This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Wall-to-Wall Purim*

Purim is the only Jewish festival for which the Bible assigns two alternative days on which it may be celebrated, the fourteenth and the fifteenth of Adar.

It should be made clear that we are not dealing here with one of those extra days that were added to festivals for diaspora communities because of uncertainties in the determining the precise date of the New Moon; or the Second Passover ordained for people who are unable to celebrate at the proper time. In the case of Purim, the dual dates are part of the holiday's original format.

The book of Esther recounts that, when the Jews of the Persian Empire were granted permission to defend themselves against their adversaries, the residents of the capital city of Shushan needed an extra day to complete their mopping-up operations. For this reason, it was established as a permanent feature of the festivity that future generations should also commemorate their victory one day later.

Jewish tradition has extended the second-day observance to other walled cities in addition to Shushan itself. The rabbis inferred this rule from the fact that the Megillah speaks of the first day of Purim being observed by "the Jews of the villages, that dwelt in the unwalled towns." It the first day was kept in unwalled towns, then it followed that the second day should be observed in walled cities, and not only in Shushan.

What exactly is considered a walled city for purposes of Purim observance? Is it essential that the wall exist at this moment, or is it enough that it existed at some previous time in history?

Rabbi Joshua ben Korha in the Talmud took the reasonable-sounding view that the operative date should be the time of the Purim story itself, during the reign of King Ahasuerus.

However, the prevailing opinion among the Talmudic rabbis held that the cut-off date was the time of the conquest of the holy land under the leadership of Joshua.

The Babylonian Talmud justifies this peculiar ruling by pointing to a correspondence between the Hebrew word for "unwalled" [perazim] and the Torah's mention of the cities of the "Perizites," one of the nations that inhabited Canaan at the time when the Israelites entered the land.

For those of us who might be reluctant to accept a religious law based on such fanciful wordplay, the Jerusalem Talmud offers a more substantial rationale for focusing on the generation of Joshua rather than that of Mordecai and Esther: The sages were concerned to uphold the dignity of the Land of Israel.

During Ahasurerus' reign, the holy land was in a state of devastation, and it would have been impossible to find cities with their walls intact. Since the status of "walled city" carried with it connotations of splendour and prestige, it would have reflected poorly on our beloved homeland if no such cities were found to qualify for the privilege of keeping "Shushan Purim."

An interesting anomaly that emerges from this definition is that, by the Talmud's own assumptions, Shushan itself did not have a wall in Joshua's days, and hence would not qualify to observe "Shushan Purim"! The rabbis of course recognized that it was an exceptional case; and since it was the actual scene of the miracle, they declared that its Jews must observe Purim on the fifteenth of Adar, in accordance with the explicit Biblical command.

If the rule about walled cities was intended primarily to enhance the prestige of the Land of Israel, it should not surprise us to learn that a controversy arose among the commentators about whether Shushan-Purim could ever be observed in the diaspora (other than in Shushan).

In support of the position that it could be observed outside of Israel, several medieval authorities cited a passage from the Talmud, wherein it is related that Rav Asi read the Megillah in the town of Huzal on both the fourteenth and the fifteenth of Adar, because he was uncertain whether or not that town had been walled in the days of Joshua.

Huzal is identified in several places in the Talmud as a Babylonian locality. Obviously, if Shushan Purim could only be observed in Israel, such a doubt could never have arisen.

Other authors countered that this did not constitute a decisive proof, since some Talmud manuscripts refer to the town not simply as "Huzal," but as "Huzal of Benjamin," implying that this was a different town, that could have been located in the tribal territory of Benjamin, in the Land of Israel.

However, in the absence of any records or remains of an Israeli town of Huzal, it now seems quite clear that the Talmud was referring to the well-known Babylonian Huzal. The association with Benjamin likely derives from the fact that its Jewish residents traced their origins back to the tribe of Benjamin, when they were exiled during the reign of Jehoachin in the early sixth century B.C.E.

In contrast to the controversies surrrounding diaspora cities, there exists a virtual consensus that in contemporary Jerusalem, Purim should celebrated on the fifteenth of Adar as a walled city.

When you think about it, this is not at all a self-evident conclusion. The municipal boundaries of Israel's modern capital extend far beyond the walls of the Old City; and, for that matter, the present Old City is not situated in the same place as the ancient Jebusite town that existed in Joshua's time.

According to Talmudic law, surrounding villages or suburbs can be treated as parts of a walled city, provided that they are either nearby or visible simultaneously with the city. It is difficult to imagine how most of the neighbourhoods of west Jerusalem would satisfy either of those conditions.

Nevertheless, the Israeli rabbinate has resolved that all districts of Jerusalem should observe Purim on the fifteenth of Adar. In coming to this decision, they take into account the fact that there is contiguous habitation throughout the old and new cities, and that they are all served by the same religious and municipal facilities.

Some interesting possibilities are created by the proximity of towns that observe Purim on different dates. The classic sources, composed at a time when inter-urban travel was a time-consuming process, tended to focus on defining the status of individuals from unwalled towns who find themselves spending the holiday in a walled city, or vice versa. In our age of automobiles, it might take only minutes to zip back and forth between the two kinds of localities, especially at Israeli driving speeds. In effect, this makes it possible for individuals to choose which of the dates to observe.

For most of us, this could easily be interpreted as an invitation to spend two consecutive days indulging in Purim merriment.

On the other hand, some individuals might approach the choice with a different attitude. I am reminded of a curmudgeonly Jerusalem professor, who allegedly planned his Purim itineraries carefully so that he would always be in a place where Purim was not being celebrated on that day.

In this matter too, so much depends on which side of the proverbial wall you are standing.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Sanctified Seasons
Sanctified Seasons

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