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The Gantze Megillah: About the Five Megillot

10/10/2017 11:48:53 AM


By Sydney Nestel on behalf of the Adult Education Committee

Almost everyone has heard of Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther), but not everyone knows that there are five “megillot” (scrolls) in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible).

And those who know even a bissel Yiddish ( a little Yiddish) know that the phrase “the gantze megillah” means, literally “the whole scroll”, but figuratively-  “the whole story”: (an allusion, perhaps, to having to sit through a complete and overly long reading of Megillat  Esther in order to hear “the entire story” in all its details.) This article, despite its title, will not be the whole story about the Five Megillot, but just a brief introduction. If you want the gantze megillah about the five scrolls, you will have to attend Darchei Noam’s upcoming Megillot series. We will be delving into all five, as part of Shabbat services over the next few months.  Our first session will be on October 28. Details and exact times of all five sessions are listed at the end of this article.

So what are the Five Megillot? They are:

  • Song of Songs – (Hebrew: Shir HaShirim)
  • Ruth – (Hebrew: Rut)
  • Lamentations – (Hebrew: Eicha)
  • Ecclesiastes – (Hebrew: Kohelet)
  • Esther – (Hebrew: Ester).

They appear in modern editions of the Tanach in that order, in the third part of the tanach, the Ketubim (Writings or Hagiographa).

Originally, only Megalith Esther was mandated to be read in public (on Purim) and only it was mandated to be written on a scroll – like a Torah scroll. But over time the word megillah came to be associated with these other short books of the ketubim as well, and by the Middle Ages it was common for all of them to be written on separate scrolls and called megillot.

Here is a brief overview of each of the megillot.

Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs or Cantillations) is series of love poems. Taken literally they speak of erotic desire between a man and a woman. But, of course, the words are not interpreted literally by traditional Jewish sources (or Christian ones, for that matter) – but, rather, are taken as describing the love between God and His People. This allegorical reading of the work’s open eroticism is perhaps best exemplified by the (mis)translation in some Orthodox tanachim (bibles) of the verse: “Your two breasts are like fauns …” (4:5)  into “Moses and Aaron are like fauns …”  Authorship of Shir HaShirim is traditionally ascribed to King Solomon (though in reality it was probably composed in the mid second temple period.) Its purported authorship, its allegorical reading and its apparent popularity among the common folk are what drove the Rabbis to include it in the cannon - that and its beautiful and evocative poetry. Shir HaShirim is traditionally read in the Ashkenazi synagogues on Passover.

Rut (Ruth) is the story of the Moabite woman Ruth, her relationship with her mother-in-law Naomi, her becoming a Jew, and her eventual marriage to Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. The book ends with a list of the descendants of Boaz and Ruth, ending with King David. Yes! King David’s grandmother is the Moabite convert, Ruth. And that is probably the point of the book. But it is also a lovely lyrical portrait of the love and loyalty between Ruth and Naomi; about the hardships of being a widow in Biblical times; and about the rhythms of life in general in ancient Judea  – driven by the agricultural cycle, the vagaries of weather  and disease, and rescued by loyalty, love, family and traditions. Ruth is traditionally read in synagogue on Shavuot.

Eicha (Lamentations) is a series of dirges describing and bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 585 BCE. The scenes of death and destruction are horrific and the pain and suffering palpable, as is the despair and anguish of the author – traditionally said to be Jeremiah the prophet. But the book also lays out a cornerstone of Jewish theology ever since: we were exiled, and suffer, because of OUR sins, but one day in the future God will redeem us and “renew our days, as days of old”. The book is read aloud in both Ashkenazi and Sephardi synagogues on Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av), the anniversary date of the destruction of the Temple.

Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) is a book in the genre of “wisdom literature” – or what we would call philosophical speculation. It is a meditation on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of life and of proper behaviour. Heavily influenced by Greek philosophy, it often sounds like 20th century existential angst – with lines like: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”, and “There is nothing new under the sun”.  Why was such a seemingly amoral, even nihilistic, book included in the canon? Perhaps, because its authorship was ascribed to King Solomon? Or perhaps because of its ending, which states, that despite – or perhaps because of – the apparent meaninglessness of life, all that is left to us is to grasp onto a belief in God and His commandments: without that, there is only ennui and despair. Kohelet is traditionally read in Ashkenazi synagogues on Sukkot.

Esther is, of course, the original and prototypical megillah. It is the story of Esther – a Jewish girl who becomes queen of the Persian empire, her wise uncle Mordecai, her  husband,  the foolish and amoral King Ahasverosh, and his Prime Minister the arch-villain and prototypical anti-Semite Haman. Though we have often turned it into a children’s tale – and the book is full of gluttony, exaggeration, hyperbole, sexual allusion, and the humiliation of our enemy – it is also quite dark: with the threat of both genocide and revenge killings haunting its pages. Of course, all’s well that ends well, and Haman is defeated and the Jews survive. Which is why Megalith Esther is read in virtually every synagogue around the world on Purim.

* * *

And that, in brief, is an overview of the five megillot. But if you want to know the gantze megillah, and become a real megillah maven – a scroll sensation!  – you should plan to attend one or more of Darchei Noam’s upcoming series on the Five Megillot. Each session will take place on a Shabbat morning from 11:00 to noon, in parallel with the Torah service.

Mark your calendars.

  • October 28, 2017 – Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), led by Mark Matchen
  • January 27, 2018 – Eicha (Lamentations), led by Rabbi Rena Arshinoff
  • March 10, 2018 – Esther, led by Sydney Nestel
  • April 7, 2018 – Shir HaShirim, led by Julie Forman-Kay
  • May 26, 2018 – Ruth, led by Baruch Sienna
Thu, 23 May 2024 15 Iyar 5784