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March 4, 2011 / 28 Adar 1, 5771
Unravelling the Mishnah of Tractate Megillah


There is a Tractate in the Mishna known as Megillah. You can probably guess the content from its title. It deals with laws and customs surrounding the Reading of the Megillah of Esther and other related topics that on the surface might not appear to be all that related but we can talk about that when those subjects arise. This Tractate appears in the second of the Six Orders (Sedarim) of the Mishna known as “Moed” which refers to 'appointed times'. When we look at the list of Tractates in Moed we find that every one of them deals with a subject that flows from the Torah with the exception of Megillah. The observance of Purim is obviously not from the Torah. The Story of Esther takes place during the time that the Persian Empire ruled supreme and one of its subject lands was Judea. There was no independent Jewish government in Jerusalem at the time. The story itself doesn't even take place in the land of Israel although the Jews of Israel were certainly impacted by the King's decree (instigated by Haman - BOO!!) to kill all the Jews of the Empire.

Here's the genius of the Rabbis. They have a Tractate called Megillah with laws about how and when to observe the holiday set right amidst Torah issues to make the point that the way we live as Jews is not determined only by the Torah. After all, can't we ask - by whose authority do you decree a holiday and then establish a whole series of customs, observances and laws which are obligatory upon the community? The authority comes from the Rabbis which they derive from the Torah itself! Think about this - before we read the Megillah in the evening and the morning we recite three B'rachot - the third being the Shehechayanoo. The first two B'rachot have the familiar formula: “Praised are You O Lord our God Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us…(concerning the reading of the Megillah). Talk about boldness! The Rabbis - who created the formula to begin with - tell us that this Mitzvah which they invented (actually they credit the Prophets but by no means the Torah) is amongst the commandments that God put forward.

What they mean is that in the Torah the authority is given to the leaders of the people of Israel - the Rabbis in Post-Biblical Israel - to declare Mitzvot and therefore they can say “Praised are You O Lord Who commanded us.” And thank goodness for the Rabbis boldness (some might call it Chutzpah!) Without it our tradition would have been frozen in the past lacking a mechanism for renewal and modernization.

Can you imagine not having Holocaust Memorial Day or Israel Independence Day on your Jewish Calendars? (Well actually if you have a Chabad calendar you won't have them but that's for another time when you want to talk Theology.)

In our tradition the past has a say but not a veto. If we fail to react to our modern history or confront contemporary issues using our current knowledge and the wisdom of the past then we will cease to be relevant. Our Rabbis and teachers are not just interpreters of the past they are also responsible for confronting and determining directions for our present and future. If they didn't do that a few thousand years ago we wouldn't have any Hamantaschen to eat. And to offer you a modern interpretation I tell you with all Rabbinic authority that I can muster that in the 21st century you can stuff them with Chocolate instead of Prune (God forbid) or poppy. And if you never did that before then I give you permission to say a Shehecheyanoo over your first Chocolate Hamantachen and to that we can all say - Amen!

Next time we'll study the Mishna text.

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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