worn to insulate oneself from cold weather. Alternatively, he explains that these two words refer to fabrics placed on top of one’s clothes so that they don’t get dirty (which is commonly done during the season of stav).
When Rabbi Ephraim Lenchitz (1550-1619) discusses the Ashkenazi custom of wearing masks on Purim, he uses the word “masveh,” while Rabbi Zerach Eidlitz (1725-1780) uses both “partzuf” and “masveh.”
The Modern Hebrew word “masechah” (mask) actually appears in the Bible but doesn’t mean mask. It means molten metal fashioned into a certain shape. For example, the Bible uses the term “egel masechah” (literally, molten calf) in reference to the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:4 and 32:8; Deuteronomy 9:16; and Nechemiah 9:18).
According to Ibn Janach and the Radak, the root of this word is nun-samech-kaf (nesech), which primarily means pouring since metal heated to high temperatures becomes liquidy and, thus, pourable. Other meanings derived from this root include hiding or covering, and those meanings seem to be the semantic basis for “masechah” in the sense of mask, as a mask covers or hides one’s face.
Another way of understanding the etymology of “masechah” is by tying it to the Biblical root mem-samech-kaf, which means mixture, both in the sense of mixing liquids (e.g., Isaiah 5:22 and Proverbs 9:2, 5) and in the sense of mixing threads to create a fabric (as in “masach” [curtain] or “masechet” in Judges 16:13-14).
The Mishnaic Hebrew word “masechet” similarly refers to the woof threads that run across a woven fabric (see Rabbeinu Chananel to Shabbos 59b, Maimonides to Keilim 21:1, and Rash to Negaim 11:9). (Mem-samech-kaf, incidentally, may be related to the more familiar root that means mix or dilute – mem-zayin-gimmel – based on the interchangeability of the letters samech with zayin and kaf with gimmel.)
Rabbi Dr. Ernest Klein (1899-1983) and Avraham Even-Shoshan (1906-1984) add that the Modern Hebrew “masechah” as mask also developed from phonetically-similar words in foreign languages – namely, “mask” in English, “masque” in French, and “maskhara” in Arabic.
Another related word is “masechet” in the sense of tractate. Sefer Chassidim (929) writes this word derives from the Biblical “masechet” (Judges 16:13-14), which means interwoven fabric, as a masechet is a tapestry of rabbinic rulings on a given topic culled together in one work.
In his introduction to Tosafos Yom Tov, Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1579-1617) writes that “masechet” is related to the Biblical phrase “maschah yeynah – she mixed her wine,” which appears in Proverbs 9:2, as a masechet comprises a mixture of various laws.
Interestingly, Rabbi Binyamin Mussafia (1606-1675) suggests that the root of “masechet” is samech-kaf, which means listen (as in “hasket” – Deuteronomy 27:9), since listening is the core mechanism by which the Oral Torah – typified by the Mishnah – is transmitted.