Rabbi Daniel C. Goldfarb is a graduate of Harvard College and Columbia Law School and received his M.H.L. and Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He worked for 25 years as an attorney for Israel’s Ministries of Justice and Finance and in private practice in Jerusalem before joining the Yeshiva in 2000. He teaches Liturgy and Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Goldfarb served as director of the Conservative Yeshiva from 2000-2013.
Purim is a strange holiday – fun and “funny” at the same time. It is not commanded by the Torah, it lasts only one day, it has neither prohibitions nor Hallel (Psalms of praise), and God’s name is not mentioned in Megillat Esther, the reading of which is the focus of the celebration. The name Esther itself suggests “hidden,” we disguise ourselves with masks, and the story of the Jews being saved is nahafoch hu, a turning of the tables and quite the opposite of what Haman had planned. As we shall see, even Purim’s fate is different from that of the other holidays.
Purim is well known for the joy with which it is celebrated. The mood starts ahead of time – simcha is welcomed from the beginning of the month of Adar (Source #1). The Megilla reading is interrupted noisily each time Haman’s name is mentioned and the “mitsva” of drinking alcohol until one cannot distinguish between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai” is also “fulfilled” with enthusiasm by those with little connection to Torah and mitsvot. Even those who come to hear kri’at haMegillah often lose interest once the ten sons of Haman have been hung and the Jews have defeated those who sought to destroy them (Esther 9:1-17). The drama is over, the rest seems dry; administrative details. Yet the second half of Chapter 9 is fascinating because it gives us the genesis, the creation, of the holiday we now celebrate, step by step, including the four central mitsvot of Hag HaPurim: 1) Mikra Megilla (reading the Megilla); 2) Seudat Purim (the festive meal during the day); 3) Mishloach manot ish l’re’ehu (sending portions/gifts to one’s friends; and 4) Matanot l’evyonim – gifts for the poor.
Much has been made of the fact that Pesach, last March 26, and Rosh Hashanah, on September 5 (2013), were the earliest on the Gregorian calendar since 1899 and the earliest these holidays will fall until 2089. We can add to this the rare coincidence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving (November 28) and even the recent Tu B’Shvat, on January 16, actually a day later than in 1900. But while many articles, blogs and emails celebrate these facts, few, if any, really explain them.
The calendar in Judaism, as indeed in many cultures, is not simply an administrative tool; it can also be an expression of national identity. In the past certain nations, e.g. France in 1793 and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s, asserted their sovereignty by instituting new, original calendars. The children of Israel were instructed to adopt a new calendar, sovereignty in time, even before they began their departure from Egypt (Ex. 12:1-3). Rashi’s first comment on the Torah is to explain why the Torah did not begin with the command of the calendar (Source 1).
Recently I heard a discussion on whether we can declare a new Jewish holiday. In fact Yom Ha’Atzma’ut is a newly-created holiday, to celebrate the rebirth of an independent Jewish State. Needless to say, how it is defined and celebrated continues to be the subject of much debate – halakhic, theological and political.
Simhat Torah is a “recent” holiday, if it should be considered a separate holiday at all. It has no basis in the Torah and is in fact an embellishment of Shemini Hag Ha’Atzeret, the eighth day of Sukkot. It has no separate identity liturgically – it is called “Yom HaShemini Hag Ha’Atseret hazeh (zman simhatenu)” in the Amidah and the Kiddush. The name Simhat Torah was apparently first used in the Geonic period (8th – 10th centuries), in Bavel and Eretz Yisrael and is found in Rashi’s Siddur (11th century, Ashkenaz). And the practices we now associate with it developed at different times and places, in the Geonic period and later.
The two week-long festivals – Pesach and Sukkot – share many common features, such as mikra kodesh (holy convocation), the prohibition on work, special sacrifices, and an important home-centered religious activity (Lel haSeder and the Sukkah), but there are also differences between them. The Torah wants Sukkot to be a happy holiday, v’samachta b’hagecha (“and you shall rejoice in your festival,” Deut 16:14) and that verse enjoins us to include the slave, the stranger, the widow and the orphan in the celebration.
Unlike Rosh Hashanah, which receives minimal mention in the Torah, Yom Kippur is dealt with at length. Leviticus 16 describes the annual Yom Kippur ritual, centered on a series of sacrifices and sprinklings of blood on the altar, all to purify the Mishkan (the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Temple in Jerusalem) and make it fit for the Shechinah (God’s presence) to dwell among Bnei Yisrael.