16 Adar: Shushan Purim, 1949

The sixteenth of Adar is two days after Purim in most places in the world, but in the city of Jerusalem and its surroundings, it is the day after Purim.  In 5709 (1949), it was a day to reflect on what had just occurred in Jerusalem. For thousands of years, Jews in Jerusalem had observed Purim on the 15th of Adar, as the Megillah prescribed for Jews who live in walled cities. The Jews who lived in the New City of Jerusalem (what most of us call Jerusalem) also read on the 15th, but only because of their proximity to the walled Old City. (Indeed, many places in the greater Jerusalem are celebrate Purim on the 15th, or at least partially on the 15th, because of their closeness to, or their ability to see, the Old City).

On the 14th of Adar in 5709, however, the Old City of Jerusalem had fallen to the Jordanians and, for the first time in hundreds of years, the city was empty of Jews.  Based on a statement in the Yerushalmi, the Mishnah Berurah’s Beur Halachah seems to say that if a walled city has become desolate, the surrounding areas revert to reading on the 14th, like any other unwalled city.

Some rabbis read “desolate” to mean that the Jewish population of the city has been expelled, as had happened with Jerusalem, and therefore thought that perhaps the Jews of Jerusalem should be reading on the 14th.  R. Yitschak Herzog, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, responded to this question—the questioner was the former Chief Rabbi of Moscow, who had moved to Israel and become a member of the Chief Rabbinate– in his Heichal Yitschak Orach Chayyim 65.

A Banal Halachic Question

In halachic terms, the question is actually not all that interesting, for several reasons. First, it is unclear within the Beur Halachah itself, that the definition of desolate is that it is empty only of Jews. The next line, for example, refers to a walled city composed entirely of non-Jews, and what a Jew who finds himself in that city on Purim should do.  While many assumed that was a continuation of the previous example (that is, that desolate meant it was composed entirely of non-Jews), it seems plausible to read it as two different conditions. If so, only if the walled city were completely abandoned would the halachah be that the surrounding areas read on the 14th.

Whatever the Beur Halachah meant, other authorities certainly saw it that way, as did R. Herzog himself, so the actual ruling was fairly simple, and the Jews of Jerusalem continued to read the Megillah on the 15th during the long nineteen years until Hashem returned the entirety of the city to our control (other than the Temple Mount, which we decided to give to Arab authorities to run).

Along the way to that ruling, R. Herzog brings up several other issues I find noteworthy.

A Celebrity Rabbi and Following the Sense of the Jewish People

This question had apparently aroused enough notice that the Chief Rabbinate had a meeting on the issue. R. Herzog mentions to his interlocutor that he had planned on looking again at the Beur Halachah’s ruling about an hour before that meeting (I assume to have it fresh in his mind), when the newspapers began to call, and he never had the time to look as he had wanted. Now that he is writing, he has checked again, etc., but I was more struck by the image of a country in which the opinion of a rabbi about how to handle Purim was of sufficient public interest that newspapers were calling incessantly enough to keep him busy.

In the end, having not had the chance to properly consult, R. Herzog mentions that he was largely guided by the practice of the people, as had Hillel in the Talmud, relying on the idea that “if they [the Jewish people] are not prophets, they are the descendants of prophets.”  That story, in Pesachim 66a, mentions Hillel not remembering how to bring a slaughtering knife to the Beit haMikdash when the 14th of Nissan occurs on Shabbat. He decides to wait and watch what the people would do, and then ratifies that their practice (placing the knife somewhere on the animal they were bringing for their Paschal sacrifice) was what he had in fact learned from his teachers, Shemayah and Avtalyon.

This is an idea fascinating in its daring, and that calls for an investigation (another time) into its limits.  I could have imagined arguing that the judgment of the Jews of Jerusalem as to when to read the Megillah was inherently flawed because most of them didn’t know the discussion of the Yerushalmi and the Beur Halachah, weren’t halachically sophisticated enough to realize there was an issue.  If that were the case, their practice shouldn’t really be our guide. 

The two cases open up the question of when we do and don’t judge the instincts of the Jewish people. Today, for example, most Jews assume that it is all right to drive on Shabbat (as we see), but we don’t stop to wonder whether that’s ok. We might argue that those Jews are so far from observance that we can no longer trust their instincts, but I could also offer examples of large groups of observant Jews whose instincts still run counter to what God says in the Torah (as I have in my recent book, We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It).  Meaning, it’s not really enough to recognize the instincts of the Jewish people, we’d have to define when we do and don’t rely on those instincts. Another time.

Jerusalem is Different, and Where is the Old City?

R. Herzog also thinks that the whole question is less pressing regarding Jerusalem, because even if the expulsion of Jews did take away a city’s status as walled, that ruling would not apply to Jerusalem. As Rambam famously noted in another context—he was discussing the fact that for all that the sanctity of the Land of Israel seems to have been lost in the time between the two Temples, with certain important halachic ramifications for our time– that was not true of Jerusalem. 

The sanctity of Jerusalem radiates from the Divine Presence in its midst, and that can never be lost. Once the Temple was built, and Jerusalem became the eternal world seat of the Divine Presence, that status could never be lost, altered, or shaken. If so, R. Herzog says, its status as a walled city for Purim purposes is also unshakeable.

Finally, R. Herzog notes that it was not clear, even that year, that the ancient city of Jerusalem was lacking in Jews. We should recall that the halachah of a walled city is that if it had a wall in the time of Yehoshua (the time of the original conquest) even if it no longer has a wall, the city reads on the 15th.  The city of Jerusalem that was walled back then, R. Herzog points out, included—according to some views—Mount Zion (which was still in Jewish hands in 1949), and, according to centuries-old tradition, areas of Meah Shearim. If so, for all the tragedy of having lost what we call the Old City, perhaps parts of that ancient city were still in Jewish hands, and the whole question never arose.

I close with a sense of joy and thanks to Hashem that this year—and for so many years already– the question has not even arisen, because the Old City and the New City and so much else, are again under Jewish control. May we go speedily from the redemption of Purim to the full and complete redemption, with the return of a scion of David to ruling over a unified Jewish people, with a rebuilt Beit HaMikdash, speedily in our days.

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Mr. Martin Kaufman was educated at Yeshiva Universty and New York University"s Graduate School of Business Administration. Was Chairman and CEO of Philipp Brothers, formerly one of the world's largest commodity trading companies. He is a global consultant to entities in the financial and natural resource sectors all over the world. Mr. Kaufman has lectured extensively in numerous Adult Education programs for many years and presently gives shiurim in the New York City area. He has also served on two boards of Yeshiva University, amongst many other Boards. Mr. Kaufman lives in Manhattan with his wife and three children.

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