I have always been fascinated by time, perhaps because if I am left to my own devices I can live my life blissfully unaware that time exists. It amazes me that organized events or business meetings happen at all. It requires people who are distant from each other and busy in their own lives to agree on something they cannot see or touch or even measure in a non-mechanical manner.
It is amazing that humanity at large may not agree on what happened during a historical event, but they can all agree on when it happened.
I grew up in an age when we had to reset our watches on a fairly regular basis, pulling out the notched stem and twisting it until we were in step with the rest of humanity. This usually required a telephone call to the time authority. The internet changed all that. One day, my teen was late for an appointment and I offered to buy him a watch. He laughed, saying that watches were antiquated and ‘un-functional’.
Though the Torah predated all of this, it is remarkably time oriented. Even when creating the sun and moon, God Himself was “on the clock,” declaring when he began work and when he took a break. Many of the commandments are time-bound. The Temple service required separating the day and the night into watches. And setting the calendar, based on the lunar cycles, was the proto-mitzvah, the first command to be given to the Jewish people.
But when it comes to the holiday of Purim there is an ambiguity with regard to its time. If you want to know when Purim is, you first have to ask where Purim is.
The Book of Esther explicitly states that Haman had chosen the 13th day of the month of Adar for the annihilation of the Jews (Esther 9:1). At the end of the story, the Jews were given permission to fight back and defeated their enemies on that same day. But the holiday of Purim was not instituted in order to celebrate the killing of our enemies. Instead, Purim commemorates the victory and the cessation of the killing which was celebrated by the Jews of Persia on the 14th of Adar (Esther 9:17).
But in Shushan, the capital city of Persia at the time of the Purim story, the killing of the enemies of the Jews, most notably the sons of Haman, continued for an additional day. So the Jews of Shushan fought on the 13th and 14th of Adar, and rested on the following day, the 15th of Adar (Esther 9:15). This day has become known as Shushan Purim, and is still observed in cities that were walled in the days of Joshua, most notably Jerusalem.
But not always. When the 15th falls on the Sabbath, Shushan Purim is only partially observed on the 15th. The Book of Esther is not read on Shabbat, nor do we eat the Purim feast on the Sabbath since it would be indistinguishable from the regular Shabbat meals which would dishonor both the Sabbath and the holiday. Observance, therefore, begins on the 14th with the reading of Book of Esther and giving charitable gifts to the poor, and is extended to the 16th of Adar, when the Purim meal is eaten and food gifts are given to friends, making for a three-day Purim.
The problem of a Purim falling on the Sabbath is so troublesome that when the sages established the Hebrew calendar, they arranged it in such a manner that the 14th of Adar would never fall on the Sabbath day.
But the confusion does not end there. The Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle, but must be adjusted occasionally. To synchronize the lunar counting of days with the solar cycle, seven times in every 19 years a leap year is added, wherein an extra month of Adar is added. The two months of Adar are referred to as Adar Alef (first Adar) and Adar Bet (second Adar). Thus, a leap year in the Hebrew calendar includes thirteen months. And Purim is celebrated in the second Adar.
Indeed, the Mishna concerning the holiday begins by saying, “The Megillah (Book of Esther) is read on the eleventh, on the twelfth, on the thirteenth, on the fourteenth, or on the fifteenth of the month of Adar, not earlier and not later.”
If you think this sounds confusing you are not alone. In fact, the idea of confusion appears in the Book of Esther itself. When the couriers went out to announce the imminent destruction of the Jews, the entire city was “confused” (Esther 3:15). This confusion was compounded when all of these plans turned upside down (Esther 9:1). And on Purim day, Jews are commanded to drink until they cannot differentiate between blessing Mordecai and cursing Haman.
Despite, or perhaps as a result of, this confusion in time, Purim is a watershed in Jewish history. The Purim miracle is considered the last miracle that was recorded in the Hebrew Bible, as the Sages state, “Esther is the end of all the miracles” (Yoma 29a). And it was during this time that the Jewish people reaffirmed their commitment to following God and his commandments.
In a world where time is so important, the holiday of Purim stands out as a celebration that defies simple scheduling. But despite the confusion, Purim remains a beloved holiday that brings together friends and family, inspires acts of charity, and reminds us all of the power of hope and the triumph of good over evil.