This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Troubles at Court*

The story might well have been lifted from the pages of "Ivanhoe," if not from the Book of Esther itself.

Somewhere in France during the eleventh century, a Jewish woman was invited to go riding in the entourage of the local aristocracy. Presumably, such invitations were very rare, and it would have been a pity to forego such a festive occasion. Perhaps a refusal would even have been perceived as a rude insult to her blue-blooded hosts.

The problem was, that the outing was scheduled for the eleventh of Adar. While this is not, strictly speaking, a Jewish holiday, such were the vicissitudes of the calendar that year that the eleventh of Adar was observed as the Fast of Esther.

Normally the fast is kept on the thirteenth of the month, immediately preceding Purim. That year, however, Purim fell on Sunday, and since it was not feasible to fast on the sabbath, the fast had to be moved to a different day. Friday (the twelfth) was considered inconvenient because it would interfere with Shabbat preparations. Therefore, the tradition had been established, under such infrequent circumstances, of observing the Fast of Esther on the Thursday preceding Purim, the eleventh of Adar.

So what to do about the invitation to the riding party, whose physical exertions would require some prior nourishment?

The case was brought before Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, renowned as "Rashi," the leading halakhic authority of the day. On the surface, the religious obstacle did not appear overwhelming. It was not, after all, the real day of the fast, only a substitute. And the lady was not planning to avoid fasting altogether; she was merely asking whether she could postpone it to the next day.

Rashi's answer, however, was a flat refusal. The day, even in its transplanted date, was to be treated as a full-fledged statutory fast that could not be trifled with.

In issuing his ruling, the distinguished rabbi himself called attention to the questionable status of the Fast of Esther. It is mentioned neither in the Bible nor in the classical works of the Jewish oral tradition. It is a custom whose only known roots are in popular practice. However for Rashi, as for most French and German halakhic authorities, popular customs were an incontestable foundation of Judaism.

Did we say that the fast has no source in the Bible? But does't the book of Esther relate how the Jews of the Persian empire fasted before the heroine approached Ahasuerus unannounced? Rashi argues that that fast had nothing to do with the one that we currently observe on the day before Purim. The Biblical fast lasted three days, and took place in the month of Nissan, during Passover.

Rashi was aware that some commentators had tried to anchor the custom in the words of Esther 9:13, where Esther issued a decree concerning "the matters of the fastings and their cry." He refuted that proof-text. The verse plainly means that the annual holiday of Purim commemorates the tribulations and fastings of the ancient Persian Jews, not that Jews are to continue to fast every year. Otherwise, to be consistent, we would have to also "cry" on Purim, which is very obviously not done.

In light of the strong case that Rashi made for the non-Biblical and non-Talmudic status of the Fast of Esther, we might well ask why he was so intransigent about accommodating the lady's innocuous request.

His answer is a simple one: Communal solidarity. It is unacceptable for individuals to maintain separate practices or to withdraw from the observances of the larger community. This is a fundamental axiom that governs much of classical Jewish law, especially in medieval Europe.

Rashi's criticisms were not limited to those who tried to omit or reschedule established practice. He also censured individuals who, out of excessive piety, insisted on observing a second fast day on the Friday, in order to place it closer to Purim. This practice overstated the importance of the fast of Esther by elevating it to Biblical status, and hence was equally unacceptable.

It is clear that Rashi's argumentation falls within the standard parameters of halakhic discourse, as he bases his position on the relevant Biblical and Talmudic sources and legal principles, without relating to the specific personalities or historical circumstances involved in the case.

I am nevertheless tempted to speculate whether there might have been additional motives behind his attempt to prevent the lady from socializing with royalty. The story of Queen Esther notwithstanding, the blurring of accepted social and religious barriers could sometimes lead to unfortunate results.

A notorious instance occurred a century later, and not very far from Rashi's home. In the northern French community of Blois, a Jewish woman named Polcelina became a frequenter of the court of Count Theobald, a connection that eventually developed romantic overtones. For as long as Polcelina was able to maintain her favoured status among the nobility, she became accustomed to lording it over her fellow-Jews, who realized their growing dependence on her political influence.

Eventually, however, the Count's affection for Polcelina began to diminish. She was taken prisoner at the behest of her political rivals, strictly forbidden to communicate with Count Theobald, for fear that her charms might again allow her to return to favour. Her fall from grace was initially welcomed by many members of the Jewish community, where her overbearing ways had succeeded in arousing considerable resentment.

Matters took a tragic turn in the spring of 1171, when a Christian servant, aware of his master's current distaste for the former object of his affections, incensed perhaps by the vilification of the Jews that was a stock ingredient of the seasonal preaching, and provoked by the fact that that his horse had recently been frightened by a Jew, seized the opportunity to spread a baseless charge of ritual murder against the Jewish community of Blois.

The results were catastrophic. The irate count, deaf to the bribes that usually succeeded in averting such incidents, had more than thirty Jews burned on May 26 1171. It was Rashi's own grandson, Rabbi Jacob Tam, who issued an enactment declaring the twentieth of Sivan as an annual fast day for the Jewish communities of France and the Rhineland. "It is fitting,"he wrote, " that this date should be established as a day of fasting for all our people, more important even than the Fast of Gedaliah son of Ahikam, for it is a true day of atonement."

It is tempting to imagine that, in setting up halakhic obstructions to a Jewish woman's socializing with the French nobility, Rashi had anticipated a calamity just like the one that would be precipitated by Polcelina of Blois.

At any rate, the story does serve to teach us that it is not always a welcome development when a Jewish women attracts the heart of a gentile ruler. Although it can be the occasion for the festive celebration of Purim, it might also lead to fasting and lamentation.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press,February 25 1999, pp. 12, 14.

  • Bibliography:

    • Chazan, R. (1973). Medieval Jewry in Northern France : a social and political history. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press.

    • Chazan, R. (1973). "The Blois Indicent of 1171: A Study in Jewish Intercommunal Organization". Proceedings of the American Academt for Jewish Research 36 (1968), 13-31.

    • Solomon ben Isaac, c. R., I. Elfenbein, et al. (1943). Teshuvot RaSHI. New-York.