Purim and sacrifices: Why walled cities celebrate the 15th of Adar

A historical context for the two days of Purim and the reading of Parashat Tzav.

Daniel Pinner,

Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner
INN:DP

Megillat Esther recounts ten years of Persian history, culminating in the Jews’ salvation. And when the Jews successfully defended themselves against all those who sought to exterminate them, the fighting in Shushan, the capital of Persia, continued for a day longer than in the rest of the provinces.

The confrontation between the Jews ad their would-be slayers on the 13th of Adar and rested on the 14th; in Shushan the capital, the confrontations continued on the 13th and 14th, and the Jews rested on the 15th. Hence “Jewish denizens of unwalled cities who dwell in towns which are unwalled celebrate the 14th day of the month of Adar as a day of rejoicing and feasting and celebration, and of sending gifts of food to one another” (Esther 9:19), and Jews in walled cities celebrate Shushan Purim on the 15th.

Note: For the special laws and customs pertaining to years when the 15th of Adar falls on a Friday, as it does in 2016, click here.

The Mishnah rules that “cities which have been surrounded by walls since the days of Joshua bin Nun read [the Megillah] on the 15th [of Adar], villages and cities [which are unwalled] read it on the 14th” (Megillah 1:1).

The Talmud, however, records that this opinion is disputed: “This Mishnah does not agree with the Tanna [whose opinion is about to be cited], as it is taught: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says: Cities which have been surrounded by walls since the days of Achashverosh read [the Megillah] on the 15th. What is Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha’s reason? – They follow Shushan. Just as Shushan was surrounded by a wall since the days of Achashverosh, and there they read [the Megillah] on the 15th, so too every [city] which has been surrounded by a wall since the days of Achashverosh reads on the 15th.

And what is the reason of the Tanna quoted in this Mishnah [that the criterion is cities which have been walled since the days of Joshua bin Nun]? – The inference of the word פְּרָזִי (denizens of unwalled cities), which is used in two contexts. Here it is written, ‘Therefore the Jewish הַפְּרָזִים (denizens of unwalled cities) who dwell in towns which are unwalled celebrate the 14th day of Adar’, and elsewhere it is written ‘other than הַפְּרָזִי, the unwalled cities, very many’ (Deuteronomy 3:5). Just as the earlier reference [in Deuteronomy] is to cities which were surrounded by walls since the days of Joshua bin Nun, so too the later reference [in the Book of Esther] is to cities which were surrounded by walls since the days of Joshua bin Nun” (Megillah 2b).

The Jerusalem Talmud, however, offers a very different explanation for defining “walled cities” as cities which were walled since the days of Joshua bin Nun: “Rabbi Simon said in Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s name: They gave honour to the Land of Israel which was desolate in those days by defining [cities which read the Megillah on the 15th as cities which were walled] since the days of Joshua bin Nun” (Yerushalmi Megillah 1:1).

Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura (Italy and Israel, late 15th century) cites both reasons in his commentary to the Mishnah (Megillah 1:1) – the repeated usage of the word פְּרָזִי (villagers), and apportioning honour to the Land of Israel.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt, 1135-1204), however, in his commentary to the same Mishnah cites only Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s reason – to apportion honour to the Land of Israel.

And the Rambam gives this explanation halakhic force in the Mishneh Torah: “Even though Shushan the capital was not surrounded by a wall in the days of Joshua bin Nun, they read the Megillah on the 15th because it was on that day that the miracle happened there, as it says ‘and they rested on the fifteenth’ (Esther 9:18). And why did [the Sages] make [the date on which a given city read the Megillah] contingent on the days of Joshua? – In order to apportion honour to the Land of Israel which was desolate at that time, so that they would read [the Megillah] as did the denizens of Shushan; thus [the cities of the Land of Israel] would be considered as if they were fortified cities surrounded by walls, even though they were currently desolate, because they had been surrounded by walls in the days of Joshua. Thus there would be a reminder of the Land of Israel in this miracle” (Laws of the Megillah and Chanukah 1:5).

And a generation later, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain and Israel, 1195-c.1270) also favoured that explanation and expanded on it: “It would have seemed logical that the cities which were unwalled in Achashverosh’s days would celebrate a day earlier than the cities which were walled in his days. However, the miracle [of the deliverance on Purim] was primarily for those [Jews] who were in the Land of Israel, which was desolate because those who had returned to it had not yet built anything. Now it would not be appropriate for Jerusalem, the Holy City, and all the other fortified cities of Judea and Israel to be judged as unwalled cities, so they backdated the definition of unwalled cities to the days of Joshua bin Nun, and thus categorised cities as either surrounded by a wall since the days of Joshua bin Nun or as unwalled. And this is what the Jerusalem Talmud means when it cites Rabbi Simon as saying in Rabbi Levi’s name that they gave honour to the Land of Israel which was desolate in those days by defining [cities which read the Megillah on the 15th as cities which were walled] since the days of Joshua bin Nun” (Novellae of the Ramban, Megillah 2a).

Similarly the Aruch HaShulchan, a century and a third ago: “Why did they define walled cities as being from the days of Joshua? After all, should we not define them from the days of Achashverosh like Shushan? – About this the Yerushalmi says that this is to apportion honour to the Land of Israel. That is to say, the Land of Israel was desolate in those days; when [the Sages] had to determine the difference between walled and unwalled cities, had they defined according to the days of Achashverosh, then the entire Land of Israel would have been judged as unwalled cities, and there would not have been even a single walled city therein – and there can be no greater disgrace than this! They therefore calibrated according to the days of Joshua” (Orach Chayyim, Laws of Megillah 688:4).

Let us put all these explanations into their historical context:

The Jews had begun to return to the Land of Israel when King Koresh (Cyrus) of Persia had given them permission (Era 1:1-3, 2 Chronicles 36:23). Thus the 70-year exile to Babylon began to draw to its end.

Three years later Koresh was dead and Achashverosh became king of Persia, at a time when there were no more than several tens of thousands of Jews in Israel.

The Megillah begins in the third year of Achashverosh’s reign, and spans 13 years. Thus by the culmination of the Megillah, the Jews’ victory over their would-be murderers, the return to the Land of Israel was in its 16th year. The community was still small, vulnerable, and impoverished, and had hardly begun to rebuild the Land.

Nevertheless, as the Ramban argues, the deliverance throughout the Persian Empire was primarily for saving that small minority of Jews who lived in Israel – which was in the Persian Empire. It was therefore supremely appropriate to define the day on which Purim is celebrated in such a way as to give honour to the Land of Israel.

This year, for the first time since 5768 (2008), Purim falls between the Shabbatot of Parashat Vayikra and Parashat Tzav (in 5768, Shushan Purim fell on Shabbat Parashat Tzav). These are the first two parashot in the Book of Leviticus, whose primary theme is sacrifices.

Parashat Vayikra, which coincided with Shabbat Zachor and which was therefore directly connected with Purim, opens with the rules which apply to all animal sacrifices, then proceeds to meal-offerings (flour, oil, frankincense, water), then details specific offerings – peace-offering, sin-offering, the bull of the anointed Kohen, and so on.

Parashat Tzav continues with burnt-offerings, the pyres on the Altar, the meal-offering, sin-offering, guilt-offering, thanksgiving offering, and so on.

And these sacrifices, too, are intimately connected with the Land of Israel.

G-d first promised the Land of Israel to the Jewish nation when He forged the Brit Bein HaBetarim (Covenant between the Parts) with our father Abraham: “I am Hashem Who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldees to give you this Land to inherit it. And he said: My Lord G-d, by what will I know that I will inherit it? And He said to him: Take for Me three heifers and three goats and three rams, and a turtle-dove and a young dove” (Genesis 15:7-10).

Now this contains two puzzling elements. First – when G-d Himself promised Abraham that his descendants would inherit the Land, why did Abraham have any question (“by what will I know that I will inherit it”)? Did he doubt G-d’s promise? And second – how did answer G-d him? By telling him to take certain animals and birds and cut them up? How does that answer Abraham’s question?

The Midrash resolves both questions:

“Rabbi Hiyya son of Rabbi Hanina said, [Abraham did not ask this] like one who challenges; rather he asked Him: In what merit [do I inherit this Land]? [G-d] replied: In the merit of the sacrifices of atonement that I give before you. ‘And He said to him: Take for Me three heifers and three goats and three rams, and a turtle-dove and a young dove’ – He showed him three kinds of bulls and three kinds of goats and three kinds of rams. The three kinds of bulls are the bull [sacrificed on] Yom Kippur, the bull [sacrificed to atone for unintentional transgression of] all the mitzvot, and the bull whose neck was broken . ‘Three kinds of goats’ – the goats [sacrificed on the] Pilgrimage Festivals, the goats [sacrificed on] New Moons, and the goat brought by an individual . ‘And three kinds of rams’ – a definite guilt-offering, the doubtful guilt-offering [sacrificed by a Jew who was unsure whether he had sinned], and the lamb [sin-offering sacrificed] by an individual . ‘A turtle-dove and a young dove’ [are sacrifices for different forms of atonement]” (Bereishit Rabbah 44:14).

So it is in the merit of the sacrifices which G-d commanded in Parashot Vayikra and Tzav that we inherit the Land of Israel. And it was in the merit of the Jewish resettlement of the Land of Israel that the Jews throughout the Persian Empire were saved from Haman’s decree of genocide.

And so it is intriguing to note that the Midrash continues with another interpretation of the Brit Bein HaBetarim: “‘Take for Me three heifers’ alludes to Babylon which raised three kings – Nebuchadnezzar, Evil Merodach, and Belshazzar. ‘And three goats’ alludes to Media which raised three kings – Koresh, Daryavesh (Darius), and Achashverosh. ‘And three rams’ alludes to Greece” (Bereishit Rabbah 44:15).

At the very beginning of Jewish history, G-d already symbolised the Jewish destiny and bound it intimately with the Land of Israel.

And it is in the merit of the Land of Israel that Jewish history continues. The exile is inexorably drawing to its close: growing Jew-hatred, whether the genteel antipathy of polite drawing-room anti-Semitism, or Jew-hatred politically-correctly disguised as anti-Zionism, or the naked brutality of murderous violence; the violence of terrorism, directed as much at Jews’ host nations as at the Jews themselves; the ravages of assimilation – these combine to see the numbers of Jews in the Diaspora dwindle with ever-increasing rapidity.

Only in Israel does the Jewish population grown swiftly. It is in the merit of the Land of Israel that Jewish history continues today, and only in the Land of Israel that Jewish destiny will be fulfilled.






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