Shushan Purim: Why do some Jews celebrate Purim a day later from the rest of us?
Updated: Feb 26
The Debate of the Dates
Purim is a joyful holiday filled with lots of cheer and fun, interestingly enough, it is also very time specific. One of the unique attributes of the holiday relates to the various times and places in which it is celebrated. It is the only Jewish holiday that its date is determined by whether or not a person lives in a city surrounded by a wall, which is a funny and peculiar thought. Here is an excerpt from Megillah Esther as to why that is:
“But the Jews in Shushan mustered on both the 13th and 14th days and so rested on the 15th and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking. That is why village Jews who live in unwalled towns observe the 14th day of the month Adar and make it a day merrymaking and feasting and as a holiday and an occasion for sending gifts to one another.” -Esther 9:18-9
Megillah Esther describes how on the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar, the Jewish people congregated in their cities throughout the Persian Empire and fought against their enemies. Queen Esther then made a request that the Jews of the capital city of Shushan be given an extra day to continue battling, which occured on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Adar.
While throughout the Persian Empire the Jews designated the fourteenth of Adar as a day of celebration, in Shushan, they celebrated on the fifteenth of Adar, commemorating the day on which they rested.
The sages considered making Shushan Purim contingent on whether a city was walled from the time of Ahasuerus, ultimately they did not wish to honor a Persian city over one in the Land of Israel, as Israel was in ruins at the time of the Purim miracle.
Leap Year Creativity
Not only do we need to know whether or not we are celebrating Purim in a walled city, we also need to know whether or not we are experiencing a leap year according to the Hebrew calendar. The Jewish calendar, unlike the Gregorian calendar, follows the lunar cycle rather than the solar cycle. In a 12-month year, the solar calendar has 365 and one-half days, while the lunar calendar has 354 and one-third days, which is more than 11 days shorter.
The major dilemma about this inconsistency is that the holidays are bound to their corresponding seasons. According to biblical law, “Passover must occur in spring, Shavuot in summer, and Sukkot in fall.” The 11-day difference, if not accounted for, would cause these holidays to fall 11 days earlier each preceding year. Eventually, they would occur in the opposite season.
To ensure that the holidays remain in their designated seasons, the Jewish calendar was adjusted to accommodate the 11-day difference between the lunar and solar years. In the 4th century C.E., Hillel II mandated an extra month at the end of the biblical year, as necessary. The Hebrew year begins in spring with Nissan and ends with Adar. Hillel II together with the Sanhedrin aka the Jewish supreme court, chose to repeat the month of Adar (Adar I and Adar II) every 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th, and 19th year over a 19-year period.
This meticulous method accounts for the 207-day discrepancy that adds up between the lunar and solar calendar every 19 years. In seven out of every 19 years, a “leap month” of Adar II is included in the Jewish calendar.
When a leap year occurs, Purim is celebrated in Adar II. Because both Purim and Passover recount a redemption of the Jewish people, the Talmud sees the seasonal bond between the two holidays and notes that it must be retained. Therefore, the tradition concludes that Adar II is the “main” Adar, wherein we observe yahrzeits and celebrate bar and bat mitzvahs. However, many of the observances associated with the traditional joy of Adar are practiced in Adar I as well, to uphold the Rabbinic concept that prohibits “postponing fulfillment of precepts.” There is even a Purim Katan (“little Purim”) observed on the 14th and 15th of Adar I, making these on which things deemed as mournful, such as fasting and eulogizing, are prohibited.