My grandfather Shlomo Harari, RIP, used to say that Purim and Kippurim are the same holiday, because both are "pretend holidays": in Purim the Jews pretend to be Goyim (gentiles), and in Kippurim the "Goyim" pretend to be good Jews.
Little did he know, the link between Purim and Kippurim goes way beyond jokes. In fact, it goes thousands of years into the past. In this short series of articles, we will see that these two holidays share deep roots, beliefs, myths and even historical events in the ancient near east. Moreover, Hanukkah, Passover and the Mimuna spring from the same roots, as do New Year events in Islam, New Season holidays in Christianity and other holidays in other cultures. And it's all about New Year's.
Masechet Rosh Hashana says there are four New Years and four judgment days. The names of the Jewish (i.e. Babylonian) months also indicate at least two beginning points: Tishrei (Akkadian Tishritu) means "a beginning", while Marheshvan originates in Akkadian Waraḥ-Shamnu – the eighth month (w-m changes are routine in word-borrowings in the ancient near east, as both are labial – pronounced using the lips) – i.e. a count that begins in the ancient New Year in the month of Nissan.
As a matter of fact, the Tishrei New Year is just as ancient. The vernal (spring) equinox – Nissan – is a symbolic New Year. Nature wakes up, the trees begin to bloom, the days become longer than the nights, the weather is already/still pleasant. It's the national New Near for the Israelites, because in Passover we became a nation. The Mishna tells us it's the New Year for kings: We cannot begin the count of each king's years from the day of coronation, because each king will have a different new year, after several years we won't remember the exact date, and chaos is soon to follow. The solution is that regardless of the coronation date, the king's next year begins in Nissan. Even if he was crowned in Adar. But an agricultural new year in Nissan would be useless, because it would mean that in a Sabbath year, first we won't be allowed to reap what we've sown in the autumn, and then it would be prohibited to sew for next year. The natural and agricultural New Year begins in the autumn, that is, in Tishrei. Two of the judgement days mentioned in the Mishna are in Tishrei: Rosh Hashana is the personal judgement day, and Sukkot is the first judgement day for nature: Will there be enough rain? The other natural judgement days are the other pilgrimage festivals – Passover in Nissan – Will there be enough wheat? And Shavuot in Sivan: Will there be enough fruit?
The New Year has always been a source of excitement as well as fear. In our times it's mostly excitement (or depression), summing-up, intospection and New Year resolutions, but some of us remember the slightly superstitious fear before 5784, Hebrew תשמ"ד which spelled "will be destroyed") and before December 21st 2012 because of the Aztec prophecy, as well as the allegedly rational fear before the year 2000. In the ancient world the new year was also a mix of fear and excitement. Fortunes are about to be decided; the individual, the community and sometimes the whole world – is in danger. This is why we Jews do things we don't normally do throughout the month of Elul and to a greater extent on the first ten days of the year, culminating in Yom Kippur: getting up before dawn for Slichot during these forty days, and fasting on Yom Kippur, when the usual Jewish holiday is about "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!".
Let's take a closer look at the last statement. Does this description fit all the holidays? Not really. Sukkot, Shavuot and Tu Bishvat are about eating, but without the hating, though we did see the Mishna regards Sukkot and Shavuot as judgement days (and Tu Bishvat as a New Year). The "they tried to kill us we won" holidays are conveniently located around solstices and equinoxes: The solar, or lunisolar New Year usually begins with a new season: around the spring or autumn equinox (March and September 21st, give or take a day), or around a solstice (December or June 22nd±1 – winter or summer depends on hemisphere). In simpler words – Sun years (whether their months are based on the moon, like the Jewish year, or arbitrary like the Gregorian calendar) usually begin around the longest day or night of the year, or around the time when day and night are equal.
The Midrash tells us that Hanukkah was actually created on the first Kislev of existence, when Adam saw the days are getting shorter and shorter, and feared the world would come to an end (the world is in danger!). He fasted for 8 days (which is something he didn't normally do), and the days began to get longer: the world was saved! The Maccabis chose Kislev 25th because that was the day the Greeks desecrated the temple, and the Greeks chose that day probably because it is connected to the rebirth of the Sun and a time of light holidays all around the globe (the story of the little pot of oil, by the way, is first documented some 200 years after the events and is not flawless). In the Maccabis' story too, the Jews are in danger – spiritual danger – and there had to be a great massacre in order to save the day. If an 8 day holiday of light starting on the 25th of the month sounds familiar, it is because this was also the birth date of the Sun god in pagan Europe, and when the emperor Constantine wanted to make Christianity more appealing, he identified Jesus with the Sun God (and gave him a halo, later copied unto other saints).
Want to read more? crowdfund the English (and Persian) version of The Book of Esther, Unmasked. This article is based on parts of chapter 9 of The Book of Esther, Unmasked. Want to hear more? Invite me to a well-paid lecture. During the crowdfunding campaign – that is, until October 16th, there are serious discounts on lectures as well, so you may want to take advantage of that.
Next time: All Holidays are High! On the "they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat" paradigm of Jewish holidays. (will be linked when published)
Before you ask: This article series is licensed cc-by-sa. You may quote or republish it without explicit permission, as long as you give the following credit to the writer, Thamar E. Gindin (including links) + a link to the original article, and allow others to do the same.
Thamar E. Gindin is a faculty member in Shalem College in Jerusalem, researcher at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf center in Haifa University, lecturer and author of The Good, the Bad and the World, a Journey to Pre-Islamic Iran (Hebrew) and The Book of Esther, Unmasked (Hebrew, English and Persian). This article is based on the 9th chapter of The Book of Esther, Unmasked.