Feast or Fast? The Politics of Purim

Today (Wednesday, March 7, 2012), the thirteenth day of the Hebrew month of Adar, is תענית אסתר: the "Fast of Esther."  Traditionally, by which I usually mean "as established by the rabbis of the Talmudic era," today is a day of fasting to commemorate Mordechai, Esther, and the Jewish people's dreadful anticipation of the impending attack by the Persian populace.  

But before today's date became the "Fast of Esther," it was a day of great celebration!  Like Purim, it commemorated Jewish salvation from imminent threat of extermination.   It was then called "Nicanor's Day."  

Nicanor was the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) general assigned by the ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes – called “Mad Antiochus” by the Jews -- to exterminate all the Jews of Israel and completely eradicate Judaism. Against amazingly long odds, the Maccabees defeated Nicanor and eventually obtained actual Jewish political independence.   Mattathias’s son Yehudah (Judah) killed Nicanor on the thirteenth of Adar, and the anniversary became a great holiday.  It commemorated a momentous victory even more critical to the survival of Judaism than the events of Purim (assuming that Purim actually records a historical event, which many commentators doubt).

So, why did the Fast of Esther replace Nicanor's Day? 

In his book Seasons of our Joy, Rabbi Arthur Waskow comments that, during the period of resistance to Hellenism, Purim and Nicanor Day "struggled for mastery of Adar."  He speculates:

It may be that the anti-Maccabean rabbis who disliked Hanukkah [and who wrote the Mishnah, the foundational text for the later Talmud/Gemara --  AJL] also disliked Nicanor Day, and encouraged celebration of Purim as an alternative way of both enjoying early spring and commemorating a Jewish triumph over disaster.  In such a view, Purim would have been most useful to the rabbis precisely because it predated the Maccabees and because the Scroll of Esther ignored them.  It is clear that Purim won, and was described in the Mishnah and Gemara with great relish and detail.  Nicanor Day was barely mentioned and fell out of use entirely during the Talmudic period.  Indeed once the Fast of Esther was established on the day before Purim, Nicanor Day was obliterated in principle as well as in fact -- for on the festive Nicanor Day, fasting had been prohibited.

If Rabbi Waskow is correct, our celebration of Purim (especially if events we read about in the Megillah didn't actually occur!) was and remains a substitution for an even more important actual event.  Our sages made this “switch” for political and social reasons, among others.  

In any case, as we celebrate Purim and the story of Jewish salvation from Haman, may we also remember our actual salvation from Nicanor.  

We can also use this occasion to reflect upon how profoundly our "ancient traditions" have been molded, and even in some instances, completely changed by those entrusted to pass Jewish traditions onto subsequent generations in ways that they hoped would ensure our survival.  

Our history was in our sages' hands.... that of future Jewish generations is in ours.   

Happy Purim!      

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