Should Prague Read Megillah Twice?

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

15 Adar: R. Eleazar Fleckeles on Whether Prague Should Read Megillah Twice

[Click here for the audio version].

The standard for celebrating Shushan Purim, observing Purim on the fifteenth of Adar rather than the fourteenth, is that the city had a wall during Yehoshu’a’s conquest of Israel. Until I encountered Shu”t Teshuva me-Ahavah 1;210, dated 15 Adar 5565 (1805), I thought that was a possibility in the original Shushan and some cities in Israel (most prominently, Jerusalem).

The Age of Prague and Its Wall

R. Eleazar Fleckeles starts with the news that his fathers and teachers in Prague had the practice of reading the Megillah (and fulfilling the other obligations of Purim) on both the fourteenth (with a beracha) and the fifteenth, without (his main teacher was R. Yechezkel Landau, the Noda Bi-Yehudah, although R. Fleckeles does not name him as one of the “fathers and teachers” who adopted this custom). They would give gifts to the poor, send food to fellow Jews, and have a festive meal.

That’s because they thought there was a possibility that Prague had a wall that went back to the time of Yehoshu’a. [Wikipedia thinks that Prague was settled long before Yehoshu’a, but only mentions a fortified settlement around the 9th Century CE.] R. Fleckeles himself acted this way from his youth, but noted that most of the Jews in town, including ones who cared deeply about proper observance, did not.  This responsum is his analysis of whether keeping both days was required, a proper stringency for the particularly punctilious, or unnecessary.

When the History Is In Doubt

The issue itself has a bit of a history. Beit Yosef to Orach Chayyim 5688 quotes Mahari Abohav, who was bothered by a custom to read Megillah twice in any city with a wall. Rambam mentioned such a practice, but Mahari Abohav limited that to where there was an assertion that the wall goes back to Yehoshu’a. Without such a claim, there would not be any halachic doubt that the fifteenth might have Purim status.

He parallels it to Rambam’s Laws of Sacrifices to Atone for Unwitting Sins 8;2, which discusses an asham talui, a sacrifice offered where a Jew does not know whether he unwittingly violated a serious sin. A classic example is where a Jew ate one of two pieces of fat, and now does not know if s/he ate the cheilev, fat which incurs the punishment of karet if eaten deliberately, or the permissible shuman. For such cases, where the Jew does not know if s/he sinned, and the sin would have been unwitting if committed, the Torah prescribes an asham talui.  

That sacrifice can only come into play once we have established the presence of prohibited materials. If a Jew ate a piece of fat and then worries it might have been cheilev, no asham talui can be offered, because s/he has no knowledge a prohibited item was there.

R. Abohav says that’s true for cities with walls as well, that without some meaningful question as to the age of its wall, some reason to believe the wall extended back to the time of Yehoshu’a (such as a group who claimed to know it did), keeping the fifteenth as Purim was a non-starter.

What Counts as Possible Fact

Beit Yosef questioned R. Abohav’s conclusion for a few reasons, of which R. Fleckeles focuses on the fact that a vague idea like a claim about a wall does not suffice to obligate an asham talui; we need instead the well-established presence of prohibited material. If the rules for Shushan Purim are based on asham talui, no situation should fit Rambam’s idea of reading on both the fourteenth and fifteenth—either we would have testimony that a city had a wall going back that far or we wouldn’t. But if we wouldn’t, like in asham talui, there would be no issue.

R. Fleckeles in turn questioned Beit Yosef. In Laws of Sacrifices to Atone for Unwitting Sins 8;3, Rambam did obligate an asham talui where one witness told a Jew s/he had eaten cheilev and another witness said the Jew ate shuman (permitted fat). To R. Fleckeles, that’s the same as where one group asserts a tradition this city’s wall went back to Yehoshu’a.

[He seems to understand Rambam to hold that one witness was enough to make us certain that prohibited material had been presentThat does not seem to me the easiest way to read that passage, but we’re here to learn from R. Fleckeles. If one witness creates ikba issura, presence of prohibited items, then a group with a tradition about a city’s wall could be enough for a doubt about Purim].

He is so certain one group’s tradition creates a possible fact that he continues to parallel Shushan Purim to asham talui. Ran quotes Geonim who thought two days of Purim was a stringency, a middat chasidut, , and included in that the case of Hutzal, a city in Israel which had a conflicted tradition about whether its wall was old enough (exactly our case).

R. Fleckeles concludes that those Geonim must have agreed with Ra’avad, that if witnesses contradict each other, with one on either side of the claim about what kind of fat the Jew ate, that’s not ikba issura, an established fact that prohibited items were present, so it’s only a stringency to keep two days of Purim. For Rambam, the one witness who claims it was cheilev (or that this city had a wall in the time of Yehoshu’a) is enough for ikba issura, so reading on two days is necessary.

Standard Halachic Doubt

Another way to read the debate between Rambam and the Geonim has to do with how we view Purim, a holiday created by Esther and the sages of her time in the book that bears her name. Perhaps the Geonim viewed the institution as Rabbinic, because it was created by authorized Torah scholars. We rule leniently in cases of doubt of Rabbinic matters, so there’s no reason to keep a second day of Purim. Unless one wishes to be supererogatorily stringent.

In this reading, Rambam instead focused on Purim’s status as divrei kabbalah, a practice set up in a book of Tanach, written with a certain level of Divine inspiration, with the support of literal prophets. The Divine element in divrei kabbalah means that we treat doubtful issues stringently.

Prague’s Further Weaknesses as a Candidate for Shushan Purim

There are more reasons to think Prague need not keep two days of Purim. First, one of its walls is the sea, and Megillah 5n leaves unresolved the question of whether the sea can count as a wall. The sea wall does protect the city, but it does not enclose it.

Another problem is that Rashi and others held that Shushan Purim is only possible within Israel, in line with Chazal’s choice to time the qualifying factor to the days of Yehoshu’a as a way to remind us of the centrality of Israel to the Jewish people. (That also answers a question posed by Orchot Chayyim, why Chaza”l didn’t require these walls to go back to the time of Moshe and Aharon—Yehoshu’a reminds us about the conquest of Israel).

Common practice follows Rambam and Ramban, that walled cities outside of Israel do keep Shushan Purim if they qualify. However, Levush (a student of Rema) limited that to more southerly cities. Northern cities were clearly settled later, he said, such that none of them would possibly keep a second day of Purim. Levush knew of Prague (R. Fleckeles had heard that Levush lived there for two years; the Bar-Ilan biography says R. Mordechai Yoffe, author of Levush, was in fact a rabbi of Prague), so his blanket statement about cities of the north seems again to take Prague out of the running for Shushan Purim observance.

Against the Grain of Tradition

All these doubts lead R. Fleckeles to believe that there is no middat chasidut, worthy stringency, for people of Prague to keep Shushan Purim. On the other hand, he recoils from treating leniently that which his forefathers did. Radvaz had written that Cairo, too, had no halachic reason to read on the fifteenth. He had added, however, that since the reading is without a berachah, there’s no halachic cost, and what’s bad about remembering Hashem’s saving the Jewish people?

That reasoning applies to Prague, and therefore fit the Talmudic tradition that some unnecessary practices nonetheless have mitzvah value (there are cases, as Ran points out, where halachah disapproves of taking on the unnecessary, so the Gemara will tell us when it’s reasonable or worthy to be stringent where not required.) Reading Megillah is such an example, where those who do not read on the fifteenth are doing nothing wrong, even as those who do are being worthily careful in their observance.

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