Don’t touch that megillah!

We studied an interesting bit of Gemara (B. Megillah 7a) at my seudah today, and I wanted to share some of my insights into the text as the Jerusalem sun sets on Shushan Purim.

The rabbis are discussing whether Megillat Esther may be considered a sacred text since it does not contain the name of God. The term they use for a sacred text is “m’tamey et ha-yadayim” — literally, a text that “impurifies the hands.” Rav Yehuda says in the name of Shmuel that Megillat Esther is not a sacred text because it was not said with “ruach ha-kodesh.” But then the rabbis bring a conflicting source in which Shmuel declares that indeed Megillat Esther is sacred. How to resolve the contradiction? The Gemara explains that the megillah as written does not impurify the hands, whereas the megillah as read does. But what is the difference between the megillah as written and the megillah as read, such that the latter is sacred but the former is not? I think the answer can be found in the second half of this sugya.

After a brief digression about other books of the Tanach are “m’tamey et ha-yadayim” or not, the rabbis return to the question of Megillat Esther. Various rabbis cite various proof texts to demonstrate that the Megillah is indeed sacred:

Rabbi Eliezer: Megillah is sacred because it says “Va’yomer Haman b’libo” — how would we know what Haman said if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Rabbi Akivah: Megillah is sacred because it says “V’tehi Esther noseit chen” — how would we know that Esther found favor in the king’s eyes if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Rabbi Meir: Megillah is sacred because it says “And the matter became known to Mordechai” — how would Mordechai have known about the plot to kill the king if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Rabbi Yosey: Megillah is sacred because it says “Ushlalam lavoz” — how would we know that no Jews anywhere touched the spoil, if not for ruach ha-kodesh?
Shmuel: Megillah is sacred because it says “kimu v’kiblu” (they confirmed and undertook upon themselves). From this we learn that God confirmed in the heavenly court what the Jews took upon themselves on earth.

In the next part of the sugya, the rabbis knock down the first four proof text above. In each case, they show how it is not sufficient justification for the claim that the Megillah was written b’ruach ha-kodesh. For instance, perhaps Mordechai knew about the plot to kill the king not because of ruach ha-kodesh, but because he spoke the same language as Bigtan Vateresh. Etc., etc. In each case, the rabbis are able to find a flaw with the proof text. Only Shmuel’s reasoning is not dismissed, and the rabbi’s conclude, “Shmuel’s proof alone has no flaw — this is analagous to what people say, ‘One sharp pepper is better than a basketful of melons.'”

The Gemara then offers two more proofs that Esther was written with the divine spirit:

Rav Yosef: We know this from the verse “And these days of Purim shall not fail among the Jews.”
Rav Nachman bar Yitchak: We know this from the verse “Nor shall their remembrance cease from their descendants.”

Now, aside from suggestions as to how to fill a mishloach manot basket (it’s all about the peppers), I think this sugya has something very interesting to teach us about the meaning of holiness in our lives. All of those verses that are ultimately accepted as proof that the Megillah is sacred deal with the way in which we (that is, you and I and all of us who are living today) take upon ourselves the mitzvot of Purim. Shmuel’s text asserts that God ratified the Jews’ acceptance of Purim; Yosef’s text asserts that Jews continued to celebrate Purim; and Rav Nachman’s text declares that Purim is forever remembered. In other words, we who observe Purim breathe the divine spirit into the Megillah.

This brings us to the answer to the question raised by the first half of the sugya. Why is the Megillah sacred only when read and not when written? Because the written scroll itself is inert and lifeless. It is only when we READ it that we breathe life into it. By reading the Megillah aloud–which is one of the four mitzvot of Purim (others are seudah, mishloach manot, matanot la-evyonim)–we bring life to the text. We are the “m’kablim” in Shmuel’s “kimu v’kiblu”; we are the reason that the days of Purim don’t fail a la R. Yosef; and we are the cause for their remembrance a la R. Nachman.

In Breishit 2:7, we read that God “formed man from the dust of the earth. He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” The Megillah does not contain the name of God, so it is not a sacred document when it is simply lying there in the drawer. It is we who breathe life into it when we read it and when we carry out the mitzvot it instructs us to keep. We breathe life into the Megillah, infusing it with holiness so that it becomes what the other books of the Torah already are — sacred writ.

One thought on “Don’t touch that megillah!

  1. Tzemah says:

    And I thought you didn’t like Purim– yshar kochech!maybe, however, its purim that doesn’t like you (it certainly doesn’t seem to like women in general), I certainly wouldn’t want to breathe kedushah into a text which commemorates the patriarchal hierarchies in such a blatant way (its the worst in the Bible!) – think about it, everything in the Megillah is reversed except – “every woman shall be totally subservient and downtrodden and shall worship her husband” (O.K got carried away a little in that translation…)Now shir hashirim that a nice text…


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