Masechet Megillah 23a-29b

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01 Mar 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 23a-b

In describing the public Torah reading, the Mishnah teaches that every person called to the Torah must read at least three pesukim, but that the meturgaman should be given only on passage at a time to translate.

Although we are not familiar with the practice today, the meturgeman was an essential fixture in the synagogue during Torah reading in the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud, as well as for generations that followed. For Jews of Yemenite extraction, the meturgeman is part of the standard Torah readings in their synagogues to this day. The job of the meturgeman was to translate the Torah reading into a language that could be understood by all – Aramaic.

As can be well imagined, when the meturgeman participated in the service, the Torah reading took a much longer amount of time. Although the Torah reading could not be shortened, when it came to reading the Haftarah – the portion from the Prophets that is read following the completion of the Torah reading – if there was a meturgeman (and it should be noted that the Aramaic translation in Navi is even longer than in Chumash, as it includes commentary alongside the literal translation), it made sense to shorten the reading. Thus, the original establishment of the Haftarah as consisting of minimally 21 pesukim (probably stemming from a desire to mimic the seven aliyot to the Torah, which are made up of three pesukim each) was cut down to ten pesukim, or even fewer.

There is another type of meturgeman who is occasionally referred to in the Gemara; he is the individual whose job it was to “broadcast” the teachings of the Sage to the audience who came to hear him – an essential job prior to the invention of the loudspeaker. Such a meturgaman not only presented the words of the Sage, but offered explanations and clarifications of the teachings, as well.

Megillah 24a-b

In Israel it is common practice for kohanim to bless the congregation on a daily basis towards the end of the repetition of the amidah prayer. In the Diaspora it is a much less frequent occurrence, which takes place only on the festivals of Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot, as well as on the High Holy Days.

The Mishnah teaches that a kohen whose hands are disfigured should not participate in this blessing; according to Rabbi Yehuda if someone’s hands are colored with dye he too should not participate, as it will be distracting to the congregants. Although the popular notion is that it is forbidden to look at the hands of the kohanim while they are offering the blessing, since the Sages teach that the presence of the Almighty appears there at that time, the rishonim already have noted that the sense of Divine presence during the Priestly Blessing is only true in the Temple. Thus, the Me’iri and R”id – echoing the Talmud Yerushalmi – explain that the concern here is that the congregants may be distracted from paying attention to the bracha. Based on this, we find the ruling of the Rama in the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 128:30) that if the local custom requires the kohen to cover himself with a tallit during the blessing, the restrictions of the Mishnah would not apply.

Other limitations which may restrict kohanim from participating in the blessing include those whose pronunciation of the blessing is less that perfect. The baraita teaches that the people of Bet She’an, Bet Haifa and Tivonim were not permitted to bless the people because they could not distinguish between the pronunciation of the letter aleph and the letter ayin.

Unlike the people who grew up in the southern part of Israel, people who were raised in the Galilee – and, apparently, in particular cities in the Galilee where there was a large non-Jewish population – did not learn proper Hebrew pronunciation. Guttural sounds with origins in the throat – like the letters ayin and het – were difficult for those who grew up in places where languages other than Hebrew were prevalent.

Megillah 25a-b

The Mishnah teaches that a number of seemingly innocuous expressions should be avoided. Here are two examples:

Rashi explains the heresy as stemming from the fact that we should be including all of the Jewish people in praise of God, not merely good people. The R”id, Rabbenu Yehonatan and others suggest that this teaching is based on the passage in Sefer Yirmiyahu (44:17) from where we can see that tovim can be interpreted as seve’im – satiated – and the heresy stems from the suggestion that only those people who are fully satisfied need to bless God, while those less fortunate do not. Another approach is suggested by the Me’iri, who understood tovim to mean the angels – making the expression Yevarkhukha tovim mean that only heavenly creatures praise God and, as such, removing Him from connection with this world.

Two reasons for this are posed by the Gemara. One suggestion is that this statement will create envy among the creations, i.e. that it appears as though God shows favoritism to one creature over the rest.

The other opinion in the Gemara is that one who says this is, in effect, suggesting that God’s commandments are based on mercy, when, in fact, they are gezerot – laws whose reasoning is not ours to understand. This statement, which appears to limit any study of te’amei ha-mitzvot (the “taste of,” or reasoning behind, the commandments), is the subject of much discussion among Jewish thinkers and philosophers. In response to this argument, the Me’iri, for example, explains that the intent of the Gemara is not to deny the mercy of a given commandment; rather it is to emphasize that the end goal is not God’s mercy in this case, but an educational goal of teaching us mercy by means of performing this mitzvah.

The Yerushalmi suggests yet another approach – that this statement puts limits on God’s abilities in that He shows mercy only to birds and similar creatures.

Megillah 26a-b

The fourth perek of Masechet Megillah focuses on the synagogue. Batei Knesset as places of prayer existed even while the Temple was still standing. In fact, on the Temple Mount itself there was a synagogue where people would participate in communal prayer and public Torah reading while the sacrificial service was being performed by the kohanim in the mikdash. The community synagogue served other functions as well, including a schoolhouse for children and a gathering place for members of the community to hear the teachings of the Rabbis or to deal with communal issues such as charity. Our perek examines the holiness invested in these structures, what appropriate behavior in them should be, how they should be treated when they fall into disuse, and whether they can be sold or traded.

The first Mishnah teaches that an object of kedusha – holiness – can only be sold if something with a higher level of kedusha will be purchased with the proceeds. Rava teaches, however, that if the community leaders – the shiv’ah tovei ha’ir – arrange the sale of a synagogue with the approval of the community, it can even be used le-mishta bei shikhra – to drink beer.

According to Rashi and Rabbeinu Chananel, this ruling permits the funds received by the community in exchange for the synagogue to be used for any purpose – even for purchasing beer. Rabbeinu Yehonatan, the Ran and others have a variant reading in the Gemara. They read it as le-mishta ba-hen shikhra – to drink beer in them – which would seem to mean that once the synagogue is sold properly, it can be used for any purpose, even as a beer hall.

After serious examination of the rulings presented by the Gemara on this topic, the Ramban concludes that a synagogue does not contain inherent holiness; rather, the kedusha that is invested therein stems from its use as a place of study and prayer. Once the building has been sold in a manner accepted by the Sages and it is no longer being used for such purposes, the holiness is no longer extant and it can be used for any purpose.

Megillah 27a-b

“By what merit did you live such a long life?”

In a number of places in the Talmud we find this question presented to leading Sages by their students. Although the general principle of the Talmud is that rewards for the performance of mitzvot are received not in this world, but in the world-to-come, nevertheless it appears to have been widely accepted that someone who is particular in his performance of a given mitzvah over and above the basic requirements is rewarded with long life. In fact, the commentaries examine each of the answers presented in our Gemara and attempt to show how the particular activity described goes beyond the letter-of-the-law in its performance.

Among the activities that are credited with long life we find:

Tosafot explain that even nicknames that did not carry any negative elements were to be avoided. Calling someone by a nickname that was insulting is a very serious matter according to the Talmud (see Bava Metzia 58b). Rabbeinu Yehonatan explains that this refers to a name that carried with it some negative connotation when it was first given to an ancestor years before, but today is no longer an embarrassment.

The issue here is whether there is an obligation to make Kiddush on wine, or can it be made on bread. From the Gemara it is clear that this statement refers to the fact that Kiddush was always made over wine, and the Rashba explains that this was done, even though Kiddush could have been made over bread.

Rav Shmuel ha-Levi in his Ramat Shmuel suggests that this was true even in a case where it was permissible to do so according to the letter-of-the-law – for example when there was an existing walkway in front of the synagogue that was built for that purpose.

Megillah 28a-b

Given its holiness, a synagogue should not be used for private or profane purposes:

The Gemara tells of Sages who offered eulogies for others in the synagogue, arguing that it was a public occasion since people would come either to honor the dead or to hear the Sage speak.

The Gemara contrasts two such funerals. In the first, Reish Lakish offered a eulogy for a scholar who occasionally visited Israel and passed away there, teaching “in the 24th row.” In his eulogy, Reish Lakish cried over the loss of this great Sage. When Rav Nachman was asked to offer a eulogy for a scholar who was known to have studied all of the Rabbinic works, he refused to do so, saying, “What should I say? ‘The great bookcase is missing?'” (i.e. he had little respect for the scholar who had studied much material, but did not have a deep understanding of what he had learned). The Gemara uses this to contrast the sensitivity of the Rabbinic Sages of Israel (where Reish Lakish lived) with the lack of sensitivity shown by the Sages of Bavel.

This contrast is highlighted further by an alternate view of the scholar who received the eulogy from Reish Lakish. The story related that he taught in the 24th row. Rashi understands this to mean that he taught 24 rows of students, attesting to his prowess as a scholar and teacher. Others understand it differently. During the times of the Mishnah and Talmud – particularly in Israel when the Sanhedrin was still operating – the typical seating arrangement in the Torah academies was set up by knowledge and seniority. At the head sat the Sage, who taught the group while facing his students. The first row of students was the most scholarly in the group; the second row had the lesser scholars, and so on until the very last row – the 24th row – where the weakest students sat. Thus, the visiting Babylonian student who received a eulogy from Reish Lakish may have been a very weak student.

Megillah 29a-b

We are in the midst of a time of year when extra readings are added to the weekly Torah reading. These “four parshiyot” are discussed in the Mishnah on our daf.

Three of the four parshiyot (Shekalim, Parah and HaChodesh) serve as reminders of the time when the Bet ha-Mikdash stood.

Parshat Shekalim – On Rosh Chodesh Adar the mitzvah of giving one’s half-Shekel was announced.  This collection of funds paid for the communal sacrifices beginning in the month of Nissan. By announcing the obligation publicly a full month in advance, everyone would have the opportunity to prepare his half-Shekel and to donate it before Rosh Chodesh Nissan arrived.

Parshat Parah and Parshat HaChodeshParshat Parah served as a reminder to whoever was ritually defiled to purify himself with the ashes of the Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer), a process which would last one week. This was in anticipation of Rosh Chodesh Nissan, when those who lived far away would begin their journey to Jerusalem to arrive in time for Pesach. Parshat Parah always occurs the week before Parshat HaChodesh – which, in turn, takes place the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nissan. Parshat Parah reminded everyone who was tamei met (ritually impure from contact with a corpse) that Rosh Chodesh Nissan was just around the corner and that they must begin their purification immediately.

Parshat Zachor (the one Parsha that is not connected with the Bet ha-Mikdash) takes place the Shabbat before Purim, because Haman (the villain of Megilat Esther), was a descendant of Amalek, whom the Torah commands us to remember, as we read in the Parsha of Ki Teitzei on Shabbat Zachor.

Rav Yitzhak Napaha points out that these special readings can create an unusual circumstance. When Parshat Shekalim coincides with Rosh Chodesh Adar, or Parshat HaChodesh with Rosh Chodesh Nissan, three sifrei Torah are taken out to read – the first for the regular weekly Torah portion, the second for the Rosh Chodesh reading, and the third for Parshat Shekalim or ha- Chodesh. Similarly, when Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh fall out on Shabbat, we read from three sifrei Torah. The Ritva explains that this is not because of an inherent need to read different topics from different sifrei Torah, but rather is out of concern for the patience of the congregation, who will be forced to wait while the Torah scroll is turned back-and-forth in order to get to the correct reading.

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.