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Jewish Festivals in Iran
Encyclopedia Iranica

Tu bi-Shevat (lit., “the fifteenth of Shevat,”) is usually considered a minor festival and marks the New Year of the Trees. It falls in January/February and is clearly linked to agriculture, coming after the early winter rains. Ashkenazi Jews used to celebrate it by eating fifteen different kinds of fresh and dried fruit, but the festival was more important to the Sephardim, who wrote songs and liturgical poems in its honor (Pearl, pp. 23-33).

Purim (from the word pur, interpreted in the Book of Esther (q.v.; 9:26) as meaning “lot”; this is also the meaning of the Akkadian word pūrū (Tadmor; Aḥiṭuv). The festival celebrates the rescue of the Jews of Persia at the time of king Ahaseurus from Haman, who had cast lots (pur) to determine the date on which Jews would be killed (Esther 3:7). The festival is observed on the 14 Adar (February/March), and the Jews of Shushan celebrated it on the 15th Adar (9:18), which was called Shushan Purim. In the talmudic period, out of respect for Jerusalem, it was decreed that the Shushan Purim should be observed in those cities in the Land of Israel that have been walled since the time of Joshua. Thus today, according to Jewish law, the festival is observed on the 15th of Adar in Jerusalem, which has been walled since Joshua’s days, but need not be celebrated in Tel Aviv, which is unwalled. In an intercalary year, in which there are two months of Adar, Purim is observed in the second Adar.
There is controversy over the historicity of the events narrated in the Book of Esther. Some scholars see an Iranian influence in this festival (Hartum); others would cast doubt on the identification of Ahaseurus with Xerxes (Shalit). Biblical critics have noted a similarity betwFEREYDŪNeen the names Mordecai and EsthFERİDUN AḤMED BEGer and the Babylonian gods Marduk and Ishtar. There is no mention of Purim in Jewish sources predating the first century B.C.E. (see also Aḥiṭuv and Tadmor).

According to the Talmud (Berakhot 54a), communities that have escaped from destruction, persecution, and slaughter must establish a festival day like Purim, known as “Little Purim.” Tradition records that the Jews of Shiraz used to observe a special Purim in addition the regular one on 2nd Heshvan (October/November) to commemorate the beginning of their being permitted to return to Judaism from forced conversion to Islam. The date of this event is disputed, and opinions vary from the 13th to the 19th centuries. Since the festival originated in Persia, it was particularly popular among Persian Jews, and the festivities were doubled when it fell close to the Persian New Year. New clothes were donned and sweets distributed among children, and the Book of Esther was read in the original and in a tafsīr version. The Ardašīr-nāma (q.v.) by the Judeo-Persian poet Šāhīn (14th century C.E.) was also read. The Jews of Hamadān used to celebrate the festival by gathering round the tombs of Esther and Mordecai, sometimes all night long. A large number of Jews would come to Hamadān from other cities to spend Purim near the tombs.

Passover, one of the most important festivals, begins on the 15th Nisan and lasts seven days in the Land of Israel and eight days in the Diaspora. Work is prohibited on the first and last days in the Land of Israel, and on the first two and last two days in the Diaspora; it is permitted on the intermediate days. The origin of the festival is recorded in the book of Exodus. Sometimes called Pesa (“Passover”), it is also known as ag ha-matzot “the feast of unleavened bread,”(Exodus 12:1-28, 43-49; 34:25; Leviticus 23:6; Deuteronomy 16:1-8, 16). Passover is celebrated by Jews all over the world with Seder (“order”), according to the book known as the Haggadah, which embodies the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt. The book includes the recitation of prayers, blessings, and stories and the eating of special foods according to a prescribed order. Each food is intended to remind the participants of the events of the Exodus and the passage from slavery to freedom. Not all the regulations of the Seder come from the Bible; some originate in the Talmud. Since Passover usually falls in the Spring, at FERŌDthe same time as the Persian month of Farvardīn, Persian Jews used to combine the joy of Passover and the Nowrūz festival with festive meals and excursions, though they were careful to eat matzot and avoid food forbidden during Passover (ametz). They used to celebrate the Sīzda-be-darfestival the day after the end of Passover, in the same way as their Persian compatriots. Sīzda-be-dar is celebrated by all Persians on the 13th Farvardīn, usually by spending the day outdoors, and enjoying the beauties of nature. The Kurdish Jews of Persia and Iraq, who called this day arāna, used to observe a similar custom. The Jews of Morocco called it Memūna.
Shavuʿot (lit., “weeks”), “Pentecost” in Greek, signifying the 50th day after the first day of Passover, falls on the 6th Sivan (May/June); its Biblical source is Deuteronomy 16:10 and Exodus 34:22.

This festival is also linked to agriculture, marking the beginning of the wheat harvest (Leviticus 23:15, 23;16; Exodus 34:22). In later times, the festival was linked to the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, though there is no evidence of an explicit connection in the Bible itself. The first reference to this link is in the Book of Jubilees (I, 6:17-22), a pesudepigraphic work dating from the middle of the Second Temple period (about the middle of the second century B.C.E.). Josephus does not mention this connection. Very few customs are associated with this festival. The Book of Ruth is read, thus emphasizing the agricultural nature of the holiday. Persian Jews call this festival moʿed-e gol (“the festival of flowers”), and used to make merry and eat dairy foods, besides reading the relevant chapters of the Bible, the prayers and blessings in the festival prayer book, and also the tafsīr in verse called Azharot, a poetic version of the 613 positive and negative commandments. The translation into Judeo-Persian verse was made by Benyāmīn ben Mīšāʿel (Amīnā), and a rather different version was composed by Simantov Melammed (Netzer, Manuscripts, index).


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