The Mishna begins: The scroll (i.e., the Book of Esther) is read on Adar 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15 – not before and not after. Purim itself falls on 14 Adar, and one of the observances of Purim is the reading of the Megillah, the Book of Esther. However, depending on the circumstances, the reading of the Megillah may occur on a date other than the 14th.
The Mishna then explains how each number can arise: In cities that have been walled since the days of Joshua bin Nun, they read on the 15th. Villages and large towns read on the 14th, but villages may read on the preceding market day. Market days were Mondays and Thursdays, and holding the reading on these days would allow farmers to hear it. The Mishna then proceeds to work out each case, which I’ll elide here.
The Gemara then starts its analysis of the Mishna with this question: From where do we learn this? And immediately the premise of the question is challenged: “From where do we learn this?” (Do you get the tone of voice? It’s simply repeating the question with that inflection of “How can you even think to ask such a thing?”) Later, we’re going to read: “The sages ruled leniently for the villages….” That is, the Gemara makes a forward reference to page 19a, saying that there’s an explanation there, so why ask the question now?
The Gemara clarifies its question: Where are they hinted at? That is, where can we find a Scriptural verse that would allude to this practice of having multiple dates on which the Megillah can be read? Rabbi Shaman bar Abba answered, citing Rabbi Yochanan, “To confirm these days of Purim in their times” (Esth. 9:31) — the use of the plural “times” instead of the singular “time” is the justification.
Another answer: Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani said, “As the days when the Jews rested from [their enemies].” (Esth. 9:22) Had the verse merely said “the days,” then that would have been the 14th and 15th, because the battle took place on the 13th and, in the walled city of Shushan, on the 14th as well. But the verse says “As the days…” which is interpreted to include another two days. Since the 13th was already a day of assembly, since that was the day that the Jews assembled to defend themselves, it is already implicitly included, so the two extra days must be the 11th and 12th.
So now we have two answers, and the Gemara wants to know why each rabbi didn’t simply adopt the other one’s answer, which would be simpler for us! Why didn’t Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani answer “times”? Because he doesn’t distinguish among inflected forms of “time”. Why didn’t Rabbi Shaman bar Abba not answer “As the days”? Because that might not apply in all generations. That is, one might interpret it to have narrow scope to the actual year in which the narrative occurred.
The Gemara now turns its attention to the practice after the Temple was destroyed. Its analysis will turn on who the anonymous author of our Mishna is.
First, it suggests (although this will later be refuted): Rabbah bar bar Chanah cited Rabbi Yochanan: The anonymous author must be Rabbi Akiva, who does distinguish inflected forms of the word “time”. The sages would rule that the Megillah is only read on its day and not moved back to the preceding market day.
However, Rabbi Yehudah said that this only applies when the calendar is properly determined by the Sanhedrin and Israel is established on its land. Nowadays, since the calendar is computed, the Megillah is only read on its day. (I suppose – and this is Andrew talking – that this makes sense if the motivation for allowing the reading to shift days is agricultural in origin, and the point that is being made is that we are now in exile and detached from the land.)
Now the Gemara is ready to spring its trap: Rabbi Akiva holds that the shifting of days applies even in exile, so Rabbi Yehudah can’t be agreeing with him. So Rabbi Yehudah must be agreeing with the sages. But Rabbi Yehudah’s ruling only makes sense if one accepts that the day of reading gets pushed back to the market day, and Rabbi Yochanan just said that the sages never moved the reading day. Someone has to be incorrect here, and the Gemara rules: This refutes Rabbi Yochanan, and he is refuted!
Rav Ashi noted that Rabbi Yehudah contradicted himself.
Above, on page 2a, in a section that I elided, Rabbi Yehudah said that today people depend on the date of the Megillah reading to compute when Passover will fall. When the calendar was determined by the Sanhedrin, those living too far from Jerusalem might not get word of when the new month began until it was too late. So they depended on counting 30 days from Purim to know when to celebrate Passover. Therefore, ruled Rabbi Yehudah, the Megillah is not read except at its proper time.
But in our next mishnah, page 5a, we will read that Rabbi Yehudah said: In a place where they assemble on Mondays and Thursdays they may move the date of the Megillah reading, but where they do not assemble on Mondays and Thursdays, the Megillah is not read except at its proper time.
And so Rav Ashi corrects the baraita – the non-mishnaic passage from page 2a – to attribute it to Rabbi Yose bar Yehdah instead of Rabbi Yehudah, because he had heard the baraita cited both in the name of Rabbi Yehudah and in the name of Rabbi Yose bar Yehudah, and he derived from the contradiction that the latter citation is correct..
(Andrew commenting here — This is one of the things about the Talmud that I love. The editors of the Talmud are fairly certain at this point that the latter citation is correct, yet they include the probably erroneous citation first. Why? Is it because even mistaken variants retain sanctity? Because we’re not 100% sure and this way they’ve preserved the other reading, in case it’s the right one? Because if they’d simply used the more-likely-correct version then they wouldn’t have been able to record the reason that the other one is probably wrong, and they were afraid that the alternate version would survive without the additional “evidence,” if you will, from Rav Ashi? My guess it’s a combination of all of those reasons.)
This concludes the Gemara’s discussion of the first section of our Mishna, where the range of dates is established. Coming up next, the Gemara will start analyzing the second section of our Mishna, the distinction between walled and unwalled cities.
The Mishna continued: Cities that were walled at the time of Joshua read on the 15th. Remember, the Gemara questions everything: Why is the law this way? How do we know that? What is the precise definition of that term? And that’s what this next page is about.
Where do we learn these things? The megillah never talks about Purim being celebrated on the 15th. Rava cites: “Because of this, the Jews in unwalled cities….” (celebrate Purim on the 14th). Here’s a beautiful case of “the exception prov[id]es the rule” — if the megillah troubled to specify that in unwalled cities it’s the 14th, then in walled cities it must be something else, viz. the 15th.
Ah, I hear you cry, I can accept that the specificity of “unwalled” implies that in walled cities they do not celebrate Purim on the 14th, but why should that imply the 15th instead? One could say that residents of walled cities simply don’t celebrate Purim at all!
The Gemara is shocked at your thoughtlessness. And are they not Jews?
I’ll elide another bit here, in which the Gemara considers and rejects other possibilities involving the citizens of walled cities celebrating both the 14th and 15th, or take their pick of which day to celebrate, or push it back to the 13th. The conclusion is: As in Shushan, the capital city in which there was an extra day of fighting, the celebration of Purim is deferred a day to the 15th.
A new question: The Gemara now pays closer attention to the verse from Esther. We find the activities of Purim — feasting, sending gifts of food to friends, and giving money for purchasing food to the poor — in that verse. So surely those are performed on the 14th or 15th. But the commemoration by reading the megillah: from where do we learn that?
The answer: Later in that chapter of Esther, it says: “And these days shall be commemorated and acted upon,” which links the two verbs and allows us to derive the laws of one from the other.
So we’ve settled the question of dates (at least for now). Let’s talk about walls.
Our mishna is not like the following baraita: Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says that cities that were walled in the days of Achashverosh – i.e., during the time of the Purim narrative – read on the 15th, yet our Mishna said that the criterion was whether they were walled in the days of Joshua.
What is Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha’s reasoning? By comparison to Shushan….
And what is the Mishna’s reasoning? By comparing two places where the word “unwalled” appears. We compare “unwalled” here in Esther with Deuteronomy 3:5, which specifies the law of unwalled cities when the Jews enter the Land of Israel. There is some dispute among the commentators as to whether or not this is an example of the talmudic exegetical device known as gezerah shava in which the same word, used in two different places, provides a legal link. Rashi claims that it is, but Ritva claims that a gezerah shava can only link two verses in the Torah, and Esther is “merely” a Writing.
The Gemara finds one difficulty with the Mishna’s position: But Shushan: which category does it act like? It’s not like those without a wall and it’s not like those with a wall! It was not walled at the time of Joshua, yet its residents celebrate Purim on the 15th! Rava said (and some say it was Kedi who said): Shushan is unique, because the miracle occurred there.
A detail remains. The section of Esther that discusses the establishment of Purim specifies that the decree went out to “…land and land, city and city.” Why are both of these words repeated?
According to the author of the Mishna, who holds by the time of Joshua, “land and land” differentiates between areas that were walled and areas that were not walled, while “city and city” differentiates between Shushan and all other cities. (Don’t get too comfortable with this explanation; there will be an objection to it in a moment.)
According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah, who holds by the time of Achashverosh, “land and land” is clear, but what does “city and city” teach us? Shushan is not exceptional by his reasoning, so there’s an extra word.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah would say to you: Even the Mishna’s explanation doesn’t work! The Tanna who taught the Mishna has already derived the differentiation between walled and unwalled areas from the verse in Deuteronomy, and so by his reasoning “land and land” would have to teach us something new!
So both approaches leave us with an extra word.
And it is for the teaching of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that this word comes, for Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: not only a walled area, but also all that is near to it, and also all that can be seen along with it, counts as a walled area. Suburbia is not a new concept; there were always those who lived near to a walled area who would retreat within its walls in times of danger. The extra word teaches us to include them in the population of the walled area.
Up to how far? So the Gemara has accepted the premise and wants to determine the exact legal boundary. Rabbi Yirmiyah said (other say it was Rabbi Chiya bar Abba): like the distance from Chamsan to Tiberias — one mil
OK, so that’s a ruling, but again we’re faced with extra words. Why not say “one mil“? What’s with the geography lesson? That is to teach us the length of a mil: it is the distance from Chamsan to Tiberias. After all, there might come a time when people forget how long a mil is; but by defining it in terms of long-established towns, the Gemara ensures they can always reconstruct it.
You do know how long a mil is, right? :-)
(It’s 2,000 cubits, which works out to about 3/5 of a mile.)