Masechet Megillah 2a-8b

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08 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 2

From its very inception, the holiday of Purim was celebrated on two different days. The megillah clearly indicates that only the Jews living in cities that did not have walls surrounding them kept the holiday’s commandments on the 14th day of Adar, while walled cities celebrated on the 15th of the month (see Megillat Esther 9:19-22). Thus it is not entirely surprising to find that the Sages added more dates for the reading of the megillah, allowing villagers to hear it on the Monday or Thursday preceding Purim, when they visited the larger cities to participate in the market days, to hear the public Torah reading or to appear before the local courts that sat on those days. The first perek of Masechet Megillah deals with these additional days of Purim, as well as questions of defining which walled cities celebrate on the 15th and how to deal with two months of Adar on a Jewish leap year.

The Ramban asks the most basic question about Purim celebrations. Why were they originally set up to be kept on two different days? In answer to this, he points out that the Purim story takes place in the years of exile between the first and the second Temples. By this time, some Jews had returned to the land of Israel, where they were spread out in small towns and villages. It was these Jews who were in the greatest danger from Haman‘s decrees, and they were the ones who first established a day of thanksgiving on the 14th of Adar. Only when the Sages sat and decided to formalize a commemoration of the events was a decision made to include all Jews – even the ones who were in less danger – by establishing a day of celebration to honor the events in the capital Shushan, which occurred on the 15th of the month.

Megillah 3

There is a long history of the Bible being translated into the vernacular, but the attitude of the Sages to translations is not entirely positive.

According to our Gemara, Chumash was translated into Aramaic by the convert Onkelos, based on the teachings of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. When the Navi was translated by Yonatan ben Uziel, based on the teachings of Chagai, Zechariah and Malachi, the land of Israel shook and a heavenly voice called out “who has allowed my secrets to be shared with flesh-and-blood?!” In response, Yonatan ben Uziel accepted the responsibility for having done so, adding that God certainly knew that his intention was not to bring honor to himself or his family, but rather to add to the honor of God. Nevertheless, when he wanted to continue his work and translate Ketuvim, the heavenly voice forbade him from completing his work, since those books include the secrets of the end-of-days.

In his Pardes Rimonim, Shem-Tov ibn Shaprut explains the expression that the land of Israel shook as a metaphor for the objections raised by the Sages throughout Israel against the translation and its publication. The Gemara itself explains that there were greater objections about Navi than Chumash because the Chumash is more straightforward, while Navi has parts that cannot be understood without translations and elucidation. Rabbeinu Chananel explains that the Sages simply saw it as objectionable to publicize issues that the Torah had only hinted to. The Ri”d argues that the problem stems from the fact that translations make study too easy, and that people would come to rely on the translation rather than working through the material on their own. The P’nei Yehoshua suggests that there was a fear that only the translation would be studied and the original texts would be ignored.

Today we have Aramaic translations of the books of the Ketuvim, as well (in fact, Megillat Esther has two). Already during the time of the second Temple a translation of Sefer Iyov was available. Nevertheless, the Geonim write that these were qualitatively different than the translations described here, in that they were never officially sanctioned, were not authored by leading rabbis, and were not seen as necessarily offering the true meaning of the text.

Megillah 4

What level of obligation do women have in the commandments of Purim?

Generally speaking, women are not obligated in Mitzvot aseh she-hazman geramah – positive commandments that are dependant on time. Thus, women are not obligated to sit in a Sukkah on Sukkot, nor are they obligated to wear tzizit or to lay tefillin, which are only done during the day. Based on this principle, we would anticipate that women would not be obligated in the mitzvot of Purim, either.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that women are obligated to hear the reading of the megillah, she’af hen hayu be-oto ha-nes – that they were involved in the miracle of Purim. There is a difference of opinion regarding this teaching. According to Rashi and most of the commentaries, Jewish women were included in Haman‘s decrees of destruction, and are therefore obligated to participate in the thanksgiving festivities that celebrate the rescue of the Jewish people. Rav Hai Ga’on, the Rashbam and others argues that the Gemara‘s intent is that Jewish women played a crucial role in the miracle, in that Esther orchestrated the events that led to Haman’s discovery and hanging.

In either case it is clear that women are obligated in the mitzvot of the day. How this affects women and their own reading of the megillah is the source of some dispute.

According to Rashi and the Rambam it appears that women are obligated in reading the megillah and therefore can read for others, as well. The Me’iri and the Ritva rule that women are obligated in the mitzvah, but they nevertheless cannot read for others because of an external reason, for example because it is not appropriate for the honor of the community for women to play such a public role. Finally there are those who suggest that women cannot read for others because their obligation is not to read the megillah, but only to hear the megillah.

A full discussion of this issue appears at

Megillah 5

As we have learned, the holiday of Purim is celebrated on two separate days. People living in cities without walls keep Purim on the 14th day of Adar, while Jews living in walled cities celebrate on the 15th day of the month. What if we are not sure whether a given city had walls around it going back to the days when Yehoshua entered the land of Israel with the Jewish people?

The Gemara relates that Chizkiya was unsure whether Teverya (Tiberias) was considered a walled city or not, so he read the megillah on both the 14th and the 15th.  The Gemara explains that he was certain that walls surrounded the city; his dilemma was whether a city which was surrounded on three sides by a wall and on the fourth side by the sea (Tiberias is built on the shores of the Kinneret) should be considered a walled city or not.

Can Chizkiya’s ruling with regard to Tiberias be applied to other situations where we are unsure as to the status of a given city? Based on his decision, it would appear that we should also read the megillah twice in other cities whose history is not clear, a position that appears to negate the usual rules that we apply in situations of uncertainty:

  1. We usually rule that we follow the rov or majority of cases. Most cities did not have walls, so we should assume that the city in question did not have them either.
  2. When faced with cases of uncertainty on a Rabbinic level, we are inclined to choose the lenient position.

Both of these rules would seem to indicate that the megillah should be read only once – on the 14th.

The Geonim, in fact, argue that we cannot apply Chizkiya’s rule to other cases, since it was a unique case where he knew that the city had been walled on three sides, and his question was how the fourth side – protected by the sea – should be viewed. The Ramban argues that Chizkiya’s behavior was a middat chasidut – a pious practice – that was not meant to be applied by others or in other cases.

In fact, there are a number of cities where it was common practice to read on both days of Purim (and perform the other commandments, as well) although blessings were made only on the 14th. Such communities included Baghdad and Damascus, as well as cities in Israel, like Chevron and Tzefat.

Megillah 6

On yesterday’s daf we learned that Chizkiya asserted that Tiberias was a walled city dating back to the time that the Jewish people entered the land of Israel at the end of their exodus from Egypt. This assertion is supported by a passage in Sefer Yehoshua (19:35) that lists walled cities included in the area set aside for the tribe of Naftali, and includes cities in the vicinity of the Kinneret, including one that is identified as Tiberias.

Contemporary Tiberias was established in the year 18 CE by King Herod, who named the new city in honor of the Roman Caesar Tiberius. Although the city was built anew, it was established on the ruins of an ancient city – according to most opinions in the Gemara, of the city Rakat. Due to its having been built on an ancient Jewish city, the Sages dealt with the problems of burial grounds that were no longer marked, and kohanim did not settle in the city.

The discussion of identifying ancient cities (a practice that still inspires debate and discussion in Israel today) leads the Gemara to discuss other cities and their history. One of the cities is Caesarea, an ancient city on the Mediterranean coast. The city was established at the beginning of the second Temple era by the king of Sidon. Over the generations it became less and less important, and Alexander Yannai captured it and included it in the Kingdom of Judea. By the end of the second Temple period, King Herod had once again built it into an important port city. Nevertheless, from its beginning it was a city with a non-Jewish and even pagan quality to it. Caesarea became the administrative center of the Roman rule in Israel in the year 6 CE, and the tension between Jerusalem, the symbol of Jewish rule and independence, and Caesarea, is clearly expressed in the stories related in our Gemara. With the destruction of Jerusalem, Caesarea became the de facto capital of the country until the Muslim capture of the country.

Megillah 7

Everyone knows that Purim is the single day on the Jewish calendar that we are commanded to get drunk. Or are we?

Rava teaches that a person is obligated livsumei (Rashi interprets this to mean “to get drunk with wine”) on Purim until he does not know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.”

There are many approaches to this statement. Some include –

It is commonplace to find that after a statement of halakha, the Gemara will tell a story that illustrates the halakha. It is interesting to note that after Rava’s ruling obligating a person to drink on Purim, the Gemara relates a story about Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira, in which they got drunk at a Purim meal, whereupon kam Rabbah shachtei le-Rabbi Zeira (Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira). The commentaries reject the possibility that this story can be understood on a simple straightforward level, suggesting, for example, that the expression shachtei may be understood to mean that he gave him so much to drink that he became ill (Maharsha) or that he squeezed him until he fainted (Me’iri). Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of this story with Rava’s ruling leads some to understand that Rava’s ruling is rejected and that a person should follow the position of the Rambam and simply drink in order to get drowsy and sleep (see Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 695:2).

Megillah 8

The Mishnah (6b) teaches ein bein Adar ha-Rishon la-Adar ha-Sheni, ela keri’at ha-Megillah u-matanot la-evyonim – “there is no difference between the first Adar and the second, aside from reading the megillah and distributing presents to the poor.”
This teaching leads to a series of Mishnayot that contrast two similar issues of halakhah including:

The last Mishnah on our daf discusses differences between writing Torah scrolls and writing Tefillin and Mezuzot, teaching that a Torah scroll can be written in any language, while Tefillin and Mezuzot can only be written in Ashurit.

In the language of the Sages, ketav Ashuri is the square writing that is used in ritual objects today, as opposed to ketav Ivri, which is the ancient script used by the Samaritans. We find differences of opinion with regard to the name Ashuri, whether it is called by that name because the Jews brought it back to Israel from their exile in Babylon (Ashur), or if it is called by that name because of its fine, straight writing (yashar).

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel’s opinion quoted in the Mishnah limits foreign writing in Sifrei Torah to Greek, based on the passage in Sefer Bereshit (9:27) that invites Yefet to dwell in the tents of Shem. This pasuk is understood to recognize the beauty of Greek, which would be appropriate to use to enhance Jewish practice. The Gemara rules like Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, a position accepted by the Rambam, who argues that the original Greek has become corrupted and has effectively been lost. Therefore today all of our ritual objects, including Sifrei Torah, are only written with ketav Ashuri.

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.