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March 11, 2011 / 5 Adar 2, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Megillah

Megillah: Chapter 1, Mishna 1

So on what day do we read the Megillah? I'll bet you thought that was a pretty easy question. The answer would seem to be - we read the Megillah on Purim day which is the 14th of Adar. But some of you might remember that there is also Shushan Purim which is on the 15th of Adar and it is on that day that the Megillah is read if you are in a city that had walls around it during the days of the conquest of the land of Israel by Joshua (explained at the end of this lesson). So it's the 14th or 15th of Adar!

Not exactly! Our Mishna tells us that the Scroll of Esther can be read on the “eleventh, twelfth, on the thirteenth, on the fourteenth or on the fifteenth” of Adar.” Why is it OK to read the Megillah on the 11th,12th or 13th of Adar? There is no indication of this in the Megillah and those days are neither Purim nor Shushan Purim. The Rabbis were dealing with the reality of the demographics of their time (we're not the only ones to have to deal with demographics!) Many people lived in villages outside the main cities. We know from our Torah reading ritual that the people in the villages would come into the major cities on Mondays and Thursday mornings to do their marketing and to use the courts if they needed them. That is why the Torah is read on Monday and Thursday. If Purim fell on one of those days they would also catch a Megillah reading 'in town'. But if Purim fell on a day other than Monday and Thursday one of two things would have to occur; 1) the villagers would have to come in to town an extra day to hear the Torah reading or 2) they would need someone in their village to read the Megillah for them to hear.

Unfortunately, it was often the case that no one in the village had the skills necessary to read the Megillah for the community (I want you to appreciate your Megillah reader when you hear him/her this year - it really is a very difficult skill to master!) The Rabbis were realistic and knew that an extra trek into town for the Megillah reading or finding a skilled enough reader in the village were probably not going to happen. So their thought process was as follows. This is not a Torah ordained holiday (d'Oraiita) but in fact is something created by the Prophets and the Rabbis. One could not imagine the Rabbis saying let's do Seder night on a night other than dictated on the calendar because it would make it possible for more people to observe! But if the holiday is established by the Rabbis they have the leeway to be 'lenient' in their decisions about how the holiday is observed. If they tried and force the villagers to hear the Megillah on the day prescribed in the Book of Esther they may have ended up with most of them never hearing the Megillah read. They didn't think that was the better option so they made its observance easier by expanding the calendar for the Megillah reading. This is part of the incredible creativity of the Rabbis which led to greater observance and participation. It's a lesson we dare not forget in our own time.

Now why do people who live in 'cities encircled by a wall from the days of Joshua' observe the holiday on the 15th of Adar - Shushan Purim? From the Megillah we know that the battle in Shusahan continued an extra day so they didn't rest until a day later - hence the celebration of Purim is a day later - makes sense. Shushan was a walled city but what does that got to do with cities that were walled in the times of Joshua also celebrating a day later. Joshua lived about 700 years earlier than the Purim story! Why not cities that were encircled by walls at the time of Achashverosh?

The Jerusalem Talmud gives this explanation (it's hard to study Mishna without referring to the Talmud.) The land of Israel lay in ruins during this time of Jewish history. Remember the destruction of the Temple and the burning of Jerusalem had taken place less just 50 years earlier. There wasn't a single city in Israel with a wall around it at this time. They had all been razed to the ground. So the Rabbis went back to the glory days of the people of Israel rather than focus on the sad state of the nation during the time of Purim. In this way they gave honor to the land of Israel and reminded the people that the blessings of independence were still a possibility.

Focusing on the days of Joshua would be uplifting. Focusing on the land of Israel during the time of Purim would have been depressing! Commentators to the Talmud add one other reason. It was Joshua who first fought against Amalek in the desert as the Jews were fleeing Egypt. Haman, we are told in the Megillah, descended from Amalek so we go back to when the confrontation first began which was in the lifetime of Joshua who eventually conquered the land of Israel. On the day we remember the defeat of Amalek's descendant - Haman, we should remember the one who fought the first battle and reminded us that the fight is an eternal one - a fight against the evil which Amalek embodied. All that in one Mishnah! Can you imagine!

This week's Mishnah lesson was written by
Rabbi Ed Farber
Beth Torah - Benny Rok Campus
Miami, Florida.

Rabbi Ed Farber grew up in Miami where he was active in the United Synagogue Youth movement. He graduated from Norland Senior High and the Greater Miami Judaica High School program. He was ordained as a Rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and served as the Rabbi of Temple Samu-El Or Olom in South Dade before coming to Beth Torah in 1995. In February of 2003 he was presented with an Honorary Doctorate by the Jewish Theological Seminary for his 25 years of service in the Rabbinate.

The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.

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