Monday, March 9, 2009

What Makes Purim a Holiday?

In addition to the festivals enjoined explicitly in the Torah (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot), our Sages established Chanukah and Purim as national Jewish festivals – and these are the only ones the entire Jewish community is obligated to observe.
These were the only two times (after the completion of the Five Books of Moses) when the entire Jewish community was in mortal peril — Haman’s decree of extermination and the Syrian-Greek attempt to destroy the very core of Judaism, Torah and mitzvahs — and was miraculously saved. After the destruction of the Second Holy Temple and the ensuing dispersion of the Jewish community throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe, there was never a time when all of Jewry was in mortal danger.
However, that does not preclude individuals or communities from observing days of thanksgiving for a particular miracle or event that occurred for them or their ancestors. On the contrary, this is also an obligation: “There are four categories of people who must give thanks – those who crossed the sea or the desert; one who was gravely ill and recovered; one who was released from prison.” (Talmud, Brachot, p.54b) The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 219) adds that any event similar to these where a person was miraculously saved, such as surviving a wall collapse or being gored by an ox, (or their modern equivalent – surviving a car crash) etc., obligates one to give thanks to G-d.
The Talmud (Brachot, p.46a) relates that once when Rabbi Zeira was ill his colleague Rabbi Abahu undertook to make a “yom tov” for all the rabbis if Rabbi Zeira would recover, and so he did. This may be the source of the custom to celebrate events like those mentioned above with a meal, although this is not obligatory.
Indeed, throughout history there were several other “Purims” celebrated in communities that were saved from dire situations, such as Purim Hebron, Purim Fossano, Purim Yemen, Purim Saragossa and others.
Among Chassidim, the 19th day of Kislev, when the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi was absolved of wrong-doing and was released by the Russian authorities, is observed as a special holiday. Similarly, among Chabad Chassidim, the 10th of Kislev, 12-13th Tammuz, 5th Tevet and other days are also celebrated as days of liberation.
It is interesting to note that there is no obligatory celebratory meal on Chanukah, whereas a meal is one of the requirements on Purim. One of the reasons given for this is that the decree on Purim was the physical annihilation of the Jews, whereas the decree on Chanukah was spiritual annihilation. Accordingly, Purim is celebrated with a meal and gifts of food and charity, whereas Chanukah is celebrated by lighting candles and reciting Al Hanissim and Hallel.
Rabby Yosef Zaltzman (Exodus Magazine)