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Author: Esther Ehrman, Adar 5774/March 2014

Did you know? A few examples from Mishna Megilla about the reading of the Megilla on Purim

(from a shiur given at one of the Etta Kossowsy Study Groups)

Since Purim, like Chanuka, is a post-Biblical Festival, our Sages relate to it in a special way. Many of our Halachot are, as we know, firmly grounded in the text of the Torah; as for example the laws of Shabbat, which are determined by the activities required for the building of the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. Since our Sages saw observance as determined by the Torah, it made sense to link the new observance, the reading of the Megilla on Purim to the reading of the Torah, where possible.

Thus, the public 'reading' of the Torah is a reading, not a reciting by heart. The Mishna (Megilla, 2, 1,2) is very firm that the Megilla must be read and may not be recited by heart. Further, like the Torah, it must be written on parchment. The Mishna emphasises this by stating that the Megilla may not be written even on diphtera, parchment that has not been properly treated chemically( ibid 2,2); it must be written and with the proper ink.

You might have thought that this Persian Diaspora story about Jews in Persia could be written and read in any language. Not so. Although, with certain limitations, the Megilla may be read to a non-Hebrew speaker in his language, it must be written in Ashurit, the square Hebrew script; if a non-Hebrew speaker hears the Megilla in Hebrew, he or she has fulfilled the mitzva properly. This, too, is an important link to the Torah, at a time when the current spoken language was Aramaic, which the Jews had brought back with them from their first exile in Babylon.

And yet, since the Megilla is, in fact post-Biblical and since, consequently any halachic instructions are Rabbinical – as distinct from Biblical – there can also be a certain leeway. Thus we find that women read the Megilla. Halacha allows for the use of a shaliach, an agent, in the performance of certain mitzvot, when circumstances prevent someone from personally performing a mitzva; even such acts as betrothing or divorcing a woman. The Reader of a Synagogue Service, for instance, is known as the shaliach tzibbut, the agent of the community. The Mishna (2,4) records those who may not be agents for the reading of the Megilla: a deaf person, since he cannot hear what he reads, a mentally unfit person, since he has no understanding, a minor not yet able to understand the mitzva. Women do not figure on the list and thus are not seen as excluded. Rashi (re Tractate Arakhin, 3a) holds that women can read the Megilla and act as agents for others; other authorities do not agree with this.

As we learn from the few examples given here, when we learn about the reading of the Megilla on Purim, we also get a glimpse into the insights that may well have guided the Sages of the Mishna in Tractate Megilla.