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Eyal Ben-Eliyahu





Walled Cities “from the Time of Joshua” Celebrate Shushan Purim – Why?



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Eyal Ben-Eliyahu





Walled Cities “from the Time of Joshua” Celebrate Shushan Purim – Why?






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Walled Cities “from the Time of Joshua” Celebrate Shushan Purim – Why?

Hidden behind the strange rabbinic definition of walled cities is a polemical response to the notorious claim of Emperor Hadrian, who rebuilt Jerusalem as the pagan city Aelia Capitolina.


Walled Cities “from the Time of Joshua” Celebrate Shushan Purim – Why?

Scroll of Esther, 19th century. Jewish Historical Museum

The Two Days of Purim

Explaining the origins of the Purim festival, Esther chapter 9 describes how the Jews throughout Persia defeated their enemies on the 13th of Adar and celebrated on the 14th (v. 17). We are also told that in Shushan itself (generally identified with Susa), the war continued on the 14th and that the Jews there celebrated on the 15th (v. 18).

The next verse states:

אסתר ט:יט עַל כֵּן הַיְּהוּדִים (הפרוזים) [הַפְּרָזִים] הַיֹּשְׁבִים בְּעָרֵי הַפְּרָזוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת יוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר שִׂמְחָה וּמִשְׁתֶּה וְיוֹם טוֹב וּמִשְׁלוֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ.
Esth 9:19 That is why village Jews, who live in unwalled towns, observe the fourteenth day of the month of Adar and make it a day of merrymaking and feasting, and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another.[1]

This verse suggests that Purim is celebrated on the 14th in Jewish villages and towns. However, in the next verse (v. 20), Mordechai writes a letter to all the Jews in Persia,

אסתר ט:כא לְקַיֵּם עֲלֵיהֶם לִהְיוֹת עֹשִׂים אֵת יוֹם אַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר וְאֵת יוֹם חֲמִשָּׁה עָשָׂר בּוֹ בְּכָל שָׁנָה וְשָׁנָה. ט:כב כַּיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאוֹיְבֵיהֶם וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה וּמִשְׁלוֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיוֹנִים.
Esth 9:21 charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year, 9:22 the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and presents to the poor.

The Jews then accept Mordechai’s request (v. 23),[2] a claim that is in tension with v. 19, which says that village Jews celebrate (present tense!) Purim on the 14th. Putting aside the question of how to interpret the biblical text from a critical perspective, a number of basic interpretations have emerged among the Jews:

Karaites: Two-Day Purim—The Karaites follow Mordechai’s enactment and celebrate Purim as a two-day holiday.[3]

LXX: Villages 1 Day, Cities 2 Days—The LXX’s text for v. 19, which is longer than MT,[4] explains that while village Jews celebrate on the 14th, city Jews celebrate a two-day Purim on the 14th and 15th:

Therefore, for this reason, the Judeans who are scattered in every land outside celebrate the fourteenth day of Adar as a holiday with gladness, each sending portions to those nearby. But those living in the large cities also celebrate the fifteenth of Adar as a joyful holiday, sending portions to those nearby.[5]

Rabbinic: Village Jews 14th, City Jews 15th —In rabbinic interpretation, Purim is always a one-day holiday; villages or small towns celebrate on the 14th, whereas walled cities should celebrate on the 15th, which the rabbis call Shushan (Susa) Purim because, as noted above, the Jews of Shushan celebrated on this day.

Walled Cities from the Time of Joshua

Following the reference to פרזים (villages/unwalled towns) in verse 19, the rabbis understand that the distinction between city and village is based on whether the place is walled or not. Intuitively, it would make sense for every generation to determine whether the city in which they live is now walled, and thus fulfills this criterion. Nevertheless, the Tosefta (Megillah 1:1)[6] records two opinions that tie the distinction to a particular historical period:

כרכים המוקפין חומה מימות יהושע בן נון קורין בחמשה עשר
Cities surrounded by a wall from the time of Joshua son of Nun read [the Scroll of Esther] on the fifteenth.
ר' יהושע בן קרח' אומ' מימות אחשורוש
Joshua b. Qorha says, "[If they were surrounded by a wall] from the time of Ahasueros [they read the Scroll of Esther on the fifteenth of Adar].” (Neusner trans., with minor adjustments)[7]

Both opinions ignore the question of whether cities are walled in contemporary times. In fact, the rabbis note that whether or not a given city actually has a wall is irrelevant (b. Meg 3b):

רבי אליעזר בר יוסי אומר: אשר לוא חומה - אף על פי שאין לו עכשיו, והיה לו קודם לכן.
Eleazar son of R. Yose says: “Which has a wall” (Lev 25:30): even though it has no wall now, provided it had one previously.[8]

If halakha (Jewish law) defines whether a city is walled or not based on history, R. Joshua ben Qorha’s position seems the logical choice, since the distinction between cities and villages is modeled on the experience of Jews in Shushan versus that of other Jews during the war. Nevertheless, only the first opinion, connecting the law to the time of Joshua, is cited authoritatively in the Mishnah (Megillah 1:1) and is canonized in later rabbinic tradition.[9] But what does Joshua have to do with the realities of battle in Shushan in the time of Ahasuerus?

Respect for Israel (Yerushalmi)

One explanation, found in the Jerusalem Talmud (y Meg, Ms. Leiden 1.1; 70a), is that the decision that the time of Joshua is determinative was a way of honoring Israel:

רבי סימון בשם רבי יהושע בן לוי חלקו כבוד לארץ ישראל שהיתה חריבה באותן הימים ותלו אותה מימות יהושע בן נון
Simeon in the name of R. Joshua ben Levi: “They paid respect to the Land of Israel, which lay in ruins in those days. [Therefore, they] associated it [the law] with the time of Joshua son of Nun.” (Neusner trans., slightly revised)

In other words, no real connection exists between Joshua and Shushan Purim. Tradition simply wished to make Israelite cities and their history primary rather than Persian cities and theirs.

Gezeirah Shava (Bavli)

The Babylonian Talmud’s explanation for connecting the laws of Shushan Purim to the time of Joshua is based on a gezeirah shavah, a word analogy (b. Meg. 2b):

יליף פרזי פרזי, כתיב הכא על כן היהודים הפרזים, וכתיב התם לבד מערי הפרזי הרבה מאד, מה להלן מוקפת חומה מימות יהושע בן נון - אף כאן מוקפת חומה מימות יהושע בן נון.
[The author of the Mishnah] is drawing an analogy between [the words] פרזי (perazi) and פרזי (perazi). Here it says (Esth 9:19): “therefore the Jews of the perazim [villages/unwalled cities],” and there [in reference to Moses’ conquest of the Bashan] it says (Deut 3:5), “in addition to the very many perazi [unwalled] cities.” Just as over there it refers to [the distinction between] cities walled [and unwalled] from the time of Joshua son of Nun, so too here it refers to [the distinction between] cities walled [and unwalled] from the time of Joshua son of Nun.[10]

Both of these talmudic sources underscore the problematic nature of the connection drawn by the rabbis between walls dating from Joshua son of Nun’s day and the rules of celebrating Purim and reading the scroll of Esther.

Redeeming a Dwelling House in a Walled City

Another set of laws is connected to the question of whether a given city was walled in the time of Joshua or not. These are found in Leviticus 25, which deals with what happens when an Israelite sells his ancestral land because of debt. As one of the protective provisions, we are told that an Israelite has the right to redeem the property that he sold under duress, but this right is limited when the property is found in a city.

ויקרא כה:כט וְאִישׁ כִּי יִמְכֹּר בֵּית מוֹשַׁב עִיר חוֹמָה וְהָיְתָה גְּאֻלָּתוֹ עַד תֹּם שְׁנַת מִמְכָּרוֹ יָמִים תִּהְיֶה גְאֻלָּתוֹ. כה:ל וְאִם לֹא יִגָּאֵל עַד מְלֹאת לוֹ שָׁנָה תְמִימָה וְקָם הַבַּיִת אֲשֶׁר בָּעִיר אֲשֶׁר (לא) [לוֹ] חֹמָה לַצְּמִיתֻת לַקֹּנֶה אֹתוֹ לְדֹרֹתָיו לֹא יֵצֵא בַּיֹּבֵל.
Lev 25:29 If a man sells a dwelling house (in) a walled city, it may be redeemed until the end of a year of its sale; its redemption period shall be a year. 25:30 If it is not redeemed before the completion of one full year, the house in the walled city shall belong to its purchaser beyond reclaim throughout the ages; it shall not be released in the jubilee. (AB trans.)[11]

The law refers to houses in cities that are walled at the time of the sale and the redemption. Nevertheless, here as well the rabbis introduce the same unusual provision that the city was walled at the time of Joshua (m. Arakhin 9:6 [=Sifra Behar 4]):

ואלו הן בתי ערי חומה? שלש חצרות של שני שני בתים מוקפות חומה מימות יהושע בן נון...
“And what is the definition of a walled city?” It is a city in which are not less than three courtyards, each with two houses, surrounded by a wall from the time of Joshua son of Nun…. (Neusner trans., 3.323, slightly revised)[12]

Here again, the rabbis connect the halakha to ancient as opposed to contemporary times. In some ways, this case is even more problematic, since the law would seem to be based on economic realities of contemporaneous city versus country life. Why do the rabbis insist on using the time of Joshua as the determining factor? I suggest that in both the case of the date of Purim and of selling dwellings, the rabbis are responding to Emperor Hadrian’s attempt to redefine a number of ancient Jewish cities, including and especially Jerusalem, as Roman.[13]

Hadrian Establishes Aelia Capitolina

Emperor Hadrian (117–138 C.E.) was a great builder and renovator of cities throughout the Roman Empire.[14] Among the cities that he rebuilt was Jerusalem, which he renamed Aelia Capitolina. “Aelia” was Hadrian’s family name, and Capitolina referred to the Capitoline Triad: Jupiter, the head of the Roman pantheon, his wife and sister Juno, and his daughter Minerva. The name expressed that the new city was founded by Hadrian in honor of the deity Jupiter.

The Roman Historian Cassius Dio (ca. 155–235 C.E.) wrote that the establishment of this city was the cause of the Bar-Kokhba rebellion (Roman History, 69:12.1–2; LCL trans.):

At Jerusalem, Hadrian founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the [Jewish] god, he raised a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there.[15]

In fact, the many archaeological excavations carried out west and south of the Temple Mount Archaeology confirm that the plowing and renewal of the city took place early in Hadrian’s reign, before the Bar-Kochba rebellion.

The Rhetoric of Hadrian’s Coin

The coins that Hadrian minted also highlight his building project in Jerusalem.

A coin struck to commemorate the founding of Aelia Capitolina by Hadrian. The inscription reads: COL[ONIA] AEL[IA] KAPIT[OLINA], in exergue: COND[ITA], which translates as “The Foundation of Colonia Aelia Capitolina.”[16]

One side of the coin depicts Hadrian while the other side shows a person plowing with a bull and cow to mark the boundaries of the new colony.[17]

The Roman Pomerium and the Ritual of Plowing

According to Roman legend, the plowing and boundary-setting ritual was part of the establishment of the city of Rome in the eighth century B.C.E. and was carried out by Romulus himself, after killing his brother Remus. As the Greek historian Plutarch (46–ca. 120 C.E.) wrote in his Life of Romulus (11.1-4):

And the founder put a bronze blade on his plough, yoked up a bull and a cow, and himself drove them on, drawing a deep furrow around the boundary – while his followers had the task of pushing back inside the city all the clods of earth that the plough turned up and not letting a single one lie outside. It was with this line that they marked out the course of the wall, and it was called the pomerium, a contracted form of 'post murum', 'behind' or next to the wall. And where they intended to put in a gate, they took the ploughshare out of the ground, lifted the plough over the left space.

The plowing of a pomerium for establishing cities was not limited to Rome but was used throughout the Roman provinces. Thus, the ritual that Hadrian carried out was meant to express that just as Romulus was the one who established Rome, Hadrian was the one to establish Aelia Capitolina.

Hadrian’s Plowing of Jerusalem

The rabbis were well aware of Hadrian’s act—some of Hadrian’s coins remained intact well into the rabbinic period and are mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Bekhorot 50a). The Mishnah even lists Hadrian’s act as one of the catastrophes that happened to the Jews on the ninth of the month of Av (m. Taanit 4:6):

בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ וחרב הבית בראשונה ובשניה ונלכדה ביתר ונחרשה העיר
On the ninth of Av (1) the decree was made against our forefathers that they should not enter the land, (2) the first Temple and (3) the second [Temple] were destroyed, (4) Betar was taken, and (5) the city [Jerusalem] was ploughed. (Neusner trans., slightly revised)

I suggest that the concept of “cities that were walled from the time of Joshua son of Nun” can be seen as their adaptation of the Roman notion of a “founding father,” a strategy that represents adaptation by the governed of the system and terminology of the ruler for the purpose of contesting its actions.[18] As the Harvard University sociologist Homi K. Bhabha has noted, it is not uncommon for conquered peoples to adopt the symbols and terminology of the conqueror, in order to preserve its own identity while coming to terms with the presence and symbolic language of its rulers.[19]

Joshua as a Foil to Hadrian

Whereas for the Romans, the establishment of the pomerium marked their status as the founders of the new colony, the rabbis were aware that the Jewish entitlement to the cities in the land of Israel was vested not in their status as founders, but in the divine promise to the patriarchs, fulfilled with Joshua’s conquest of the cities in Canaan. This makes Joshua an ideal figure for them to utilize.

Joshua did not establish Jerusalem, rather, according to Joshua 10:1–27, 12:10, he defeated the king of Canaanite Jerusalem, and ostensibly reestablished the city as Israelite.[20] As the conqueror of Jerusalem, who established it as Israelite, Joshua becomes a polemical mirror-image of what Hadrian claimed on his coin.

Romulus and Jeroboam

The rabbis were acquainted with the foundation myth of Rome; this is clear, e.g., from tannaitic traditions such as Sifre Deut. (MS British Museum Add. 16406, piska 52):

ביום שנתחתן שלמה לבת פרעה ירד גבריאל נעץ קנה בים ועלה שם נעצוץ ועליו כרך גדול של רומא. ביום שהעמיד ירבעם שני עגלים עמד רומיס ורומולוס ובנו שם ציפורין.
The day Solomon intermarried with the daughter of Pharaoh, Gabriel came down and stuck a reed into the sea and there came up a na’atsuts (thorn) and on it the great city of Rome. The day Jerobeam [sic] erected two calves there stood up (sgl.) RWMYS and RWMYLWS and they built there tsiporin (huts) in Rome.

This midrash combines the establishment of Rome with Jeroboam’s rebellion against Jerusalem, which likely is meant to hint at the tension between the success of Rome (represented by Jeroboam) and the continuance of Jerusalem as a Jewish city (represented by Solomon). As I argue above, this is not only because of Rome’s having destroyed Jerusalem in 70 C.E., but because of Hadrian’s rededication of the city as Roman and founded by him.

Asserting Jerusalem and Israel’s Eternal Jewishness

The image of Joshua as the Jewish Romulus was designed to counteract Hadrian’s claim that the city was not Roman, having been plowed and rebuilt, and to reestablish in perpetuity the Jewish claim on Jerusalem and other ancient cities in Israel. As a result of this ideological move, the concept of cities from the time of Joshua entered the halakhic discourse, causing the rabbis to reimagine both the law of redeeming houses and the law of Shushan Purim, linking them inextricably to Israel’s ancient history and the conquest of the land under Joshua.


The List of Cities Established by Joshua

Mishnah Arakhin 9:6 [=Sifra Behar 4] lists cities established by Joshua:

ואלו הן בתי ערי חומה? שלש חצרות של שני שני בתים מוקפות חומה מימות יהושע בן נון כגון קצרה הישנה של ציפורים וחקרה של גוש חלב ויודפת הישנה וגמלא וגדוד וחדיד ואונו וירושלים וכן כיוצא בהן:
“And what is the definition of a walled city?” It is a city in which are not less than three courtyards, each with two houses, surrounded by a wall from the time of Joshua son of Nun. Such as the old castle of Sepphoris, the fortress of Gush Halab, old Yodpat, and Gamala [in the Golan], Gadara [in Transjordan], Hadid, Ono, and Jerusalem [in Judea]. (Neusner trans., 3.323, slightly revised)[21]

This is a strange list. Of all the cities noted in this source, only Jerusalem is mentioned in the book of Joshua.[22] Most likely, the rabbis are responding to Hadrian’s reappropriation of Jerusalem and other Jewish cities. It was in their interest to argue that these Jewish cities in the land—even those not mentioned in the Bible—were not Roman at all, regardless of what Hadrian said or did. Instead, these cities go all the way back to the time of Joshua son of Nun, the first Israelite conqueror, and their status as Jewish cannot be reversed by any Roman ritual.


March 4, 2020


Last Updated

April 4, 2024


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Prof. Eyal Ben-Eliyahu is the head of the Department of Jewish History, University of Haifa. He earned his Ph.D at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was a researcher at the Oriental Institute, Oxford University, conducted post-doctoral studies as the Harry Star Fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at Harvard University and at Tel-Aviv University, and was a fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, University of Pennsylvania. Ben-Eliyahu's fields of interest include the perceptions of geographic space, borders, holy places in Jewish consciousness in antiquity, and comparing these perceptions to those prevalent in Roman tradition and ancient Christian beliefs in the same period. He is the author of Between Borders: Jewish Consciousness in the Second Temple and Roman-Byzantine Periods (Yad Ben-Zvi, 2013); Jewish Literature from Late Antiquity (135-700 CE): A Handbook, (Oxford 2013 [with (the late) Fergus Millar and Yehudah Cohen]), and most recently, Identity and Territory: The Jewish Perceptions of Space in Late Antiquity (University of California Press, 2019). Ben-Eliyahu also founded a digital atlas focused on mapping the Jewish world in antiquity (