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The Second of Shvat: The Origin of This Festive Day Found in Megillat Taanit

Megillat Taanit is a work from the first century CE which lists festive days when Jews were not allowed to fast. On some of them—the more important ones—eulogizing was prohibited as well.

Megillat Taanit is the earliest known rabbinic document to have survived. It is mentioned in the mishna at Taanit 2:8. The earliest mishna manuscripts call it, “Megillah.” Probably, that was its original name.

Megillat Taanit lists 35 dates arranged in calendar order. Vered Noam—a scholar who extensively studied this work—has written: “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… Almost half of the events cannot be identified with any degree of certainty.”

Here is a small portion of the text of Megillat Taanit: “On the seventh of Iyyar, the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, one is not to eulogize … On the 23rd of it, the men of the Chakra left Jerusalem … On the 14th of Sivan, the Tower of Tzur was captured …”

Interestingly, there are two festive dates where no reason at all is given for the holiday: the second of Shevat (no fasting and no eulogizing) and the seventh of Kislev (no fasting). Long ago in Revel graduate school, I wrote a paper on this topic and I am going to present some of my findings here.

As further background to Megillat Taanit, aside from the brief description of the dates in Aramaic, there is also an explanatory commentary in Hebrew from the Talmudic period. This later commentary is referred to as the “scholion.” Since the material probably dates to centuries later, it is probably of not much value to understanding the origins of each holiday.

Why would the list of Megillat Taanit holidays in Aramaic not give the reason for two dates? Two explanations immediately come to mind. One is that the events were well-known in their time. The other is that the events had to be kept secret.

Given that we have little else to go on for the origin of these two days, I will discuss what is in the scholion to the second day of Shevat—as the material is interesting on its own—even if it ultimately bears no connection to the true origin of these festive days.

The story in the scholion is about Alexander Yannai who ruled from 103-76 BCE. (He was the great-grandson of Matityahu.) As further background, there are many sources that document Yannai’s cruel treatment of the Sages.

Below is a loose translation of the story told in the Hebrew scholion about the second day of Shevat. (There are textual variants so an exact translation is not that crucial.)

“When King Yannai was near death, he sent for 70 elders from the elders of Israel. He took them and bound them in prison. He told the officer in charge of the prison: ‘If I die, kill these elders. This way, instead of being happy at my death, they will be upset about their teachers.’ Yannai had a good wife and her name was ‘Salminon (Shlomtziyon).’ When he died (without telling them about his death), she sent for the officer in charge of the prison and told him that the king allowed those elders to be set free. The officer set them free and they went to their homes. Only then did she declare to everyone: ‘King Yannai died.’ The day Yannai died was declared to be a festival.” (i.e., the wicked Yannai died and the Sages were saved. This, perhaps, explains the “no eulogy” level of the day, not just a “no fasting” day.) The scholion on our holiday also explains the other vague holiday, the seventh of Kislev. It states that Herod died on this day.

How does the material in our scholion compare to what is in the much earlier source, Josephus (of the late first century CE)?

1. Josephus tells a completely different story about Yannai’s activities before he died. His wife —the future queen—asked him for advice, saying, “You know how hostile the nation feels to you.” He advised her that, “She should yield a certain amount of power to the Pharisees, for if they praised her in return for this sign of regard, they would dispose of the nation favorably toward her.” He continued that after showing them his dead body, she should “permit them—with every sign of sincerity—to treat me as they please, whether they wish to dishonor my corpse by leaving it unburied because of the many injuries they have suffered at my hands or, in their anger, wish to offer my dead body any other form of indignity. Promise them also that you will not take any action while you are on the throne, without their consent. If you speak to them in this manner, I shall receive from them a more splendid burial than I should from you; for once they have the power to do so, they will not choose to treat my corpse badly and at the same time you will reign securely … ” (See Antiquities XIII, chapter 15). (Of course, how Josephus would know any of this is a serious question!)

2. Josephus then tells us (Antiquities XIII, 16) that his wife did as Yannai said, and made the Sages her friends and that in their eulogies they said that, “In him, they had lost a just king and … they so greatly moved the people to mourn and lament that they gave him a more splendid burial than had been given any of the kings before him.”

3. Herod died—not in Kislev—but shortly before Passover. (See Josephus, Wars 2,1,3.)

4. The same story that the scholion told about Yannai is told by Josephus about Herod! At Wars 1, 32, 6-8, Josephus writes: “(Herod) summoned his sister Salome … and said: ‘I know that the Jews will celebrate my death by a festival; yet I can obtain a vicarious mourning and a magnificent funeral, if you consent to follow my instructions. You know these men here in custody; the moment I expire, have them surrounded by the soldiers and massacred; so shall all Judea and every household weep for me, whether they will or not … Before the army had learnt of his decease, Salome left the palace … and released the prisoners whom Herod had ordered to be put to death, telling them that the king had changed his mind … Not until after their departure did she and her husband announce the news … (He repeats this all in Antiquities XVII).’”

There is another famous example of rabbinic literature and Josephus telling a very similar story about these different figures. Compare Sanhedrin 19a (story about Yannai) with Antiquities 14,9,4 (similar story about Herod).

For the most recent discussion of the origin of the festive day of the second of Shevat, see Noam, Megillat Taanit, pages 280-82. One interesting idea suggested there is that the event was not specified in the original Aramaic layer out of kavod to Yannai’s wife, who had a good relationship with the Sages.

As I mentioned above, Noam wrote that “Almost half of the events cannot be identified with any degree of certainty.” See her “Megillat Taanit—The Scroll of Fasting,” in “The Literature of the Sages,” volume two, pages 339-362 (article available online). That conclusion probably applies here.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He likes to refer to the above holiday as “Two Be-Shevat.”

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