One of the puzzling halakhot of Purim is Shushan Purim. Jews living in Jerusalem and other towns that have been surrounded by a wall since the days of Yehoshua Bin Nun celebrate on the fifteenth of Adar and not on the fourteenth.
In fact, Purim is the only festival in the Jewish calendar on which Jews do not all celebrate on the same day. It is even more surprising, since one of the major lessons of Purim is unity, as Esther says to Mordechai: “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast on my behalf." (Esther 4:16)
The Talmud Yerushalmi provides the following explanation of this unique Halakha: “They wanted to honor the Land of Israel, which was in ruins at that time, and therefore they made it dependent on the time of Joshua.” (Yerushalmi, Megillah 1:1) How does the fact that some Jews celebrate Purim on a different day bring honor to the Land of Israel?
I believe that in order to understand the intention of our Sages, we must learn what happened “behind the scenes” of the story we know from the Megillah. The first question we need to ask is, what was Mordechai doing in Shushan? Mordechai was part of the first wave of Aliyah in the days of Ezra and was a member of the Knesset HaGedola: “And these are the people…who went up from the captivity of the exile…and they returned to Jerusalem and Judea…. [Those] who came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai Bilshan…” (Ezra 2:1-2) So why did Mordechai return to the exiled community in Shushan?
The 42,000 people who returned with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem had one major goal – to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash. However, the local residents did everything possible to stop the builders: “And the people of the land were hindering the people of Judea and frightening them from building. And they would hire advisors against them to frustrate their plan, all the days of Cyrus, the king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:5)
The turning point was when Ahashverosh became king: “And in the reign of Ahashverosh, in the beginning of his reign, they wrote an accusation against the dwellers of Judea and Jerusalem... Then the work of the House of God, which was in Jerusalem, was stopped.” (Ezra 4:6/24)
Mordechai was sent to Shushan, to try to cancel the decree. The original name of Mordechai was Mordechai Bilshan. The root of the word Bilshan is lashon = language, and this was his major strength: “Rabbi Shimon said: Come and see the wisdom of Mordecai, for he knew seventy languages” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 50) This explains how Mordechai was able to stop the plot of Bigthan and Teresh: “Bigthan and Teresh were two Tarsians, and they would talk with one another in the Tarsian language. They said: From the day that she (Esther) arrived we have not slept. Come, let us cast poison in the goblet from which he drinks so that he will die. But they did not know that Mordecai…knew seventy languages” (Tractate Megillah 13b)
Ahashverosh did not hate the Jews. On the contrary, he wanted the Jews to stay in his kingdom, and even tried to build them an alternative Beit Mikdash. That is perhaps why he arranged the feast in the third year of his reign: “Rabbi Nechemia says: ‘Since it was three years since cancelling the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, he made a feast for all of his officers and servants.” (Esther Rabba 1:15) He wanted the Jews to join his feast and made sure to serve kosher food and wine: “Every people who ate its food in purity had its food provided in purity, as it is said, ‘That they should do according to every man's pleasure’ (Esth. 1:8).” (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 49)
Ahashverosh tried to recreate an environment of the Beit HaMikdash by wearing the garments of the Kohen Gadol and by using its stolen vessels: “' When he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom’ …[this] teaches that he wore the garments of a high priest’” (Megillah 12a); “Vessels that differed from one another’ (Esther 1:7) … He brought his own vessels and the Temple vessels, and he found them more pleasing and beautiful than his own.” (Megillah 11b)
Mordechai tried to warn the Jews not to participate in the feast, but no one listened to him: “As soon as Mordechai saw this, he arose and proclaimed over them and said to them, 'Do not go to eat at the feast of Ahashverosh, for he invited you only to create a prosecution against you…But they did not heed the words of Mordechai, and they all went to the banquet hall.” (Midrash Esther Rabba 7:13)
We see that the regulations of the court of Ahashverosh were similar to those of the Beit HaMikdash. Just as the Kodesh HaKedoshim was a restricted zone, and anyone who entered without permission was liable to die, Ahashverosh had similar rules: “All the king's servants… know that any man or woman who comes to the king, into the inner court, who is not summoned, there is but one law for him, to be put to death, except the one to whom the king extends the golden scepter.” (Esther 4:11)
When Ahashverosh graciously offers Esther half of his kingdom, he is unwilling to give her the second half, which was the Beit HaMikdash: “'Half of the kingdom' but not the whole kingdom, and not a thing that would divide the kingdom. And what is that? The building of the Holy Temple.” (Megillah 15b)
One more significant detail is required to complete the picture. Ahashverosh tried to be friendly to the Jews. He did not oppose the rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash overtly but rather used messengers - the descendants of Amalek, Haman and his ten sons: “Ahashverosh wondered saying: Mordecai seeks to build the Temple; it is impossible to build… Rather I will incite Haman against him; one will build and the other will destroy.” (Yalkut Shimoni 1053) We see that the sons of Haman were the ones who wrote the accusation against the Jews of Jerusalem in the first year of the reign of Ahashverosh, as Rashi explains: “I saw in Seder Olam (chapter 29): ‘These are the ten who wrote a false accusation against Judea and Jerusalem…Now what was the accusation? To stop those who ascended from the exile …who had commenced building the Temple.'” (Rashi, Esther 9:10)
However, Haman took his mandate much further and decided to annihilate all the Jews. Ahashverosh didn’t know about this decree, and that is why he was furious when he found out at Esther’s party that Haman had exceeded the authority given to him.
Eventually, Mordechai’s plan succeeded. “Then the work of the House of God…was stopped, and it was suspended until the second year of the reign of Darius, the king of Persia.” (Ezra 4:24) Who was Darius? Rashi explains: “After Cyrus, Ahashverosh, who married Esther, reigned, and after Ahashverosh, Darius the son of Ahashverosh, who was the son of Esther, reigned.” (Rashi ibid) Darius, the son of Esther, was the person who renewed the permission to build the Beit HaMikdash!
Despite this permission, all the Jews including Mordechai remained in Shushan haBirah, enjoying full civil rights and royal protection. This is one of the reasons that we do not recite Hallel on Purim: “Why don't we say Hallel (on Purim)? …Rava said: ‘Since we are still the servants of Ahashverosh’.” (Megillah 14a)
The Jews got confused and regarded Persia is their homeland, with Shushan as their capital city.
There is only one other place in Tanach where the word ‘Birah’ appears. When Nechemia appealed to Darius: “And I said to the king, 'If it pleases the king, may letters be given to me…and a letter to Asaph, the guardian of the king's orchard, that he gives me wood to make beams for the gates of the Birah that belongs to the Temple'.” (Nechemia 2:7-8) Rabbenu Bechaye explains the meaning of the word Birah: “Anywhere you will find in the Megillah the expression ‘Shushan haBirah’, it refers to the castle of the king…since Birah is a castle.” (Kad ha-Kemach, Purim 130) Birah, the castle of the king, is the source of the power of the kingdom. For that reason, in modern Hebrew Birah means the capital city.
The words of Nechemia are a strong reminder that we have only one Birah: Yerushalayim haBirah, not Shushan haBirah or Washington DC! This is what the Jews in Persia forgot. Their comfortable life caused them to get confused regarding their capital city. For this reason, our Sages designated a special celebration date for Jerusalem, Shushan Purim, “to honor the Land of Israel, which was in ruins at that time”.
Shushan Purim is a reminder that Shushan is not our Birah but rather we have only one capital city: Yerushalayim haBirah.
According to Rava, we forgo saying Hallel on Purim because we forgot the importance of dwelling in the Land of Israel. Instead, that lost Hallel has found its place on Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, the days on which we were blessed to restore the honor of the Land of Israel and Jerusalem as its capital city.
Rav Ronen Neuwirth, formerly Rav of the Ohel Ari Congregation in Ra'anana, is author of “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge: A Vision of Jewish Law in the Post-Modern Age”, published in 2020 by Urim Publications.