Is there a halachic basis for the various local observances, such as Purim Frankfurt, Purim Cairo and Purim Ancona?
In the course of Jewish history, there have unfortunately been numerous occasions when communities suffered from major crises that threatened their lives. Upon surviving these travails, many communities chose to commemorate the event by creating a Yom Tov with special observances to thank Hashem for His salvation. Many of these observances were called “Purim,” and in the course of the last several hundred years there were dozens of recorded local Purims, some that were celebrated by the Jewish community of a town or city, and others that were observed by families. Some of these commemorations included that the festival was preceded by a fast day, similar to Taanis Esther preceding Purim.
As the events of the last seventy years have emptied many of these communities of their Jews, most of these celebrations and the miracles they commemorate have become forgotten. This article will be concerned primarily with the halachic sources and controversies concerning these celebrations. But first, let me share some of the background events of a few of these local observances.
One of the earliest recorded local holidays is a festival that was celebrated in Cairo on the 28th of Adar, which bears a strong similarity to the original Purim. In 5284 (1524), the Governor of Egypt, Ahmed Pasha, became a very powerful ruler, although he was officially responsible to the Ottoman Empire and Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. Pasha craved the wealth of many of the Egyptian Jews and, in order to seize their possessions, he arrested twelve prominent leaders of the Jewish community, including the community’s rav, the Radbaz. Pasha demanded an exorbitant ransom, far more than the community could ever raise, to be paid by the 28th of Adar, or he would execute the captives and exile the rest of the community.
On the day set for the ransom deadline, Pasha was assassinated by some of his servants who knew that he was plotting to overthrow the sultan. The 28th of Adar was joyously proclaimed a local festival and was observed for as long as a sizable Jewish community existed in Cairo.
The rogue of the Purim Frankfurt story (5374/1614), Vincent Fettmilch, actually called himself the “new Haman of the Jews.” He was a fiery agitator whose hordes attacked the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt. After two years of anti-Semitic disturbance, he angered the Holy Roman Emperor, who had Fettmilch hanged. The Jewish community commemorated these events by creating a fast day, similar to Taanis Esther, on the 19th of Adar, and a festival on the 20th, which was called Purim Frankfurt. A special megillah was written, known as Megillas Vinz (for Vincent), to commemorate the occasion.
Purim Kidebuni was a festival observed in parts of North Africa. In 5465 (1705), the governor of Tunis, warlord of one faction of the barbary pirates, laid siege to Tripoli, threatening to decimate the population should he conquer the city. Fortunately, disease broke out suddenly among his followers, and the siege failed. A festival was declared for the 24th of Teiveis.
Another North African Purim
On the 4th of Marcheshvan, 5302 (1541), Charles V of Spain attempted to seize Algiers, where many Jews had taken refuge fifty years earlier when fleeing during the Spanish expulsion. The Spaniards landed, but their fleet and army were destroyed by a storm because of the prayers of Rav Shelomoh Duran, a descendant of the Tashbeitz. Thus the Jews were spared facing expulsion a second time and the inquisition that the Spaniards would have brought with them. For obvious reasons, they called the holiday they established Purim Edom.
On the 2nd day of Marcheshvan, the Jews of Shiraz (Iran) celebrate a festival called “Moed Katan.” According to an old manuscript written in the Jewish-Persian language (similar to what Yiddish is to German, and Ladino to Spanish), a Jew who was supposed to have been both a shocheit and a kosher retail butcher was caught selling non-kosher meat. The criminal converted to Islam, changed his name to Abu al-chasan, and then became a moseir, accusing the Jews of many crimes. The Shiite rulers gave the Jews of Shiraz the choice between death and conversion to Islam. Suddenly and mysteriously, Abu al-chasan died on the 2nd of Marcheshvan, leaving behind a retraction that all his accusations were false. The evil decree against the Jews was rescinded. The incident was commemorated via a local festival called “Moed Katan.”
These are a few examples of the kinds of local festivals that were established to thank Hashem for His kindness. The first question we have is whether we can find a halachic source for a community establishing its own local festival.
Who introduced Hallel?
One source for the observance of local festivals is based on the following passage of Gemara (Pesachim 117a, as explained by Rashbam; cf. Rashi ad locum). The Gemara asks: “Who originally declared the Hallel?” The Gemara proceeds to mention several instances in Jewish history when Hallel was recited spontaneously to thank Hashem for His salvation (Rashi ad loc.). Among the specific situations mentioned are:
— In addition to singing Az Yashir upon surviving keriyas yam suf, Moshe and the Bnei Yisrael also sang Hallel (Rashbam).
— Yehoshua and the Bnei Yisrael sang Hallel after their victory over the 31 kings.
— In addition to the song of Devorah, she and Barak recited Hallel after their victory over Sisra.
— Chizkiyah sang Hallel when he survived Sancheiriv.
— Chananyah, Misha’el and Azaryah sang Hallel when Hashem saved them from the fiery furnace.
— Mordechai and Esther recited Hallel when they were in control of the city of Shushan.
Chananyah, Misha’el and Azaryah
The reason for the reciting of Hallel by Chananyah, Misha’el and Azaryah is somewhat different from the other events recorded in the Gemara. In all the other instances, the entire Jewish nation was imperiled and saved, whereas, in their situation, Chananyah, Misha’el and Azaryah were saved as individuals. One may have thought that Hallel should be recited only to thank Hashem for the saving of the entire nation. However, we see from Chananyah, Misha’el and Azaryah that reciting Hallel is an appropriate way of thanking Hashem even for a salvation that affected only individuals.
In his halachic commentary on this Gemara, the Meiri (Pesachim 117a) rules that an individual or community may establish a practice of reciting Hallel every subsequent year as a commemorative way to celebrate their salvation, provided that they do not recite a brocha prior to reciting the Hallel. To quote the Meiri: “Any individual who was redeemed from a potential calamity may institute that he recite Hallel that day every year, albeit without reciting a brocha beforehand. The same is true for every community. In fact, a practice of the prophets was to recite Hallel whenever one was redeemed from trouble.” Thus, a community or an individual may establish the annual recital of Hallel on a specific date to commemorate an event of salvation.
After they move
Are individuals who have relocated from a community required to continue observing the local Purim? I found this question discussed about five hundred years ago by Rav Moshe ben Yitzchak Alashkar, known as the Maharam Alashkar, a gadol of his generation, who received halachic inquiries from the greatest gedolim of his era, including the Mahari Beirav, Rav Eliyahu Mizrahi, and the Maharalnach. It is interesting to note the difficulties and wanderings of the Maharam Alashkar himself. Born about 5226 (1466) in Spain, he was expelled in 1492 with all the other Jews, and in his escape from Spain was captured by pirates who threatened to execute him. Eventually, he escaped from the pirates and found refuge in Tunis, but the Jews of this community were then expelled. The Maharam Alashkar wandered onward to Greece, then later Cairo, and eventually succeeded in settling in Yerushalayim, where he passed on in 5302 (1542). In addition to probably being the posek hador in the Mediterranian basin, he was also the source of many teshuvos of the geonim that would otherwise have been lost, and he translated responsa of the Rambam from Arabic into Hebrew.
The following question that the Maharam Alashkar discusses is germane to our discussion: A local takkanah (based on other evidence, I believe it was Sepanto, Italy) had established the 11th of Teiveis as a local festival, for the Jews of that town and their descendants wherever they would reside, in commemoration of some deliverance that had transpired on that date. The question was: The community is now destroyed. Must they continue to observe this takkanah?
The Maharam Alashkar first quotes the Talmudic sources that a community has the ability to establish regulations that are binding on its members. He writes that although regulations and customs of a community are, in general, not obligatory upon someone once he relocates, when the community accepted upon its members and their descendants to follow a certain practice regardless of whether they reside in the original location, they must continue observing the practice even after they relocate (Shu”t Maharam Alashkar #49). His conclusion is quoted by many prominent halachic authorities as definitive (Magen Avraham, 686:5, Elyah Rabbah, 686:5, Mishnah Berurah, 686:8; also see the Chayei Odom and the Chasam Sofer that I will quote later in this article).
Celebrating on the Tenth of Av
Our next discussion is the extent to which we go to celebrate a personal Purim.
Sena’ah was the name of one of the large Jewish family clans that returned from Bavel together with Ezra (Ezra 2:35; Nechemiah 7:38). According to the Mishnah (Taanis 26a), they were descended from the tribe of Binyamin (see Tosafos, Eruvin 41a s.v. Mivnei) and they brought wood to the Beis Hamikdash on the tenth of Av, which was then observed as a day of celebration. The Gemara (Eruvin 41a; Taanis 12a) records that the Tanna Rabbi Elazar ben Tzadok, continued to observe this date even after the churban (Tosafos, Taanis 12a s,v, Hasam), although the cause for the celebration no longer existed. This is even more surprising since Rabbi Elazar ben Tzadok himself was a kohen (see Bechoros 36a), and therefore not descended on his father’s side from Sena’ah and the tribe of Binyamin. As Tosafos (Eruvin 41a s.v. Mivnei) notes, his observance of this date as a family festival was either because his membership in this family clan was from his mother’s side or because his wife was a descendant of the tribe of Binyamin and a member of this family.
Tisha B’Av on the tenth
As we know, when Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbos, the fast day is observed on Sunday, which is the tenth of Av. Since we now know that the Sena’ah family observed the tenth of Av as a festival even after the churban, what did they do when Tisha B’Av fell on Shabbos, causing the national day of mourning to coincide with their personal festival? The Gemara quotes Rabbi Elazar ben Tzadok as saying that they began the fast together with the rest of klal Yisrael, but did not complete its observance to the end of the day since it was a family festival. This means that they ate on the day that the rest of klal Yisrael was still observing all the laws of Tisha B’Av! We see the extent to which the observance of the family festival was kept. Based on this Gemara, the Maharam Alashkar ruled that a local festival must continue to be observed.
[There is a curious halachah that results from this Gemara. Several rishonim record the following practice from the baal Tosafos, Rabbeinu Yaakov ben Rabbeinu Yitzchak Halevi, who is also called Yaavetz. (He should not be confused with much later gedolim, such as Rav Yaakov Emden, who are also called Yaavetz.) Yaavetz once celebrated a bris on the tenth of Av which was a Sunday and therefore a postponed Tisha B’Av. Several rishonim record that after davening mincha, Yaavetz bathed and broke the fast because it was his own personal Yom Tov (Mordechai, Taanis #630; Hagahos Maimoniyos, Taanis 5:8; Tur Orach Chayim, Chapter 559). This practice is recorded as normative halachah – that the baalei simcha, meaning the mohel, the sandek and the parents of a bris that falls on a postponed Tisha B’Av do not complete the fast because it is their own personal Yom Tov.]
However, the Maharam Alashkar’s position on this question was not universally accepted. The Pri Chodosh (Orach Chayim 496:14) expressly disputes what the Maharam Alashkar writes, concluding that even a local resident does not need to observe the custom of local festivals and celebrations. The Pri Chodosh contends that the practice is not binding even while the original inhabitants continue to reside in the same city in which the miracle happened, and it is certainly not incumbent upon their descendants or anyone who relocated from the city.
Explaining the Pri Chodosh’s objection to the Maharam Alashkar’s ruling requires an introduction regarding an ancient manuscript called Megillas Taanis, which the Gemara (Shabbos 13b) teaches us was written by the Tanna Chananyah ben Chizkiyah, who lived at the end of the second Beis Hamikdash period (Rambam, Introduction to Peirush Hamishnah, towards the end). Megillas Taanis is a list of dates on which miraculous events occurred. To commemorate these celebrations, Chazal prohibited fasting and conducting eulogies on these dates. After the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, a dispute (Rosh Hashanah 18b-19b) developed as to whether these dates remained minor festivals prohibiting hespedim and fasts, or whether, in light of the churban, these festive days are no longer significant, a position that the Gemara calls: batlah Megillas Taanis, “Megillas Taanis is no longer in effect.” The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 19b) concludes that, with the exception of Chanukah and Purim, batlah Megillas Taanis. It is also important to note the Gemara’s comment that if batlah Megillas Taanis, certainly no new days can be added as holidays (Rosh Hashanah (18b, 19a).
The Pri Chodosh contends that the creation of any of these local festivals runs counter to the Gemara’s conclusion that batlah Megillas Taanis. He, therefore, concludes that the community declaring specific practices on these days has no halachic legitimacy and that one is not required to observe them.
We will continue this topic next week…