Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The whole megillah

After making a siyyum on Masechet Rosh Hashanah, attending a siyyum on the letter G, and attending a workshop by JT Waldman (artist of the new Megillat Esther graphic novel), I was ready to start Masechet Megillah last night with MAK. There are 31 dapim, and 31 weeks until Purim, so if we average one daf a week, we can finish in time for Purim!

We started with the whole first chapter in the Mishnah and about 2/3 of the first daf in the Gemara. The chapter of Mishnah begins with a full discussion of a single issue (the date when the megillah should be read in every possible circumstance) and then spins off into a mnemotechnical series of mishnayot that are linked in structure but not content, spanning at least four of the six orders of the Mishnah in their scope.

The first sugya in the Gemara appears to be arguing about whether the megillah should be read earlier than 14 Adar in small towns, but is really debating questions of authority. Purim is weird because the whole holiday is "rabbinic" in the sense that it doesn't appear anywhere in the Torah, but is biblical in the sense that we have prooftexts for it, in which we can derive laws from individual letters just like in the Torah. The discussion operates under the premise that the laws in Esther chapter 9 were enacted by the Great Knesset in the time of Esther. The famous Mishnah Eduyot 1:5 is brought up, stating the Jewish version of stare decisis: a later court cannot overrule an earlier court unless they are greater in wisdom and number. They implicitly accept the idea of "farther from the source" (rather than "standing on the shoulders of giants"), so it is understood that no one can overrule the Great Knesset. So the debate is just about what the Great Knesset actually decreed, and how much can be parsed from the words in Esther, versus what was a later rabbinic ruling to complement this.

Residents of small villages are permitted to read the megillah earlier (on the 11th, 12th, or 13th of Adar), moving up to the nearest Monday or Thursday, the market days when they're in town anyway. The reason given is somewhat selfish on the part of the city people who are making the laws: the farmers have to be out in the fields growing our food. That might also be the motivation behind the statement we just saw on the last page of Rosh Hashanah, that the prayer leader in the city fulfills the obligation not only of those who can hear him/her, but also of those out in the fields. So perhaps the selfish motivation has an altruistic effect and the policy is sensitive to the rural residents as well, or perhaps the farmers are just being excluded as a permanent underclass. Unclear. In any case, the idea of reading Torah and megillah on Mondays and Thursdays (because those are the days when people are gathered together anyway) provides a historical precedent to those Reform congregations that read Torah on Friday night (when more people are there).

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