A 14th-Century Jewish Community Viewed Itself as Having Relived the Book of Esther

As the story of a diasporic Jewry threatened by anti-Semitic politicians, who must save themselves without prophetic guidance or explicit miracles, the book of Esther reflected the experience of Jews living in exile in a way no other biblical book could. Hence the proliferation of “Second Purims” or “Minor Purims,” local holidays commemorating particular communities’ rescue from an external threat, modeld after the holiday that begins this evening. Chaya Sara Oppenheim describes one such Second Purim, and the handwritten scroll associated with it:

Megillat Saragossa, [i.e., the scroll of Saragossa], relates the plight of medieval Jews narrowly avoiding the wrath of their Gentile ruler (and a malicious tattletale) with the help of Elijah the prophet and a pious beadle. The Jews of Saragossa recorded the story to celebrate their narrow escape centuries ago, and their descendants annually return to the scroll to commemorate a Second Purim.

The concept of a Second Purim—invoked quite commonly among medieval Jewish congregations throughout Europe and North Africa—baffled me. I could not understand how a single city felt confident enough to inaugurate its own local Jewish holiday. To form a consensus of this kind, people must be strongly united. It’s hard to imagine any Jewish community today mustering up the pluck to pen a 21st-century Purim tale.

While certain clues about the historical tale can be found in the text, debate surrounds the exact date and location of the Purim of Saragossa. For instance, scholars argue whether the miraculous salvation occurred in 1380, under the reign of Peter IV of Aragon, or 1420, when Alfonso V of Aragon ruled. (The king’s personal name is never mentioned in Megillat Saragossa.) The place is referred to in the text only as Saragossa; some maintain this refers to the city of Saragossa in Spain, also known today as Zaragoza, while others say the story took place in Syracuse in Sicily, in part due to its phonetic similarity. Despite the doubt surrounding the details, the acceptance of the story is certain: as the progeny of the Saragossa Purim traveled, their celebration was adopted by many communities along the Mediterranean.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Esther, Jewish history, Purim


Israel Can’t Stake Its Fate on “Ironclad” Promises from Allies

Israeli tanks reportedly reached the center of the Gazan city of Rafah yesterday, suggesting that the campaign there is progressing swiftly. And despite repeatedly warning Jerusalem not to undertake an operation in Rafah, Washington has not indicated any displeasure, nor is it following through on its threat to withhold arms. Even after an IDF airstrike led to the deaths of Gazan civilians on Sunday night, the White House refrained from outright condemnation.

What caused this apparent American change of heart is unclear. But the temporary suspension of arms shipments, the threat of a complete embargo if Israel continued the war, and comments like the president’s assertion in February that the Israeli military response has been “over the top” all call into question the reliability of Joe Biden’s earlier promises of an “ironclad” commitment to Israel’s security. Douglas Feith and Ze’ev Jabotinsky write:

There’s a lesson here: the promises of foreign officials are never entirely trustworthy. Moreover, those officials cannot always be counted on to protect even their own country’s interests, let alone those of others.

Israelis, like Americans, often have excessive faith in the trustworthiness of promises from abroad. This applies to arms-control and peacekeeping arrangements, diplomatic accords, mutual-defense agreements, and membership in multilateral organizations. There can be value in such things—and countries do have interests in their reputations for reliability—but one should be realistic. Commitments from foreign powers are never “ironclad.”

Israel should, of course, maintain and cultivate connections with the United States and other powers. But Zionism is, in essence, about the Jewish people taking responsibility for their own fate.

Read more at JNS

More about: Israeli Security, Joseph Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship