Today is the first day of Adar, the happiest month on the Jewish calendar. The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a-b) famously states that “when Adar enters, we increase in joy” and that this is the month when a Jew’s fortune is especially “healthy” and good. However, no clear explanation is given as to why this is the case. Presumably it is because the holiday of Purim is in Adar, with Purim being particularly joyous, and associated with luck (Purim means “lotteries”). Yet, the same Talmudic tractate suggests that Tu b’Av and Yom Kippur were the most joyous days of the Jewish calendar, not Purim. How did Adar become so happy and lucky?
A Month of Many Holidays
We read in Megillat Esther (9:22) that Adar is “the month which was turned to [the Jews] from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day.” Haman had planned his genocide for the month of Adar. Instead, the Jews scored a glorious victory. The entire month became festive and happy. The Sages teach that the Jews were saved in Adar in the merit of Moses, who was born on the 7th of Adar. More specifically, his circumcision was on the 14th of Adar (eight days later), precisely the date of Purim. The miracle of Purim came in the merit of Moses’ brit. (Although it is said that Moses was born circumcised, it is still customary to hold a brit on the eighth day in such a case, with a symbolic drop of blood. Interestingly, there is at least one opinion that Moses was not born circumcised, see Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 48.) The Talmud (Ta’anit 18b) lists a number of other happy occasions that fell in Adar:
The 12th of Adar was a minor holiday called Yom Turyanos, “Trajan’s Day”. The Talmud says that on this day two Jewish brothers named Lulianus and Pappus sacrificed themselves to save the nation. Rashi comments here with a connection to another Talmudic passage in Bava Batra 10b where the brothers are called the “Martyrs of Lod”. He writes that the daughter of a governor (or perhaps the emperor) named Trajan was killed and (of course) the Jews were blamed. Lulianus and Pappus took the blame so that no harm would befall the nation. For this, they received an unmatched reward in the afterlife. The Sages of the day instituted a minor holiday in honour of the martyred brothers and the Jewish people’s salvation.
The Talmud states that the holiday was ultimately abolished because two brothers, Shemaya and Achiya, died that day. It isn’t clear if these are the same brothers. Most likely, Shemaya and Achiya are the Jewish names of Lulianus and Pappus, and the Sages didn’t want to have a holiday where people celebrate a salvation that came about through Jews giving up their lives. (An intriguing side note: from a mystical perspective it is possible that the brothers Lulianus and Pappus were the reincarnations of the brothers Nadav and Avihu, and served as their tikkun.)
The following day, the 13th of Adar, was another minor holiday known as Nicanor Day. The Talmud explains that Nicanor was a Greek general during the Chanukah Wars who sought to destroy Jerusalem’s Temple entirely. The Maccabees defeated him on the 13th of Adar. The Book of Maccabees (I, 7:43-49) gives more details about these events, and says how Nicanor had his head chopped off. The Maccabees instituted the 13th of Adar as a holiday. Interestingly, today the 13th of Adar is commemorated as a fast day—the Fast of Esther—even though the Talmud says one shouldn’t fast on this festive day! (The Fast of Esther wasn’t established until centuries after the Talmud.)
Victories Over the Romans
The 16th of Adar was another minor holiday. On that day, King Herod Agrippa I (or Agripas, 11 BCE-44 CE) started a massive building project in Jerusalem, mainly seeking to rebuild its walls. Josephus writes that the walls were not finished out of fear that the Romans might suspect the Jews of planning a revolt. (The walls would indeed be completed and used during the Great Revolt.)
Recall that in those days, Jerusalem and Judea were ruled by Roman proxy kings. The Herodians were Idumeans (or Edomites) who had converted to Judaism, though perhaps not so sincerely. Agrippa I, however, was a sincere Jew, and the Sages honoured him greatly. In addition to investing in Jerusalem’s infrastructure, the minor holiday that the Sages instituted also commemorated another victory:
During the reign of Agrippa (41-44 CE) the Roman Emperor Caligula sought to place a statue of himself in Jerusalem’s Temple. Agrippa had actually grown up in Rome (sent there by his grandfather, the infamous Herod the Great, to be raised among nobility) and was a good friend of Caligula. Agrippa managed to get Caligula to reconsider, preventing the Temple from being defiled by idolatry. Both the Sages and Josephus agree that Agrippa was a proud, devoted Jew. The Talmud (Sotah 41a) describes how he read the Torah publicly, just as a Jewish king is supposed to, and
when Agrippa arrived at the verse “You may not appoint a foreigner over you” (Deuteronomy 17:15), tears flowed from his eyes. The entire nation said to him: “Fear not, Agrippa. You are our brother, you are our brother!”
The Talmud (Ta’anit 18a) gives at least one more minor holiday in Adar, on the 28th:
On one occasion, the wicked empire [Rome] issued a decree of apostasy against the Jews, that they may not occupy themselves with Torah study, and that they may not circumcise their sons, and that they must desecrate Shabbat.
Rabbi Yehuda ben Shammua and his disciples went to a prominent Roman woman for advice and she suggested holding a vocal protest. So they did:
They went and cried out at night, saying: “O Heaven! Are we not brothers? Are we not children of one father? Are we not the children of one mother? How are we different from any other nation and tongue that you single us out and issue against us evil decrees?”
Their protest was successful and the Romans annulled the decrees, after which the Sages established the 28th of Adar as a minor holiday.
Altogether, because there were so many happy occasions in the month of Adar, the Sages declared that the entire month is happy and fortunate. This is based on an old principle that good things tend to happen in good times, and bad things in bad times (Ta’anit 29a). The Sages use the principle specifically when they talk about the mourning in the month of Av which, in many ways, can be thought of as the opposite of Adar.
The three weeks before Tisha b’Av are the most intense when it comes to Jewish mourning, commemorating the destruction of both Holy Temples. If Adar is the opposite of Av, we should expect to see some connection to Temples, too, and we do. According to tradition, the very first Holy Tabernacle, the Mishkan in the Wilderness, was originally erected on the 23rd of Adar. Over the week that followed, Moses and the Israelites practiced setting it up and taking it down, and then the inauguration of the Mishkan officially began on the first of Nisan. This is why it is customary to read the Torah passages describing the Mishkan’s inauguration from Rosh Chodesh Nisan.
Centuries later, after the First Temple was destroyed (on the 9th of Av), the Jews returned to Jerusalem and began rebuilding the Temple. The Second Temple was officially completed in Adar, as we read in Ezra 6:15: “And this house was finished on the third day of the month Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.” So, while Av commemorates the destruction of two temples, Adar commemorates the construction of two temples!
There is an allusion to this within the letters of the months: Av is אב, where the Aleph represents God and the Beit represents His House, the Beit HaMikdash. The fact that the numerical value of Beit is 2 further hints to two temples. Adar is אדר, where Aleph is God but instead of the Beit we have dar, literally to “dwell”, since the Temple is called God’s earthly dwelling place. In other words, Av is when the Temple was destroyed twice, while Adar is when God’s Presence twice returned to the Temple.
Jews Are Like Fish
The last major reason why Adar is considered fortunate is because of its astrological sign: Pisces, the fish. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) famously states how fish are immune to the evil eye. The purifying water which fish are constantly immersed in protects them from evil. In fact, fish are immune from nearly all impurity. This is one reason, on a mystical level, why fish do not have to be shechted or entirely drained of blood like other kosher animals before they are consumed, and why fish are pareve. The Talmud explains that this is why Jacob blessed his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe that they should “multiply like fish” (Genesis 48:16), shielded from evil.
Amazingly, Ephraim and Menashe are themselves compared to the two fish of the Pisces constellation. Recall that the Twelve Tribes of Israel correspond to the twelve months of the calendar and the twelve astrological constellations. However, in a leap year the Jewish calendar has a thirteenth month, a second Adar. (And there is a hidden thirteenth constellation, as we’ve written about here.) Similarly, the Twelve Tribes of Israel really divide into thirteen. This is because Jacob blessed Joseph to have two tribes emerge from him, and elevated Ephraim and Menashe to the level of Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5).
So, when a standard year has twelve months, the months correspond to Jacob’s twelve sons, Joseph being Adar. In a leap year, Adar divides into two, corresponding to Ephraim and Menashe, Joseph’s sons. Of course, Joseph was famously blessed with immunity from the evil eye, hence the association of Joseph and his sons with the fish of Pisces, as we see in Bava Metzia 84a. (It should be noted that there is a different opinion as to how the months correspond to the tribes, according to which Adar is Naftali.)
Today, Jews bless their children every Shabbat evening to be specifically “like Ephraim and Menashe”. One explanation for this is because Ephraim and Menashe were the first generation of siblings in the Torah where there were no issues between them. (Compare to Abel and Cain; Isaac and Ishmael; Jacob and Esau, etc.) Ephraim and Menashe were loving brothers, righteous and united, and blessed to be saved from evil. We wish the same for our children. In Megillat Esther we read that the entire Jewish people were like loving brothers during Purim—sending one another gifts, generously donating to the poor, and being united in joy.
This is where the real strength of Adar comes from. (Adar literally means “strength”, like adir.) The Zohar explains that it is in Adar when Jews donate a mahatzit hashekel, half-shekel, and this act causes the “Right Side” to be elevated (Zohar Chadash on Ki Tisa, Ma’amar Mahatzit haShekel). The Right pillar is that of Chessed, representing love and kindness. The Torah commands giving only half a shekel so that each Jew knows that he is never a whole on his own. We are only whole when we are united.
That brings us back to fish. To protect themselves from predators, fish (especially kosher ones) like to travel in “schools”. Their strength is in being united and moving in one direction. The Jewish people are supposed to be the same. The term “school” of fish is particularly appropriate, since a Jew is always meant to be learning and praying, in “shul”. Rabbi Akiva was once asked how he mustered the courage to continue teaching the Torah in public even though the Romans had banned it. He answered with a parable that just like a fish must always be immersed in water, a Jew must always be immersed in Torah (Berakhot 61a). For a Jew to stop learning Torah to escape the Romans would be as foolish as a fish jumping out of the water to escape a predator—it will die anyway!
This is the deeper meaning behind Jacob’s blessing to Ephraim and Menashe—and to all Jews throughout history: yidgu l’rov, be like fish! Be united like fish, be immersed in Torah like fish, and be protected from evil like fish. This is why the astrological sign of Adar is Pisces, and why Adar is so happy and lucky for the Jewish people.
For more on Astrology and Judaism, see the following: