THOUGHTS ON PURIM
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
This essay is sponsored by Esther Greenblatt.
An Auspicious Month
The Mishnah states that when the month of Av enters, we reduce our joy (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6). The Talmud adds that when Adar enters, we increase our joy. Concluding that Av is an inauspicious time (when luck works against the Jew), but Adar is an auspicious time (when luck favors the Jew), Rav Pappa advised that a Jew pursuing litigation against a gentile should avoid the courthouse in Av but seek one in Adar (Ta’anit 29a).
Tzipporah Rosenbach, the teenage daughter of a friend of mine, questions the correctness of Rav Pappa’s guidance. She inquires: “Isn’t there a verse in the Torah prohibiting one from thinking that certain days are lucky and others unlucky?”
The Torah admonishes the Israelites not to imitate the objectionable practices of the Canaanites: “You shall not eat the blood; neither shall you practice divination nor soothsaying לא תעוננו (Leviticus 19:26).” It reinforces the prohibition, ousting from society anyone who engages in such pursuits: “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, one who uses divination, a soothsayer מעונן, or an enchanter, or a sorcerer (Deuteronomy 18:10).” The rabbis offered various interpretations of מעונן. Rabbi Ishmael said it refers to those who ready themselves for sorcery by applying semen to their eyes. Others claimed that it refers to illusionists who practice sorcery by deceiving their audience. Rabbi Akiba maintained that it refers to those who claim that certain moments are more auspicious than others. One should not calculate time and say: “Today is a good day to travel. Tomorrow will be a good day to make a purchase. Today the sun will be stricken. Tomorrow it will rain. The wheat crop will be bountiful on the eve of the Sabbatical year (Tosefta Shabbat 7:14).” In primitive societies, it was commonplace for people to turn to professional prognosticators for guidance about when a particular undertaking was most likely to be successful. The Talmud cites Rabbi Akiba’s interpretation (Sanhedrin 65b), though, curiously omitting mention of weather predictions.
Rambam ruled it forbidden to declare that, on the basis of astrological calculations, a given day, month, or year is a good or a bad time, or that a given moment is ideal or not for initiating a commercial venture. Moreover, in Rambam’s view, one violates the Torah prohibition even merely by listening to the illicit soothsaying and following its guidance in scheduling one’s activities (Hilkhot Avodah Zarah 11:8-9). Rambam, ever the rationalist, regarded all forms of divination as nonsense. He stressed that Jews, of all people, should be smart enough not to believe the predictions of charlatans (11:16). Consistent with the Scriptural basis for the Talmud’s injunction that Jews not consult astrologers (Pesahim 113b), Rambam cited the verse: “You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your God (Deuteronomy 18:13).” We are bidden plainly to accept God’s justice, without attempting to predict the future through prohibited means.
Rambam codified the obligation to minimize joy in the month of Av (Hilkhot Ta’aniyyot 5:6), but omitted mention of avoiding litigation with non-Jews in Av. He completely omitted mention of increasing joy in Adar or of deliberately scheduling court appearances for that supposedly auspicious month. Tur and Shulhan Arukh both include in their respective halakhic codes guidance for a Jew to avoid, during Av, litigation against a non-Jew (Orach Chaim 551:1). Yet both codes omit any mention of increasing joy or scheduling court dates for Adar. Nearly all of the major Ashkenazi Acharonim, however, do include in their halakhic treatises guidance for increasing joy and pursuing inter-religious litigation in Adar (see Magen Avraham Orach Chaim 686:5; Chayyei Adam 2:155:1; Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 141:1; Mishnah Berurah 686:8; and Arukh HaShulhan Orach Chaim 686:6).
Hatam Sofer took note of Rambam’s conspicuous omission of Rav Pappa’s advice. He theorized that Rambam omitted any reference to auspicious and inauspicious months because Rambam sides with the Amoraic view that the fate of Israel is not tied to astrological considerations אין מזל לישראל (Shu”t Hatam Sofer 1:160). The Talmud records an Amoraic dispute whether mazal (luck) affects the nation of Israel. Rabbi Hanina said yes; Rabbi Yochanan and Rav said no (Shabbat 156a). Hatam Sofer suggested that Rambam omitted from his code the Gemara’s expansion of the Mishnah’s narrow ruling about diminishing joy in Av because the passage was stated from the perspective of those who believe mazal does affect Israel. However, though Hatam Sofer is certainly correct that Rambam outright rejected – rather than merely ignored -- Rav Pappa’s guidance, it is not because Rambam adopted this or that view in an Amoraic dispute about the Jewish people’s particular relationship with mazal; rather, it is because Rambam rejected astrology altogether (Maimonides, Letter to the Jews of Marseilles).
Some rabbinic writers tried to justify the popular Jewish belief that Adar is an auspicious month by citing a Talmudic passage that contains a caveat to the ban on divination. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar said that if someone is successful in his first business transaction after building his new house, having a child, or getting married, even though he may not use this as a means of divination to decide upon future courses of action, it is an auspicious sign that he will continue to be successful אע"פ שאין ניחוש יש סימן (Hullin 95b). Rabbi Jacob Emden cited Rashi, who mentioned both Purim and Passover in connection with the joyousness of Adar. According to Emden, what Rashi meant was that a pattern had developed of multiple salvations in different eras and against different enemies, proving the favorable (for Israel) character of the season (Shu”t Ya’avetz 2:88).
Tosafot and Maharsha defended Rav Pappa’s guidance by citing a rabbinic notion that meritorious matters are brought about on favorable days and deleterious matters are brought about on unfavorable days (Tosefta Ta’anit 3:9). For instance, 15 Nisan is reckoned as a favorable day on which many events of historical significance occurred, including the Covenant between the Parts, the angelic announcement that Abraham would sire a child through Sarah, Isaac’s birth, and the Exodus from Egypt. And in keeping with that tradition, it is posited that the future redemption of Israel from its contemporary exile will occur on 15 Nisan (Tanhuma Bo 9). Analogously, disastrous developments occurred repeatedly on 17 Tammuz and on 9 Av. Josephus marveled at the calendrical correspondence between the destruction of the two Holy Temples by the Babylonians and Romans respectively, centuries apart (Wars of the Jews 6:268).
Who causes history to repeat itself or, at least, to rhyme? The skeptic will attribute matters to coincidence or happenstance. The believer may see the hand of God. There is also a third possibility. Human beings, aware of the historical record, choose to act on specific dates. The anti-Semite, who is familiar with the Jewish calendar and knows of our mournful period in Av, may deliberately attack at that time. In the same vein, we may choose to schedule a joyful event on a date already infused with cheerful national memories.
Rabbi Shlomo Eliezer Alfandari (19th century Kabbalist and Chief Rabbi of Damascus) offered yet another defense of the belief in the auspiciousness of Adar and the inauspiciousness of Av. He posited that the Torah banned divination and soothsaying only so that people would not come to believe that the clock or calendar itself influences man’s destiny. People need to cultivate a belief that it is God Himself Who controls man’s destiny. Once the joy of Adar and sadness of Av take on a Judaic character in which it is the hand of God that is identified with past salvations and tragedies, it is no longer pedagogically problematic or theologically objectionable to reckon those months as auspicious or inauspicious, respectively.
My own view is that Rav Pappa’s guidance concerning an individual Jew’s planning his litigation schedule has distracted readers from the original intent of the Mishnah and the Gemara. The Mishnah’s instruction to diminish one’s joy upon the onset of Av is the final line of a long paragraph listing the five tragedies under-girding the fast of 17 Tammuz and the five tragedies under-girding the fast of 9 Av. What the Mishnah meant was that a loyal, patriotic Jew will instinctively be less jubilant on the anniversary of our people’s worst defeats. A good Jew will also instinctively be more cheerful on the anniversary of our people’s escape from mortal danger. But planning one’s upcoming activities on the basis of the amount of good or bad ascribed to those days constitutes prohibited soothsaying at worst and is irrelevant at best. What matters instead is the sentiment in the heart of the Jew, determined by his or her appreciation of our past as a nation.
One of the great Jewish motivational speakers of the past generation is Avraham Infeld. He developed the Five-Legged Table metaphor for a strong Jewish identity. The first leg is “Jewish memory.” Infeld asserts that the primary purpose of Jewish education is to open up the mind of the individual Jew to help him link his or her personal memory to the collective memory of the Jewish People. We do this on the Sabbath of Parshat Zakhor, when we read, millennia after the events in question, “Remember what the Amalekites did to you (Deuteronomy 25:17).” We do so at the Passover Seder when we recite aloud: “In every generation, the Jew must envision himself as if he personally left Egypt (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5).” (This notion is implicit in the name of a major dating site for Orthodox singles, SawYouatSinai.)
Jews, like all other peoples, are tempted to believe in astrology, auspicious times, and other irrational notions. Despite the Bible’s best warnings, and Rambam’s assertion that only the weak-minded believe such silliness, aspects of soothsaying have entered the rabbinic mainstream, halakhic codes, and popular practice (see Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 179:2 and Even Ha-Ezer 64:3 for additional examples). Nevertheless, this Adar, we should turn away from notions of luck and instead foster inner feelings consistent with our awareness that we are part of the broad scope of Jewish national history.