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‘Purim Katan’ was a month ago. Why it’s OK if you didn’t notice.

Jews around the world will celebrate Purim, which begins on Wednesday evening. But another Purim — “Purim Katan,” or Little Purim — began on the evening of Feb. 14. Purim Katan is the only Jewish holiday that doesn’t show up every year and often passes unnoticed. This curiosity of the Jewish calendar demands some explanation.

Why are there two Purims?

There are two because there are two months of Adar in Jewish leap years, Adar I and Adar II — and Purim takes place in the month of Adar. We’re in a Jewish leap year right now.

That extra Adar is added because the Jewish calendar, which is lunar, has slightly shorter months than a solar-based one. A second Adar is added seven times over nineteen years, much in the same way an extra day is added every four years in the secular calendar. Adar, the month of Purim, was chosen to be the leap month because it precedes Nisan, the month of Passover, which in Torah is called the first month.

Historically, whether a year had a second Adar depended on the early barley harvest in Israel, a sign of spring. If it wasn’t ripening, a leap year was declared to delay the beginning of Nisan and make sure Passover fell in its proper month.


Barley Photo by Martina Silvestri / EyeEm

But the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, led by Hillel HaNasi (around 350 C.E.), noticed that this method of determining leap years wasn’t so reliable after the destruction of the Second Temple. What if Jews weren’t able to attend to the barley? So the rabbis established a calendar that designated leap months, and took barley and other signs of spring out of the equation.

So in years with two Purims, is one more official than the other?

The Book of Esther makes no mention of two Purims, and there’s nothing wrong with celebrating the holiday twice. But according to Jewish law, only one counts completely — that’s the one in which Jews need to read the Megillah, the Book of Esther, which tells the story of how this Jewish queen and her cousin Mordechai triumphed over the evil Haman and saved the Jews of Persia. The Talmud attempts to figure out which Purim really counts.

In one part of the Talmud — the Mishnah, or Oral Torah — the question is asked: What happens if you read the Megillah in Adar I and it turns out to be a leap year? Do you have to read it again in Adar II? The Mishnah says yes, and not only that, you have to give out gifts to the poor again too (but you can skip giving out mishloach manot, or gift baskets.)

So the essential Purim mitzvah — reading the Megillah — happens in Adar II, and that’s when the real Purim falls.

megillah reading

Reading the Megillah in Bnei Brak, Israel on Feb. 28, 2010 Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

The Gemara, the commentary on the Mishnah, then comes up with an explanation to say why Adar II is the Purim that matters most. Though there is merit in celebrating Purim in Adar I, the rabbis reasoned, because it’s best not to put off doing a mitzvah (the reading of the Book of Esther), it’s more important to celebrate two geulot, or redemptions, close together — in this case Purim and Passover, two holidays that mark the salvation of the Jewish people.

Does everybody celebrate the real Purim in Adar II?

Almost everybody.

But there is a small Karaite community of Jews in the world that always celebrates Purim in Adar I. The Karaites, who can be found in Israel, Northern California, and elsewhere, reject the authority of Talmud and do not accept that Purim could be celebrated on Adar II. The Book of Esther says celebrate it in the twelfth month of the year, so they do. To this day, the Karaites communities celebrate Purim on what would be Purim Katan for most other Jews. To them, it’s just “Purim.”

If we’re not Karaites, how do we mark Purim Katan, if at all?

These days, observant Jews do as the Talmud suggests and avoid doing anything sad on Purim Katan, such as giving eulogies or saying the penitential prayer, called Tachanun. Purim Katan ends up going largely unnoticed for this reason.

Nonetheless, some rabbis in past centuries have encouraged Jews to mark Purim Katan, specifically with a feast. Moshe Isserles, who lived in Poland in the 1500s, had this to say about Purim Katan: “there are those who say it is a mitzvah to make merry and drink, but we Ashkenazim don’t practice that.” So he sees no obligation. But he goes on to write that it’s never a bad idea to drink and make merry a little bit to go against those who say you shouldn’t.

To that end, the medieval Rabbi Yechiel of Paris used to prepare a feast and invite people to celebrate with him on Purim Katan. It brings to mind a verse a from Proverbs: “A heart of feasting is always good.”

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