According to Josephus...

Purim traditions, from Frankfurt to Alexandria.

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February 26, 2010 17:21
purim

purim. (photo credit: purim)

The Encyclopedia Judaica lists 98 local Purim celebrations. They were held in towns where terrible threats to the Jewish population were followed by a seemingly miraculous salvation.

These towns ranged from Algiers, saved from the Spanish-Algerian wars in 1540, to Vilna in Poland (now in Lithuania), when it was saved from destruction by the Russo-Polish War in 1794. Both these towns had large Jewish populations at the time.

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One Purim has been celebrated in Prague since 1622, when the synagogue shamas was falsely convicted of stealing the synagogue curtains, which were state property. He was saved from hanging at the last moment when the curtains were found, and so it was appropriately called the vorhang (curtain) Purim. It had nearly been curtains for him!

At Hebron, celebrated from 1741, many Jews were taken into captivity by the Ottomans and put up for ransom to raise money, but the community did not have the cash to release them. Just before the time limit ran out, money was found on the windowsill of the synagogue and they were saved. It was called the takka Purim, takka being the local Arabic word for window.

In more recent times, the Purim of Casablanca has been celebrated since 1943, when the Jews were saved from a riot and from Nazi occupation, when the Allies liberated Morocco from the German army.

It was subsequently called Purim Hitler.

ONE OF the most famous Purims was that called Purim Fettmilch or Vinz, whose events happened over a period of four years in Frankfurt-am-Main in Germany, from 1612 to 1616. Frankfurt was a center of Jewish life for many years, and was the place of assembly of many rabbis who met there in 1603 to unite the Jews of southern Germany.

All the Jews of Frankfurt lived in one ghetto; it was just one long street of 193 houses, 300 meters long. Everyone had to live there, the poor and the rich, the beggars and the first Rothschilds. In 1463, 110 people lived in the Judengasse and by 1610 the number had risen to 2,200. Each day after 10 p.m. and all of Sunday, the gates were locked and the Jews forbidden to leave. At other times, when they left they had to wear the yellow patch.

In 1612, the local trade guilds, many of whose members were heavily indebted to the Jews, brought a complaint against them and the city fathers demanded that the standard rate of interest be reduced from 12 percent to 8% and that the poorer Jews be expelled. Indeed 50 of them were deported to Poland, but the reduction in interest was rejected by the burghers and even by the emperor.

Tensions increased and two years later the petty traders, joined by local ruffians, and led by Vinzenz Fettmilch, a master of one of the trade guilds, stormed the ghetto and looted the shops and houses. This went on for five hours and in that time the Jews, for their own safety, were moved out by the burghers to the cemetery and confined there. The looting continued unchecked for another 14 hours until finally the mayor brought in troops to stop the riot. By then, two Jews had lost their lives and the community as a whole had lost all their belongings.

The emperor could not ignore these disturbances and eventually had Fettmilch and four of his accomplices arrested, tried and beheaded. After some time the Jews were escorted back in triumph with fife and drum to the ghetto, on the orders of the Emperor Matthias (1612-1619) who had his coat of arms fitted to the ghetto gates as a sign of his own personal protection. The ceremony occurred just after Purim on 20 Adar 5376 (1616), which date was then celebrated as the Purim of Fettmilch and Vinz.



NOW WE jump back about 1,700 years to hear what Flavius Josephus, the early Jewish historian, has to say about the Purim of Alexandria. He tells the story in refutation of the account given by the anti-Semite Apion, who was very critical of the actions of two Jews named Onias and Dositheos, both Greek names that in Hebrew would have been Honia and Netanyahu.

They were high-ranking officers and had been given command of the Egyptian forces by the Emperor Ptolemy VI (180-170 BCE) and his sister and wife Cleopatra II (not the one of the famous nose, who was Cleopatra VII). It was not unusual for Jews in exile to become mercenaries, as they had little other means of earning their livelihood, and these two had presumably shown great devotion to the empire and talent for military command.

It seems that this was a time when the citizens of Alexandria were at loggerheads with Queen Cleopatra, who had succeeded to the throne on the death of her husband, Ptolemy VI. Another Ptolemy (called Physkon, “the pot-bellied,” by his friends and enemies) had tried to seize the throne by coming from Cyrene (Libya) and holding the citizens of Alexandria, who included many Jews, hostage in a bid to dethrone Cleopatra.

This did not stop Onias and Dositheos from attacking Ptolemy Physkon on behalf of their queen, so Physkon threatened to kill the Alexandrian Jews if Cleopatra’s army did not surrender to him. He took the Jews and fettered them naked in chains and threatened to set his battle elephants against them.

His men had made the elephants drunk to goad them on to attack their victims, but when the time came, instead of rushing forward at the Jews, the elephants reversed and trampled those that were goading them on. Physkon was then persuaded to relent. Not only did he have a terrible heavenly vision that forbade him to touch the Jews, but one of his concubines pleaded with him to desist, and the Jews were saved.

This, says Josephus, was the origin of “the feast the Jews of Alexandria keep, with good reason, on this day because of the deliverance vouchsafed to them by God” (Against Apion II: 55). He does not give the date, but there is a similar story told in the Third Book of Maccabees (which has nothing to do with Hanukka) and which gives a date of 7 Epiphi, the Egyptian month equivalent to July. It may not have happened in Adar, but it was certainly another Purim miracle.



The writer is senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.


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