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Megillat Ta’anit: An Ancient List of Jewish Festive Days

I am now going to discuss this first century work. My discussion will be based on an article by Vered Noam (cited below). Noam is a professor at Tel Aviv University; She published a scholarly edition of Megillat Ta’anit in 2003.

The title of this work, “Megillat Ta’anit,” does not fit the work. What we have in Megillah Ta’anit is a list of festive days: days when Jews were not allowed to fast. (On some of them, the more important ones, eulogizing was prohibited as well.) It turns out that Megillah Ta’anit was probably originally called the “Megillah.” Now, we can feel better and start our analysis.

Megillah Ta’anit is the earliest known rabbinic document to have survived. It is mentioned in the Mishna at Ta’anit 2:8. As I alluded to above, the earliest Mishna manuscripts call it “Megillah,” and not “Megillat Ta’anit.”

Megillah Ta’anit is essentially a list of 35 dates arranged in calendar order.

Noam writes: “Megillah Ta’anit does not belong to the genre of historical writing, but rather to the halakhic genre: (a) its purpose, as declared by its initial sentence, is halakhic: to prohibit fasting and eulogizing on certain dates of the year; (b) the historical events commemorated on these dates are hinted at in the Scroll only in brief, little or no relevant detail being provided; (c) events are listed in the Scroll in calendar order, rather than chronologically. Nonetheless, the Scroll reflects a paradoxical relationship between an overt halakhic aim and a covert historical goal. Whereas the historical events mentioned in the Scroll are adduced only for a halakhic purpose, the prohibition of fasting exists only in order to preserve the memory of those very same historical events!”

Here is a translation of a small selection of Megillah Ta’anit:

“These are the days on which one is not to fast and, on some of which, one is not to eulogize… On the seventh of Iyyar, the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, one is not to eulogize… On the twenty-third of it, the men of the Akra (the fortress) left Jerusalem… On the fourteenth of Sivan, Sher Tower was captured. On the fifteenth of it and on the sixteenth of it, the people of Beth Shean and the Valley went into exile. On the twenty-fifth of it, the ‘Demosnaei’ (tax collectors) left Jerusalem. On the fourth of Tammuz, the book of decrees was removed… On the second of Shevat, a festival, one is not to eulogize… On the thirteenth of it (Adar), (the day of) Nicanor…”

Megillah Ta’anit is in Aramaic. There is also an explanatory commentary in Hebrew from the Talmudic period that was added later. This later commentary is known as the Scholion. Its intention is to identify and elaborate on the events in the Scroll. (In traditional Jewish learning, the Mishna is the early work, and the Talmud, in Aramaic, is the later work. But in the “Bizarro World” of Megillah Ta’anit, the situation is reversed: we have a later Hebrew commentary on an earlier Aramaic work!)

Noam writes: “The various events are referred to in the Scroll by means of mere hints, characterized by extreme brevity. The time, circumstances and protagonists of these events are not explicit, and consequently many of them have remained obscure… Among those identifiable with certainty, nine relate to the Hasmonean era down to the times of Alexander Yannai, and another four or five with probability (relate to this era). Only a few events precede the Maccabean insurrection, while a very few belong to the Roman period. Almost half of the events cannot be identified with any degree of certainty.”

Events that are fairly clear include: 1) the victory by Judah over the Syrian general Nicanor in 161 BCE (13 Adar), 2) Antiochus’ departure from Jerusalem (28 Shevat), 3) the capture of the Jerusalem Akra in 141 BCE (23 Iyyar, see I Maccabees, chapter 13), 4) the destruction of the Gerizim Temple in the days of John Hyrcanus (21 Kislev), and 5) the capture of “Sher Tower” (Straton’s Tower-Caesarea) in the days of Yannai (14 Sivan). (As to item 2, scholars argue whether the reference is to Epiphanes or to his son, Eupator.) It is possible that one of three dates relating to the construction of the Jerusalem wall (7 Iyyar, 4 Elul or 16 Adar) is early and refers to the time of Nechemiah.

Noam summarizes: “Megillah Ta’anit fixes for commemorative purposes a long series of Hasmonean victories, together with several early dates and a few isolated later ones. The later events are from the seven decades between the death of Herod and the destruction of the Temple. Two dates may be cautiously interpreted as relating to events from the second century CE and if so, may have been added at a later stage. It would seem that many of the semi-festive dates listed in Megillah Ta’anit were already well-established when the Scroll was redacted… The opinion held by many that the compiler combined well-known ancient dates with later ones fixed by him and his ‘faction,’ therefore seems reasonable. One cannot be sure whether he was responsible for the precise halakhic wording whereby it was ‘decreed’ forbidden to eulogize or to fast, thus transforming a mere anthology of historical events from popular tradition into a halakhic document…”

She concludes that Megillat Ta’anit was compiled in the three decades prior to the Churban. A Baraita at Shabbos 13b attributes Megillah Ta’anit to Chananiah ben Chizkiah ben Garon and his group. He lived around this time.

Noam also concludes that the standard printed version of the Scholion was “a late medieval composition which combined and mixed two separate and, on occasion, mutually contradictory commentaries.” The two Scholions sometimes provide completely different reasons for the same festive day! As to the value of the Scholions, some material of importance is included but much is of little value. She also concludes that when the Babylonian Talmud uses a Scholion, it is using a different Scholion! The two Scholions and the one used in the Talmud are probably “only three coincidental representatives out of a larger group of aggadic anthologies that were appended to Megillah Ta’anit during the Talmudic period.”

Eleven of the holidays are mentioned in the Bavli, and seven are mentioned in the Yerushalmi. But the Yerushalmi never uses any Scholion. During the Talmudic period, the halachic validity of Megillah Ta’anit was open to debate. Finally, it was decided in the post-Amoraic period to invalidate it entirely (except for Chanukah and Purim, which were also included in Megillah Ta’anit).

The above is based on an article by Noam, “Megillat Ta’anit:The Scroll of Fasting,” in “The Literature of the Sages,” vol. 2, eds. S. Safrai, et al (2006), pages 339-362.

PS. In the cases of two dates in Megillat Ta’anit, the dates are provided without any event. These dates are the 2nd of Shevat and the 7th of Kislev. Long ago in graduate school at Revel, I wrote a term paper on this topic. This deserves a separate column.

PPS. The 13th of Adar is included in Megillah Ta’anit as a day when one is not allowed to fast, due to the victory by Judah Maccabee over the Syrian general, Nicanor, in 161 BCE. This has relevance for the origin of our Fast of Esther. I have written much about this elsewhere.

Three weeks ago, I mentioned a special bar mitzvah in our shul in 1996 involving the Ehrenberg, Lindenbaum and Lustig families. I gave the incorrect name for the Ehrenberg boy. It was Yitzi. (I had named his brother.) Yitzi lives in the Boston area and is rarely in Teaneck. But he happened to be in Teaneck when the article came out and came over to me, in person, to point out my error!


Mitchell First can be reached at: [email protected]. He is a personal injury attorney and Jewish scholar. Hopefully, these are not mutually contradictory.

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