Wednesday, 28 February 2018

JVO Blog: The Often Overlooked Message of Purim

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website now offers a new service -- a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

The Often Overlooked Message of Purim

is now available at
A link is also up on Facebook at 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Two Books to Read for Purim

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                               Two Books to Read for Purim

               The book of Esther jumps immediately into the reign of Achashverosh, but provides little background. Fortunately, we get some background from the book of Ezra. There we learn that, after defeating the Babylonians, the Persian king Koresh gives permission to the Jewish exiles to return and build their Temple. The returnees start work, but run into opposition from people already in the land. They have difficulties from the time of Koresh “ve-ad malkhut Daryavesh” (Ezra 4:6). Later, early in the reign of Daryavesh (=Darius I), they resume their work. Since it is now about 20 years later, the Persian governor asks them who gave them permission for this rebuilding work. The returnees respond that Koresh had given them permission. King Daryavesh is notified and he orders a search which locates the initial decree of Koresh. Accordingly, Daryavesh renews the permission and the work on the Temple is completed in his reign.  There is also a one sentence reference to Achashverosh in the book of Ezra. Finally, the book of Ezra and the book of Nechemiah describe the activities of Ezra and Nechemiah and the assistance that king Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I) provided to them.
            What if you wanted to learn more about kings Koresh, Daryavesh, Achashverosh and Artachshasta? Where would you go? In 1990, Edwin Yamauchi, a professor in Ohio, published a book: Persia and the Bible. It is easy to read, with many pictures and charts, and gives us all the background that we need. You see from the title of the book that is meant for us, readers of the Bible. It is not a dry general history of ancient Persia. (For that, you would read Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander.) Yamauchi presents in a clear and organized manner all that ancient historians and archaeology teach us  about the reigns of kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius I, Xerxes (=Achashverosh) and Artaxerxes I. (With regard to Cambyses, he is not mentioned by name in Tanach, but his reign is alluded to in the word “ve-ad” that I cited above.)
               With regard to Cyrus, Yamauchi summarizes all the legends about his life reported in the various Greek historians (Herodotus and others). We also learn about one of the most important Biblical archaeological finds ever: The Cyrus Cylinder. This was an inscription of Cyrus that revealed that it was not just the Jewish returnees who were permitted by Cyrus to return and build their Temple. Rather, Cyrus gave such a permission to many of the peoples under his rule whom the Assyrians and Babylonians had exiled. This was part of his plan for benevolent rule. This was a dramatic insight. All of a sudden, Cyrus’ permission to the Jewish returnees described in the book of Ezra became understandable!
               Yamauchi then moves on to Cambyses, summarizing the data in Herodotus, the later Greek historians, and archaeology.
              Yamauchi then deals with Darius I. The extra-Biblical material about Darius I is voluminous. First, we learn the most important story in the history of ancient Persia: the story of how Darius became king. Herotodus tells us that Darius was not the son of Cambyses, but was a distant relative.  (Cambyses had no children.) Someone who pretended to be Cambyses’ brother reigned for about 7 months. (The real brother of Cambyses was already dead.) Darius and six others joined in a conspiracy to kill the impostor. After the conspiracy was successful, Darius was installed as king. (I have here oversimplified a very long story!)
              Then Yamauchi focuses on the many inscriptions of Darius I. The most important is the trilingual  inscription (Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian) in Behistun (western Iran) that largely confirms the above story told by  Herodotus.  Then we learn about the canal that Darius built between the Nile and the Red Sea, his expeditions against the Greeks and other military adventures, and his work building the palace at Shushan. Finally, we learn about his tomb and his several wives.
            Then comes a 52 page chapter devoted to Xerxes, and another chapter on Artaxerxes.  There are also chapters on the palace at Shushan and the other ancient Persian palaces.
              As I have discussed before, it is clear that the name Xerxes is to be identified with Achashverosh. This was discovered in the middle of the 19th century when Old Persian cuneiform was deciphered and the original Old Persian names of the kings came to light. Once Old Persian was deciphered, we saw that the king the Greeks were calling “Xerxes” had the name “Khshayarsha” in Old Persian. This name is structured around the consonantal sounds Ch-Sh-R-Sh, i.e., the same consonantal sounds as the name A-Ch-Sh-R-Sh.
               Xerxes reigned from 486-465 B.C.E. This was after the work on the building of the Second Temple was completed in the reign of his father Darius I in 516 B.C.E.   From the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra, where Achashverosh is mentioned in a context, you see that Achashverosh followed Daryavesh.  (Unfortunately, the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra was written in a confusing way. This misled Seder Olam and the Talmud, causing them to take a different view of the order of the Persian kings.)
              Yamauchi writes all about Xerxes’ military expedition against the Greeks which took place in the early years of Xerxes’ reign. But he can tell us practically nothing about what happened in the reign of Xerxes after that. Why not? Because Herodotus and the Greek historians after him wrote practically nothing about the events of Xerxes after year 7, when Xerxes returned defeated. This is important because skeptics always point out that the Greek historians don’t refer to the Purim story, the plot to destroy the Jews in the 12th year of Xerxes’ reign (3:7).  But the Greek historians refer to practically nothing in the reign of Xerxes after year seven until his assassination in year 21. (Of course, even if the Greek historians had described some events of years 8-21, it would hardly have been surprising if the plot against the Jews was not mentioned.)
             There is only one flaw in Yamauchi’s book for our purposes. Xerxes’ wife was referred to by the Greeks as “Amestris.” Yamauchi has a section suggesting that Amestris may be Vashti. But nowhere does he consider that Amestris may be Esther. (The “is” at the end of “Amestris” is likely only a Greek addition to her original Old Persian name, which must have been something like M-S-T-R.)  I argue strongly for the identification of Esther with Amestris in my book, Esther Unmasked.
         The other book I recommend is Yehuda Landy, Purim and the Persian Empire (Feldheim, 2010). This book is of a completely different nature. It is a book with wonderful color photos, based on archaeological findings, which helps one visualize the palace at Shushan, and many of the other items mentioned in the Megillah. The author is an Orthodox rabbi and educator in Israel. He knew very little about ancient Persia until around 2006, when he visited a special exhibit on this subject at the British Museum. He was shocked at how much archaeological material there was that confirmed details of the Megillah. He also realized that 99% of the Orthodox world knew nothing about this, so he needed to collect it all and publish it as a book. (He included a text of the Megillah as well, so you can follow the Megillah with his book in your hand!)
           The book includes some history. But he is aware that there are chronology disputes between Chazal and secular history, and he figured out a way to publish his book and publicize the visual material without taking clear positions on dates and historical identifications. After all, he reasoned, Shushan is Shushan, no matter what precise year the events occurred and whether or not Xerxes is Achashverosh.  (But he does take the position that most likely Xerxes is Achashverosh. He does not address the issue of who Amestris is.)
                 I titled this column: “Two Books to Read for Purim.”  We can alternatively reinterpret this title to refer to my own two books on this period, which I also recommend: 1) Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology (published in 1997 but unfortunately very expensive), and 2) Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (published in 2015 by Kodesh Press and very reasonably priced).  
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar.  He can be reached at  He is now working on his third book, which he will explain in a future column. 


Sunday, 25 February 2018


From RRW
."It is written (Mishlei 27:19): “As a face reflects its face in water, so does one’s heart to another.” 
Why in water? Why not in a mirror? Because to see one’s own face in the water, one has to bend down (a sign of humility). Not so with a mirror. With a mirror, one can remain upright and erect (symbolic of arrogance)."

Rabbi Simcha Bunam of Pshis’cha

Thursday, 22 February 2018

The Fast Days of “Megillat Taanit Batra”

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                          The Fast Days of “Megillat Taanit Batra”
       We are all familiar with the four Biblical fast days in Tishrei, Tammuz, Av, and Tevet. We are also familiar with the post-Talmudic fast of the 13th of Adar.
          But if one looks at R. Yosef Caro’s Shulchan Aruch (16th century), Orach Chayyim 580, one sees an additional list of fast days.   R. Yosef Caro writes that it is “raui” (=worthy) to fast on them. (Admittedly, he does not say “chayav.”). The list begins: “ 1 Nissan, death of Aaron’s sons; 10 Nissan, death of Miriam and end of her well; 26 Nissan, death of Joshua; 10 Iyyar, death of Eli and his sons and the capture of the ark…” It goes on with various other fast day dates through the rest of the year. The total number of dates listed here is twenty-one.
         Before he wrote his Shulchan Aruch, R. Yosef Caro wrote a commentary on the Tur called the Beit Yosef. There he wrote (sec. 580): “I never saw or heard about anyone who fasted on these days.”  Nevertheless, when he later composed his Shulchan Aruch, he chose to codify them!  (It has been suggested that his codification of these fast days may have been due to his well-documented ascetic and kabbalistic tendencies.)
         So what is going on here? These fast days were not observed in Biblical times and they are not found in the Mishnah or either Talmud. Where did these fast days come from?
         It has been known for centuries that this list of fast days (with many variants) has been found in sources that long preceded the Shulchan Aruch. For example, a list like this is in the Halakhot Gedolot (9th century, Babylonia). A list like this is also found in other well-known sources such as Seder R. Amram Gaon and Machzor Vitry. (See the article by S. Leiman referenced below, p. 178, n. 15, for further references.)
          But with the discovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 19th century, several earlier sources  came to light. This enabled much progress to be made on the issues of the origin of these fast days.
          Before I discuss this further, I have to address the name for these lists of fast days.
          The convention now is to call some or all of these lists of fast days “Megillat Taanit Batra.” This is an artificial name, first suggested in 1908. Other scholars had used other names such as “Perek Ha-Tzomot.”  (Of course, “Megillat Taanit Batra” should not be confused with the much older “Megillat Taanit,” an ancient list of holidays on which one was not allowed to fast. Nevertheless, our list of fast days was sometimes appended as an additional last chapter to “Megillat Taanit”!)
           Now that the material from the Cairo Genizah has come to light, we see that we have evidence of the existence of these fast days long before the Halakhot Gedolot in 9th century Babylonia. We now realize that these fast days originated in Palestine. For example, a piyyut from R. Eleazar Kallir (who lived in Palestine) includes many of the fast days.  Moreover, on several occasions in this piyyut, Kallir does not even give the date of the fast day, only specifying the month and the event. This suggests that the fast days he included were well-known and may have been observed for generations by his time. The most recent scholarship estimates Kallir’s lifespan as 570-640 CE.
           The scholar who has investigated this whole topic is Shulamit Elizur. She is a professor at Hebrew University who is a piyyut expert. She published a book in 2007: Lammah Tzamnu? Megillat Taanit Batra U-Reshimont Tzomot Ha-Krovot Lah. She collected all the various sources and compared them to see how the list of fast days evolved over the centuries. Based on all the evidence, she concluded that the original custom to fast on such days began in Palestine in the fifth or sixth century. Over the centuries, additional days were added to the list, and many variants arose.
           That these fast days originated in Amoraic Palestine is not suprising. There seems to have been an affinity for fasting there. There is documentation that it was the practice among some Jews in Palestine in the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods to fast regularly on Monday and Thursday. See, e.g., Elizur, p. 160.          
            So we now know that our list of fast days originated in Palestine in the fifth or sixth century. But what we do not know is whether these fast days were observed by a large segment of Palestinian Jews or perhaps by only by a small segment. Elizur, pp. 25 and 230-32 suggests the latter.
            Thereafter, the list of fast days spread to Babylonia and Europe, but this does not mean that the fast days were actually observed there. Perhaps they were observed but only by very few. See Elizur’s discussion at pp. 227-42. But R. Yosef Caro nevertheless chose to include them in the Shulchan Aruch.
             Elizur suggests that the earliest list included fasts for only the following events: the death of Joshua, the death of Eli, the death of Samuel, the killing of the sons of Tzidkiyahu, the translation of the Torah into Greek, the war between the rest of the tribes and the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19-20), a certain violent physical dispute that broke out between the students of Shammai and Hillel, and the killing of the two Jewish brothers Pappus and Lulianus in the 2nd century C.E. (Regarding this last event, see Encyclopaedia Judaica 13:69 and the issues raised at Elizur, pp. 202-04.)
             One of the most interesting dates in the list at Shulchan Aruch, OH 580, is the 9th of Tevet.  R. Yosef Caro wrote that “we do not know what bad event happened on it.” He wrote this because Halakhot Gedolot, in the 9th century, wrote: “lo katvu rabboteinu al mah hu” (=the Sages did not write what event this fast was meant to commemorate). Thereafter, in the 19th century, several Jewish scholars suggested that the fast commemorated the birthday of Jesus and that for this reason the basis for the fast was purposely not specified.
              This suggestion and another Christianity-related suggestion motivated Dr. Shnayer Leiman to write a comprehensive article about this topic.  See Sid Z. Leiman “The Scroll of Fasts: The Ninth of Tebeth,” Jewish Quarterly Review, 74/2 (1983). (It can be accessed at his site He investigated the issue thoroughly and concluded that we still do not know what event this fast day was meant to commemorate.  
               Moreover, as stated by both Leiman and Elizur, the reason no explanation was given may simply have been that whoever decided to include the fast of the 9th of Tevet on the list may not have had the origin information himself. We do not have to read in “lo katvu…” a desire for secrecy. (As Elizur suggests for various reasons, it is possible that the origin of the fast of the 9th of Tevet may have been the death of Ezra. Whoever wrote the line “lo katvu” may have known that the date should be included in the list of fast days, but may have not known the reason for the fast, so he recorded the date of the fast and then added “lo katvu...”)
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar.  He can be reached at  He would much rather write a joyful column about regular “Megillat Taanit,” the list of holidays on which fasting is prohibited. He promises to deal with that in the future.