The Ancient Judean Holiday: Yom Nicanor - 13th of Adar
During the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, the Jewish calendar had many more holidays than it does now. These were listed in a text called Megillat Ta’anit. Sometime during the Rabbinic Period or shortly thereafter, this list was cancelled, and the holidays—with the exception of Purim and Chanukah—are all but forgotten. Why this happened and whether this can or should ever be changed is a subject for another essay, but one holiday has always called out to me as being worthy of special attention: the 13th of Adar, Nicanor Day (יום נקנור).
What is Nicanor Day?
Nicanor day celebrates Judah Maccabee’s defeat of Nicanor the elephantarch, meaning “master of elephants.” Nicanor was a Syrian-Greek military officer, whom King Demetrius I Soter (nephew of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the “villain” of Chanukah) appointed governor of Judea. This was after the Chanukah story, as Antiochus Epiphanes had already died. The Judeans, under Judah Maccabee had already recaptured the Temple and rededicated it, and were living in a sort of rapprochement with the Syrian Greeks, who were engaged in factional strife.
|Demetrius ( born 185 BC, reigned 161–150 BC)|
The story behind the day of celebration begins when the former high priest named Alcimus, who was fully Hellenized and no longer observant of Judaism, wishes to regain his position as high priest. To do so, he goes to King Demetrius, who was a relative newcomer to local politics, having only recently taken the kingdom from his cousin, Antiochus V Eupater (Epiphanes’ son). Alcimus brings expensive gifts to the king and claims that the Maccabees and his followers were dissidents (a half-truth) and had forcibly removed him from him office (an untruth, though I imagine Judah would have removed Alcimus if he had still been in office).
Demetrius accepts the story and sends Nicanor to Judea as governor, with the express command to protect Alcimus’ position and keep Judah Maccabee at a distance. Nicanor at first attempts to compromise with Judah, but under pressure from Demetrius he decides to arrest Judah and his followers. Judah escapes and Nicanor, furious, enters the Temple looking for him. When the priests say they have no idea where Judah is, Nicanor stretches out his right arm and issues his infamous threat:
“If you do not hand over Judah to me as a prisoner, I will level this precinct of God to the ground and tear down the altar and build here a notable temple to Dionysus!” (2 Maccabees 14:33; NETS translation).
Only a few years after Chanukah, the Temple was threatened yet again.
Nicanor gathers an army of forced Judean conscripts and chases down Judah and his followers. At first, Nicanor imagines that he will trick Judah by attacking on Shabbat, but his own army refuses to comply since they also keep Shabbat. Meanwhile, Judah, encamped with his forces, has a vision. In this vision the murdered high priest, Onias (Chananiah), visits him and gives him words of encouragement. He then introduces Judah to another specter who was standing with him, an old man that turns out to be none other than the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah stretches out his arm to Judah and hands him a golden sword. “Take the holy sword,” says Jeremiah, “as a gift from God with which you will strike down your adversaries” (2 Macc. 15:15-16).
Judah awakens and tells his followers of the vision. They are encouraged and go out to do battle against Nicanor’s tremendous force (including his beloved elephants). After offering a prayer, Judah Maccabee engages Nicanor’s troops and wins a decisive victory. After Nicanor’s army flees, Judah finds his body among the slain. He cuts off Nicanor’s head and right arm and brings them to Jerusalem. Entering the Temple precinct, Judah calls all the priests to stand by the altar and shows them the head and arm, declaring that Nicanor’s blaspheming tongue be cut out and fed to the birds. The priests react with relief and say, “Blessed is He who has kept His own place undefiled!”
After Judah fastens Nicanor’s head to the citadel and declares a holiday, the story-teller finishes his account: “This is how it went with Nicanor, and from that time the city has been ruled by the Hebrews, so I myself will here bring my story to a halt” (2 Macc. 15:37).
Second Maccabees as a Megillah
The Talmud records a barebones version of Nicanor Day in (j. Ta’anit 2:12; b. Ta’anit 18b), as it does for several other Megillat Ta’anit holidays. But this is not the source for the story just related. Nicanor day actually has an entire book dedicated to telling its story—The Second Book of Maccabees. Unlike 1 Maccabees, which describes the history of the Hasmonean revolt beginning with Mattathias and continuing through the death of Judah, Jonathan and Simon, and ending with the rule of John Hyrcanus, 2 Maccabees begins and ends with Judah Maccabee.
The book is an edited work—an abridged version of a long five volume work by Jason of Cyrene about the Maccabean revolt. The editor’s agenda is promoting Chanukah among the Greek speaking Jews of Egypt, and to this end, he adds a long introduction, which notes the importance of Chanukah.
Despite its emphasis on Chanukah, the focus of the book is the defeat of Nicanor and the protection of the Temple from his threat to destroy it. This is told in great detail in chapters 13-15. The end of the work brings forward a parallel between the purpose of the Book of Esther and that of 2 Maccabees. Immediately before the editor/author bids farewell to his readers, he caps off the narrative with the following:
Judah fastened Nicanor’s head to the citadel, visible to all and an obvious sign of the help of the Lord. And they all decreed by public vote never to let this day go unobserved but to have the thirteenth day of the twelfth month, which is called Adar in the Syrian language, marked, the day before Mordechai’s day.
Judah Maccabee himself, together with his followers, declares Nicanor Day to be a day of celebration for all time. In the author’s mind, the connection with Mordechai’s Day (Purim) seems more than just calendrical coincidence. It seems to be an attempt to link the two holidays, perhaps as one long celebration. Each holiday marked the saving of the Jews, and each holiday had its own “megillah” to tell its story.
Conclusion – Reviving Yom Nicanor Today
Nicanor Day and its megillah did not fare as well as Purim, or even Chanukah. Its book (2 Maccabees), in Greek, was unknown or discarded by the Rabbis, and its celebration died out with the rest of the Megillat Ta’anit holidays. Eventually, to add insult to injury, during the Geonic period the custom developed to fast on the day before Purim (Ta’anit Esther).For years, as someone who studies the Book of Maccabees, I have found it very difficult not to think of the 13th of Adar as Nicanor Day as well as Ta’anit Esther. Most years, this dual definition feels very dissonant, which is one reason I cherish the years when Purim is on Sunday and Ta’anit Esther is pushed back to Thursday. This allows Nicanor Day, for those of us who mark it—we have it on our family calendar—to be treated as a day of celebration and feasting (as I believe it deserves).
For our generation, Nicanor Day rounds out the other two Megillat Ta’anit holidays that survived. Purim is about surviving in exile. Chanukah is about the escape from persecution. In both of these holidays, the Jews were coming from a place of weakness, with no leadership, no army and no hope. When Nicanor threatened the Temple, however, the situation was quite different. Judah Maccabee had an army and had defeated the Syrian Greeks in battle only a few years earlier. On one hand, the fact that the Judeans had been victorious previously makes the defeat of Nicanor feel less awe-inspiring than Judah’s first victory. Nevertheless, it underlines a challenging truth about Jewish history that we don’t often think about, especially on Chanukah.
Even though we end the story of the Maccabees with the rededication of the Temple, the story of the struggle against the Syrian-Greeks did not end there. Not by a long shot. (Just for illustrative purposes, Chanukah appears in chapter 4 of 1 Maccabees; the book has 16 chapters.) In fact, Judah Maccabee is killed in battle against the Syrian-Greeks, as is his brother Jonathan, who took over after him. It is only during the time of Simon (another brother) that the battle is truly won. Even then, it was only a matter of time before the Romans came; that battle we lost.
Nicanor Day celebrates a time when the Jews stood their ground against a force that would attack them again and again. We like to imagine quick decisive victories that happen once and last into the happily ever after, but that is not how things happen in real life. Judah Maccabee had to fight his entire life, and lose it, to keep the Temple safe and the Jews free. Each time was a struggle, less dramatic than Chanukah but no less significant. To me, this is the meaning of Nicanor Day. I believe it has particular resonance in our times, considering the reality faced by the modern state of Israel. If Chanukah is the 1948 War of Independence then Nicanor Day is either the 1967 Six Day War or the 1973 Yom Kippur War—the wars where Israel had to stand its ground or risk losing it all.
It is challenging to think of how to mark Nicanor Day, as it remains at a disadvantage, not only on years when it conflicts with Ta’anit Esther but on all years since it has no mitzvot. This is probably the main reason that, unlike Chanukah and Purim, it was lost to Jewish practice for more than a thousand years. Nevertheless, we do have its megillah, which has been translated into Hebrew and English. Perhaps, if we start reading chapters 13-15 of 2 Maccabees, even just to ourselves, on the 13 of Adar, we can begin to resurrect a holiday that was celebrated and instituted by Judah Maccabee and his followers over two millennia ago, and which they envisioned would continue throughout Jewish History. With the return of Jews to Israel and Jewish sovereignty to Jerusalem, I believe it is about time.
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March 10, 2014
January 16, 2021
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
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