The Cancellation of Megillat Ta'anit
As any cursory reading of Megillat Ta’anit shows, Jews once celebrated many more holidays than now. When this list was in force there were 35-40 “national holidays” during which it was forbidden to fast and even, on some of them, forbidden to offer eulogies during funerals.
How long these national holidays remained marked as special after the destruction of the Temple is unclear, however both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud record a debate about whether this scroll remains authoritative, with a number of rabbis claiming, “Megillat Ta’anit has been nullified (בטלה מגילת תענית).” This latter position reflects the reality of the modern Jewish calendar; these holidays are no longer celebrated or marked in any way.
Why were these holidays abandoned? The Babylonian Talmud suggests that these days may function in a similar, but reverse, way to the four fast days instituted in the wake of the First Temple’s destruction. With the rebuilding of the Second Temple, the prophet Zechariah was asked whether the people should still fast in commemoration of the destruction of the Temple. After all, it was now rebuilt. Zechariah offers a long response which ends with (Zech. 8:19):
יט כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת צוֹם הָרְבִיעִי וְצוֹם הַחֲמִישִׁי וְצוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי וְצוֹם הָעֲשִׂירִי יִהְיֶה לְבֵית יְהוּדָה לְשָׂשׂוֹן וּלְשִׂמְחָה וּלְמֹעֲדִים טוֹבִים וְהָאֱמֶת וְהַשָּׁלוֹם אֱהָבוּ.
“Thus said the Lord of Hosts: The fast of the fourth month, the fast of the fifth month, the fast of the seventh month, and the fast of the tenth month shall become occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah.”
In other words, with the rebuilding of the Temple and the reestablishment of Judah in its capital, the days of fasting and mourning became happy days. The Talmud suggests that something similar happened with the Megillat Ta’anit holidays. What were once happy days are now sad.How can Jews celebrate national holidays after the nation has been crushed and exiled?
Purim and Chanukah: The Two Holidays that Survived
Although the Megillat Ta’anit holidays were cancelled, two of them remained on the calendar to this day: Purim and Chanukah. Why did these holidays remain while the others vanished? It is possible to claim that this was due to their importance, but this is tautological. In dealing with the question (about Chanukah), the Talmud (b. Rosh Hashanah 18b) writes:
מתיב רב כהנא: מעשה וגזרו תענית בחנוכה בלוד, וירד רבי אליעזר ורחץ, ורבי יהושע וסיפר. ואמרו להם: צאו והתענו על מה שהתעניתם! – אמר רב יוסף: שאני חנוכה דאיכא מצוה. – אמר ליה אביי: ותיבטיל איהי, ותיבטל מצותה! אלא אמר רב יוסף: שאני חנוכה דמיפרסם ניסא.
Rav Kahana brought an opposing account: It happened in Lod that they declared a fast on Chanukah. Rabbi Eliezer bathed and Rabbi Yehoshua got his hair cut. They (=Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua) said to them (=the people of Lod): “Go and fast over the fact that you fasted!” Rav Yosef said: “Chanukah is different since it has a mitzvah [to perform].” Abaye said to him: “So let it be cancelled and its mitzvah along with it!” Rather, Rabbi Yosef said: “Chanukah is different since its miracle is so prominent.”
The Talmud prefers the second answer, but the first answer offers an important insight. Judaism is a very practice focused religion. Most of the holidays in Megillat Ta’anit are not associated with any particular practice or behavior other than not fasting and not eulogizing. Chanukah, however, has candle lighting. Purim also has mitzvot: the giving of charity (matanot la-evyonim), gifts to friends (mishloach manot), the festive meal and drinking, and the reading of Megillat Esther. It may very well be that these practices kept the holidays alive among the people after all the other ones were abandoned or forgotten.
The truth in Rav Yosef’s second answer is apparent today in how the Chanukah story has become a strong part of Jewish consciousness. Heroes like Mattathias and Judah Maccabee are iconic figures. The story of how the few defeated the many, and even the (later) story of the oil lasting eight days, have become core elements in our heritage. This goes double for Purim, probably because the Purim story comes with its own biblical book. (Hanukkah has the first book of Maccabees, which was originally in Hebrew, but that book deals with many other things and was never canonized among Rabbinic Jews—the rabbis were deeply ambivalent at best about the Hasmoneans.) Every year the story is read in public, children learn it in school, and it is reenacted in plays and masquerades. A holiday with that kind of backing doesn’t disappear quickly or easily.
Whether the return of Jewish sovereignty to the land of Israel should affect the status of the now defunct Megillat Ta’anit holidays is an interesting question, one that I hope will be discussed more over the coming years.
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March 2, 2014
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Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the Senior Editor of TheTorah.com, and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures and Hebrew Bible, an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period), as well as 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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