An unusual feature of Purim is that it is observed on either of two dates. Most localities keep the holiday on the fourteenth of Adar, but “cities that were encircled by walls in the days of Joshua son of Nun” observe it on the fifteenth of the month as did the Jews of Shushan where the struggle extended a day longer. This criterion remained valid even if the city in question had subsequently lost its wall.
Since the reference point is to events in the thirteenth century B.C.E., the second date is only of academic interest to most diaspora Jews, especially those of us who reside in the New World.
An inquiry was directed to a medieval Babylonian Ga’on concerning towns in the diaspora that possess walls of undetermined antiquity. The resultant responsum stated that the Megillah should be read on the fifteenth of Adar only when there is a substantial tradition to support it, otherwise we should presume that the wall was erected later than Joshua’s time and the residents should observe Purim only on the fourteenth of the month.
The land of Israel, on the other hand, is blessed with both a long history and persistent historical memories. Several towns in antiquity possessed traditions to the effect that they had been walled at the time of Joshua’s conquest. The Mishnah names eight such places as examples, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in the Talmud added a few more names; though later generations were not always certain exactly where those towns were located. The medieval geographer Isaac Estori Ha-Parḥi remarked that several sites were explicitly identified in the Bible as fortified cities at the time of the Israelite conquest. On the other hand, Rabbi David Ibn Abu Zimra (Radbaz) noted that any name that appears in the Torah’s list of Levitical cities could not have been walled, because they also served as “cities of refuge” for those who had committed unintentional manslaughter, and therefore had to be open and accessible to those seeking sanctuary.
The Talmud mentions some towns whose status was uncertain, and states that in those cases the rabbis ordained that the Megillah should be read on both dates. This became the standard practice for later generations. Rabbi Ḥayyim Joseph David Azulai (Ḥida) mentioned Hebron as a place where the Megillah was read on the two days. A nineteenth-century geographer reported that all Jewish settlements in the holy land were keeping two days of Purim except for Jerusalem regarding which nobody ever questioned its having been surrounded by a wall in Joshua’s days. Commentators tried to reconcile this approach with the position of the Radbaz that excluded several towns from that category.
A question however arose about how to treat the blessings that normally accompany the performance of precepts. The general rule in such cases is that we do not “waste” blessings on doubtful precepts. The mainstream position therefore held that in those instances where Purim was being observed for two days because of uncertainty, no blessing should be recited on the second day, though one should be recited on the first day in recognition of the statistical probability that the locality in question was part of the vast majority of towns that were not walled in Joshua’s time. A dissenting opinion, that of Rabbi Jehiel ben Asher, argued that since both dates are doubtful, the blessings should be omitted on both. While many authorities were scrupulous in recording Rabbi Jehiel’s position (which was cited in his brother Jacob’s influential Ṭur code), it was clearly a minority view that did not gain acceptance.
A fascinating discussion on this topic was preserved by Rabbi Issachar Ibn Sousan, a Moroccan-born scholar who resided in Safed during the city’s heyday in the sixteenth century. One of his most important works was devoted to topics in the liturgical calendar, with special reference to the customs of the diverse Jewish communities that coexisted in the holy land in his days.
Rabbi Ibn Sousan accepted the dominant position that in cities of doubtful status they should read the Megillah on both days, while reciting the blessing only on the first day (rejecting the position of Rabbi Jehiel). He noted that this was the policy in Safed as well in all the other towns and villages of the land of Israel that were of doubtful status.
However, he was concerned about a related question: should the designated Torah reading, which also involved the recitation of blessings, be included in the service on the fifteenth of Adar in Safed and the other communities where the obligation was questionable. He reported that this was in fact the well established practice “among all the Musta‘rabs who reside in the region of Safed in the northern Galilee and in the villages of Biria and Ein al-Zaitun, and we have also heard that it is customary in Gaza and Damascus.”
The Musta‘rabs were the “native” [“Arabized”] Jewish populace who resided in Israel prior to the major wave of immigration that was precipitated by the expulsion from Spain and Portugal. Their origins in some cases could be traced back to ancient times. Nonetheless, the new Iberian arrivals were dismissive of the local practice which they deemed blatantly inconsistent: how could they omit the blessing over the Megillah while reciting it over the Torah? Accordingly, the Sephardic congregations refrained from taking out a Torah scroll on the second day of Purim, arguing that it would require a blessing over what might be a superfluous reading.
Rabbi Ibn Sousan tried to demonstrate that both approaches were based on valid considerations (he explained in intricate detail how the blessings over the Megillah and the Torah can be seen as having decisively different pusposes); and consequently neither faction possessed the authority to impose its custom on the other, “and particularly where newcomers in the land are trying to alter the practice of veteran residents... This is so obvious that it does not require any proof. All the more so where the [natives] possess an ancestral tradition from their early forebears that stems from the days of our sages and the foremost early scholars of the land.”
In 1559, the Musta‘rab synagogue of Safed erupted in a renewed controversy. On the fifteenth of Adar the cantor refused to take out the second Torah scroll, explaining that he had observed this practice among the Sephardim and that he preferred to avoid reciting a questionable blessing. As the congregation waited impatiently, Rabbi Ibn Susan ordered the cantor to take out the scroll and to observe his own community’s rite rather than the Sephardic practice. Some dissatisfied congregants reported the incident to the great Sephardic luminary Rabbi Joseph Caro, hoping that he would be scandalized and insist on overriding the local custom—but they were to be disappointed. In fact, Rabbi Caro declared that he personally preferred the Musta‘rab custom, but did not have the authority to overturn the established Sephardic practice.
In our age of globalization, we have not been very successful at ensuring the survival of small, local traditions in the face of the vast uniformity of international mass media. Similar developments have been impoverishing the world of Jewish practice, as the erstwhile richness of regional customs has been pushed to the margins to force conformity to a few privileged traditions.
In light of this situation, I find myself cheering for those scrappy Musta‘rabs in the sixteenth-century as they waged their small fight for independence from the liturgical imperialism of the arrogant newcomers.
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