Masechet Megillah 16a-22b

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22 Feb 2007

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan


Megillah 16

The vast majority of the Tanach is prose, written in a straightforward manner, with the words written together in close proximity, and paragraph and chapter breaks added within the text as necessary. On occasion we find poetry and songs in the Tanach, which are distinguished by the manner in which they are written.

Rabbi Chanina bar Papa quotes Rabbi Sheila ish Kefar Temarta who points out that the main method of presentation for songs and poetry in the TaNaKH is ari’ah al gabei leveinah – like brickwork, with alternating long and short lines set up like a building. A classic example of the ari’ach al gabei leveinah system is Shirat ha-Yam – the Song of the Sea that is sung by the Children of Israel upon escaping from Egypt and from Pharaoh’s army. As is evident from looking at the Biblical text as it appears in the written Torah (Shemot 15) the song leaves large spaces between words and is clearly different from your standard page of prose.

Rabbi Sheila ish Kefar Temarta does note that we find another method of writing songs in the Torah, ari’ah al gabei ari’ah – when the “bricks” are piled up with one directly above the other. Such a system is found in Megillat Esther, in chapter 9 when Haman’s sons are hanged and in Sefer Yehoshua (chapter 10) where we find a celebratory list of the Canaanite kings who had been conquered by Yehoshu’a and the Children of Israel. As Rabbi Sheila ish Kefar Temarta explains, the difference between these songs is that unlike the ari’ach al gabei leveinah, the ari’avh al gabei ari’ach is not a sturdy structure. Since these songs celebrate the downfall of the enemies of the Jewish people (as opposed to Shirat ha-Yam whose focus is on the miracles wrought by God on behalf of His people), they are set up in a way that testifies to the permanent downfall of these evil people, who should never recover from their defeat.

Megillah 17

The second chapter of Masechet Megillah continues the discussion of the public reading of Megillat Esther on Purim. The Mishnah teaches that the Megillah can be read in any language, as long as it is a language that the people understand. Even someone who does not understand Hebrew can fulfill the mitzvah of hearing the Megillah by listening to it being read in Hebrew.

All of this is true with regard to reading the Megillah; how about the Torah itself?
The Gemara discusses whether the Sages felt that kol ha-Torah bi-leshon ha-kodesh ne’emrah – whether the entire Torah is said in Hebrew. Rashi interprets this line to be a reference to public Torah readings. Tosafot, who are in agreement with Rashi that the discussion is whether public Torah readings must be in Hebrew, ask whether there are any Torah readings that are, in fact, true obligations. Their explanation is that this is a reference to those parts of the Torah that we are obligated to say on specific occasions, e.g. when chalitza is done (see Devarim 25:5-10), when bringing bikurim (see Devarim 26), etc.

The Rashba brings this suggestion and adds that the Gemara might be referring to the mitzvah of reading Parshat Zachor, which is a Biblical obligation according to all opinions.

Rabbeinu Chananel is quoted as explaining this discussion as relating to the question of whether the Torah can be written and translated into other languages, an issue that was discussed at some length by the Gemara in the first perek (see Megillah 3).

There are other opinions (see the Ritva, for example) that suggest that the tradition to have regular public readings of the Torah dates back to the time of Moshe, who established this practice. Thus there is some level of obligation in the standard weekly Torah readings.

Megillah 18

As we learned in the Mishna, anyone can hear the Megillah read in Hebrew; in order to fulfill your obligation while hearing the Megillah read in another language, you must understand that language.

Fulfilling one’s obligation by hearing the Megillah in Hebrew seems intuitive. Ravina points out in the Gemara that there are words in the Megillah whose definition we really do not know (ha-ahashtranim bnei ha-ramakhim – see Esther 8:10), so clearly what we need is a proper reading that publicizes the miracle. This can be accomplished with a public Hebrew rendition. Rabbenu Yehonatan adds that most Jews have a rudimentary understanding of Hebrew, so someone who hears a reading in Hebrew will get the basics of the story, as opposed to someone who hears it in a language with which he is not familiar.

With regard to hearing the Megillah in a language other than Hebrew, it is not clear that the simple teaching of the Mishnah is accepted as the halakhah. While the Rambam rules that someone who understands a given language can fulfill his mitzvah by hearing the Megillah read in that language, the Ramban – basing himself on the Talmud Yerushalmi – argues that that is true only if the language in which the Megillah is read is the only language that the person understands. If he understands Hebrew, he is obligated to hear the Megillah read in Hebrew.

The ruling of the Mishnah notwithstanding, Rav and Shmuel are quoted in the Gemara as ruling that the Megillah can be read in Greek – even for people who do not understand Greek. This ruling is accepted as the halakhah by the Rambam, although the Ramban disagrees, permitting Greek to be used only by those for whom the only language they understand is Greek. The Mekhtam explains that Greek was considered the universal language at that time, which is why the suggestion is raised that it should be permitted for use by all.

Megillah 19

We have already learned that the Megillah is read on two separate days – on the 14th of Adar in a krah – an ordinary city – and on the 15th of Adar in an ir – a city that was surrounded by walls from the time of Yehoshua bin Nun. How do we establish whether a given individual is a ben krah or a ben ir? The Mishnah teaches that someone who travels from one type of city to another becomes obligated according to his new city, assuming that he does not plan to return. If he plans to return, however, then he retains his original status and reads according to the tradition of the place that he is from.

In the Gemara, Rava teaches that planning to return refers to the individual’s plans for the day of Purim itself, specifically, does the person from a krah, where the Megillah is read on the 14th, plan to return the evening of Purim, i.e. on the 14th? If he does, his obligation remains that of a ben krah; if he does not, he becomes obligated to read on the 15th like a ben ir.

Rava’s ruling is not as simple as it appears, and there are two main positions taken on how to understand it. Rashi understands it to refer to both a ben krah and a ben ir, and the question is whether the individual anticipates returning to his primary location by the time the Megillah will be read there. Thus, a ben ir who is visiting a krah on the 14th will not be obligated to hear the Megillah with the people of that town, assuming that he intends on returning home by the time that his ir will read the Megillah on the 15th. The Rosh disagrees, arguing that the crucial time is the 14th for everyone. We judge a person’s obligation by his position on the 14th when the basic obligation of keri’at Megillah begins. According to him, a ben ir who is visiting a krah on the 14th will be obligated to read on that day.

Another possibility that is raised by the poskim, based on the Talmud Yerushalmi, is that a person can find himself obligated on both days, or, perhaps, not obligated at all, if he travels between cities on the 14th and 15th.

Megillah 20

The Mishnah (19b) teaches that anyone can read the Megillah for others, with the exception of a cheresh, shoteh, ve-katan – a deaf-mute, an imbecile and a child. Rabbi Yehuda permits a katan to read the Megillah for others. While some of the commentaries try to explain how the case of the deaf-mute reading aloud for others is possible – suggesting that in this particular case we are talking about someone who is deaf and cannot hear, but can, in fact speak – the Talmud Yerushalmi simply says that we cannot possibly be talking about a cheresh reading for others. The cheresh is mentioned in the Mishnah only because he is always partnered with the shoteh and the katan, but it has no true significance in our case.

With regard to the katan, the Gemara relates that Rabbi Yehuda not only permits a child to read the Megillah for others, in fact he testified that when he was a child, he read the Megillah in the presence of Rabbi Tarfon and the elders of Lod. His fellow Sages did not accept this as proof that a child can read for others, arguing that they do not accept proof from the story of a child. When Rabbi testified that as a child he read the Megillah for Rabbi Yehuda, his peers rejected this as any indication of normative practice, arguing that they do not accept proof from the activity of the person who himself was the one who permitted this behavior.

In truth, when dealing with issues of a Rabbinic nature – and keri’at Megillah certainly falls into that category – then we do accept the testimony of an adult who relates what he saw or experienced as a child. The R”id explains that keri’at Megillah is an exception, since it is a public reading from TaNaKH it is given the severity and significance of a Biblical law. The Birkei Yosef argues that this rule does not apply in our case, since we can only trust a childhood memory of a specific, clearly defined occurrence. In our case, Rabbi Yehuda merely reminisced about his reading the Megillah before Rabbi Tarfon and other Sages. That testimony does not clearly indicate that those Sages accepted the reading as valid – perhaps they listened to another rendition of the Megillah beforehand or afterwards.

Megillah 21

The third perek of Masechet Megillah opens with a brief discussion of basic rules of reading the Megillah on Purim, and quickly segues to the rules and regulations that govern public Torah readings on Shabbat, holidays and during the week.

The Mishna teaches that the Megillah can be read standing or sitting, by one or more people simultaneously, and may or may not have blessings recited afterwards. The Gemara discusses how each of these rules contrasts with regular Torah readings. For example, the Torah cannot be read sitting, a rule derived from the description of the Torah taught to Moshe by God (Devarim 5:28), where Moshe is commanded to stand next to God – as if to say that God Himself was standing when the Torah was taught for the first time. Similarly, explains the R”id, in public Torah readings, due to the honor shown to the congregation and the sense that the very gathering of the congregation brings with it the presence of the Almighty, the Torah must be read while standing.

In the same vein, the Torah cannot be read by two people simultaneously. During the Torah reading in the time of the Talmud, one person read aloud and was accompanied by a meturgeman – a translator who would read the Aramaic translation – but two people could not read together, since this would make it difficult to pay attention to the reading. The baraita points to Hallel and Megillah as exceptions to the rule that trei koli lo mishtama’ei – that two voices cannot be heard clearly – since they are beloved by the people who look forward to hearing them, so people pay better attention.

Two approaches are offered to explain the idea that listening closely to Hallel or to the Megillah allows people to fulfill their mitzvah properly. One suggestion is that someone who pays close attention will be able to discern a single voice and concentrate on it, the other argues that listening closely allows someone to listen to both voices simultaneously (as quoted by the Ran and others).

Megillah 22

The Torah is read publicly in synagogues every Monday and Thursday, when a short reading from the upcoming week’s portion is divided between three people – a Kohen, a Levi and a Yisrael. On Rosh Chodesh we call four people up to the Torah, and read a selection from Sefer Bamidbar (28:1-15), which teaches about the special sacrifice brought in the Temple on the occasion of the New Moon. These fifteen pesukim are made up of three separate paragraphs:

Since every person who is called to the Torah must read at least three pesukim, it would appear that the fifteen pesukim that we find here should suffice for the four people who are to receive aliyot to the Torah. Nevertheless, there is a problem. Since there is a rule that forbids leaving two pesukim at the beginning of a paragraph or at the end of a paragraph, it becomes impossible to fit four aliyot into these fifteen pesukim. What to do?

Oddly enough, when this question was posed to Rava, his response was “I haven’t heard an answer to this, but I have heard something in a similar case.” The similar case is that of Torah reading for ma’amadot (see Ta’anit 26), when the people involved in prayer and study in the community synagogues would read from the story of Creation. When there were not enough pesukim for a proper Torah reading, Rav ruled doleg – repeat a pasuk – and Shmuel ruled posek – split a pasuk in half.

While it appears odd that Rava did not have a straightforward answer to a question on what should be done in a case that was so common, perhaps there were a number of different traditions regarding the Torah reading on Rosh Hodesh, and Rava was simply commenting that he did not have a clear tradition on which was the correct one, so he suggests looking at another, similar case, to see if a conclusion could be reached.

In fact, when the Gemara does conclude that we follow Rav, and that a pasuk should be repeated, it is not clear whether that ruling applies only to the case of ma’amadot or if we are to apply it to Rosh Chodesh, as well. Even today we find different traditions. While the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 423:2) rules that the second aliya repeats pasuk 3, so that we can fit three olim into the first eight pesukim, the Gra, quoting Masechet Soferim, rules that only two aliyot are fit into the first paragraph, and the third oleh repeats the pesukim 6-8 and completes his aliya by reading pesukim 9 and 10.

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.