Purim: A Nation Divided

I posted earlier about a reason given why Jews living in walled cities celebrate Purim a day later than Jews living elsewhere.  Today I’d like to discuss the history of how that evolved and what that means to me.

In a commentary on Mashechet Megillah 2:1 the Ramban is troubled by the split.  If there was a way for all Jews to celebrate the holiday together, it should be found, he reasoned.  Instead, he finds that celebrating on different days commemorates an approach to the holiday itself.

Megillat Esther describes (9:17-18) that the Jews in unwalled cities celebrated on the 14th of Adar and the Jews of the walled cities on the 15th.  But that was during the year that the miracle occurred only, Ramban says.  In subsequent years, only the Jews living in unwalled cities continued to celebrate.  Jews in walled cities didn’t do anything, because the miracle was really the survival of Jews living in the more exposed locales and under greater danger.

It was only until the holiday was declared by Mordechai and Esther years later (9: 20-23) that the Jews in walled cities also celebrated.  Maintaining separate days gives honors to the innovators (or “early adapters”) who observed a holiday even before it was formally declared.

This dynamic between tradition and innovation plays itself across so many fronts in Jewish tradition and observance.  Most of the time a reason given for Jewish practice, even ones without a source in Jewish law, is simply “tradition!” – we’ve been doing it for thousands of years and that should be good enough!  So much for innovation.

But then again, there are other practices that develop, that become “accepted” and that Jews as a whole, or men or women as a whole “take on”.  How does that happen if not for the innovators, the early adopters, the movers and shakers who are unafraid to do something that is not a part of accepted Jewish practice?

In areas of halachah that follow accepted community norms and have somewhat ambiguous standards on the books it can be difficult to tell when it’s vital to follow the crowd or maintain tradition and when it’s okay to change with the times.  That’s a part of the Jewish heritage too.


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Ilene Rosenblum is a writer and marketing professional living in Jerusalem.

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