Introduction to Tractate Megillah
Tractate Megillah deals mostly with the public reading of Scripture at fixed times—on holidays and on certain days of the week. The first two chapters deal with reading Esther and the second two chapters deal with reading the Torah and Haftarah.
The Book of Esther does not itself mandate its own reading. However, the rabbis understood the following verse to allude to a yearly reading of Esther. 9:28 states: “Consequently, these days are recalled and observed in every generation: by every family, every province, and every city. And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews, and the memory of them shall never perish among their descendants.” The rabbis understood that the memory of Purim was to be preserved by the reading of Esther on Purim itself.
The main mitzvah of reading the Megillah is to read it during the day. However, by Talmudic times they had already added that one should read the Megillah at night as well. Most cities would read the Megillah on the fourteenth of Adar. However, cities that were walled when Joshua conquered Canaan read on fifteenth of Adar and smaller cities sometimes read on an earlier date. This is an issue which we shall explore in depth in the first three mishnayot of the tractate.
The public reading of the Torah is an ancient custom. Ancient Jewish and non-Jewish descriptions of synagogues almost always describe the Torah as being read in the synagogue. The Talmudim variously attribute this custom to Moses, to the prophets or to Ezra. From an early period the Torah was read on Shabbat and holidays at Shacharit as well as at Minhah on Shabbat, and on Monday and Thursday at Shacharit.
The reading of a portion from the Prophets, the Haftarah, also seems to be an ancient custom. According to some commentators, the reading of the Haftarah was a response to a decree that Jews could not read from the Torah. Perhaps a more cogent explanation is that Jews wanted to hear the Prophets as well as the Torah.
In the land of Israel, from Mishnaic times through the early medieval period, the custom was to complete the reading of the Torah once every three or perhaps three and half years. This is stated explicitly in the Babylonian Talmud, and is clearly reflected in some midrashim and in lists of the Haftarot. This is commonly called the “triennial cycle.” In Babylonia they read the entire Torah once a year, completing it on Simchat Torah. I should note the ancient “triennial cycle” is very different from the “triennial cycle” as it is observed in some Conservative congregations today. Most congregations follow along with “parshat hashavua” the weekly Torah reading as determined by the annual Babylonian cycle, but read only a third of it. This preserves the ability to follow after the weekly Torah reading but creates the problem that the Torah is not read consecutively. In ancient Israel they certainly read the Torah consecutively.
Finally, we should note another key distinction between current practice and ancient practice. In the time of the Mishnah, one who received an “aliyah” literally “going up to the Torah,” would have read the Torah and recited the blessing. Today this usually doesn’t happen. Usually, one person goes up to recite the blessing and another person reads on his behalf. There are other customs that we observe differently from those prescribed in the Mishnah, and we shall note them as opportunity arises.