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The rules of the Megillah

By Rabbi Michael Ascoli

The tractate of Megillah concerns mainly the rules of public reading and writing of the biblical Book of Esther, the most known among the Megillot or scrolls of Tanakh, also known by definition as “Megillah”. If reading rules exist, it means that there is a scripture to read from. It may seem obvious, but it was not at all for the Megillah. In fact, a very interesting passage can be found in which ” They said: Esther sent to the Sages: Write me for future generations and canonize my book as part of the Bible.” (7a) The acceptance of the Sages, the passage continues, did not occur without obstacles, so much so that the dispute over the inclusion of Esther’s Megillah in the biblical canon continued until the time of the Masters of the Mishna.
In our passage we can find such different opinions to the point of extending the discussion to other Megillot as well. This may explain why the tractate opens precisely with the rules concerning the public reading of Esther’s Megillah, establishing evidently its inclusion in the biblical canon. Similarly, it may explain why the reading of the Megillah receives so much space where the other rules of Purim – feast, exchange of food and gifts to the poor – have much less (practically none if we consider the Mishna without the Gemara).
Once it was established that the Megillah is part of the biblical canon, it was necessary to point out that its status, like that of all the other texts of the Tanakh that are not part of the Torah, is nevertheless different from that of the books of the Torah. It is perhaps in this light that the teachings regarding the sewing of the different sheets of parchment that make up the scroll of the Torah and the Megillah, respectively, can be read, and even certain rules such as the lawfulness of reading the Megillah while seated or other rules.
A similar topic to that of the inclusion of the Megillah in the biblical canon, and therefore the obligation to read it, is the problem of the translation of biblical texts, both regarding the translation into Aramaic that was done orally for the benefit of the participants at public readings, and with regard to the lawfulness of translating the biblical texts into other languages.
Regarding the first issue, we can find in our tractate a list of passages that should not be translated in public, and some not even read; on the second issue, however, there is an interesting tradition concerning the origin of the translation of the Torah so-called “of the Seventy”: the scholars in charge of the work, “in the heart of each of whom the Lord, blessed be He, put His counsel”, deliberately changed the translation of some passages from the original text for reasons of expediency.
Thus, the problem of translating is an ancient issue, as is the special status accorded by some Masters to Greek, namely the language of world culture. The tractate is one of the shortest and relatively easy in the Talmud. The first chapter, which by length represents more than half of the entire tractate, opens by establishing the days on which the Megillah is to be read. There is here a peculiarity: Purim is the only festivity in the Jewish calendar whose celebration is prescribed at different times depending on location.
Tradition distinguishes between walled cities, other towns and villages, with an interesting interweaving of practical provisions that take into account different circumstances and needs, on the one hand, and an ideological stance aimed at emphasizing the importance of the Land of Israel on the other. In this sense, the difference between the date on which the Megillah is read in the walled cities from the time of Joshua – and quintessentially in Jerusalem – and that on which it is read in the other cities may recall the institution of the second holiday, yom tov sheni, which can be observed in the Diaspora.
In addition to the rules concerning the reading of the Megillah, the first chapter links these rules with a whole series of other provisions that only have in common the formal structure with which they are taught: “There is no difference between… and…, except…”. It starts with “There is no difference between the first Adar and the second Adar, except for the reading of the Megillah and the gifts to the poor”, with obvious reference to Purim, and continues with arguments concerning quite different areas. The chapter concludes with a continuous block of Midrashic interpretations that follow the order of the entire Megillah of Esther from beginning to end. Such a systematic and orderly collection of midrashim is unique within the Babylonian Talmud.
The second chapter deals again with rules concerning the reading of the Megillah and in this context we can find a fascinating discussion about the different languages and their status: if in the first chapter special emphasis was given to the Land of Israel, in the second chapter a prominent place is given to the Hebrew language (the subject is also addressed in the eighth Mishna of the first chapter). As mentioned with regard to the first chapter, a number of rules unrelated to Purim are also shown in the second. In this case, the common denominator is the fact that these are commandments that can be fulfilled at any time of the day.
With such procedure, which is also very common in the Talmud, the third chapter extends the treatment of the blessings related to the reading of the Megillah to those that are to be recited for the reading of other passages of the Tanakh.
Indeed, precisely because this is the only tractate that deals extensively with the public reading of a biblical book, the text lends itself to being the place to include an examination of the rules relating to the public reading of the various biblical books. There we can find a discussion of which passages are permissible to read or translate in public – the current usage was to translate passages of the biblical readings into Aramaic so that everyone could understand them – and which are not to be read or at least not translated. For the record, there are some rules concerning the officiant, or as we should better say “the envoy of the public”, and the conditions that may affect his suitability.
The fourth chapter, before returning to the biblical readings relating to the various anniversaries, examines in detail rules relating to synagogues and in particular the issue of the lawfulness of selling them or other sacred objects. The fundamental principle that is enshrined is that “one grows in Kedushah (Holiness) but does not diminish it”, i.e.: a sacred object may be sold only to acquire one endowed with greater holiness, and an object used for religious purposes may be put to a different use from the initial one only if this constitutes an increase in Kedushah. In Jewish thought, this principle finds extension in many areas and represents a real aspiration to constantly elevate in Kedushah people and their surroundings.
It should lastly be noted that in this tractate, chapters three and four can be reversed. In the traditional edition of the Babylonian Talmud, which we follow in this work, they appear in reverse order to that in which these chapters appear in the common editions of the Mishna and Jerusalem Talmud.

Translation by Maria Cianciuolo, revised by Erika Centazzo, students at the Secondary School of Modern Languages for Interpreters and Translators of the University of Trieste, interns at the newspaper office of the Union of the Italian Jewish Communities – Pagine Ebraiche.