What are the five megillot?

Textual Tapestries

Explorations of the Five Megillot

By Gabriel H. Cohn

Maggid Press, 2017

Textual Tapestries is the seventh excellent and informative addition to Maggid’s Tanakh Companions series. As its subtitle states, it is about the five biblical books that Jews call Megillot, “scrolls,” – Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther – and read one of them on five Jewish holidays. Maggid Press is part of the distinguished Koren Press. Gabriel H. Cohn is a biblical scholar at Israel’s Bar Ilan University specializing in literary explanations of the Bible and the study of midrashic commentaries. Each of the seven books in the series was written by a different scholar.

Dr. Cohn explains that there is no mention in any ancient text of the tradition of reading a scroll on a holiday before the beginning of the geonic period, but the practice may have been based on an already existing convention. The geonic period is customarily said to have begun in 589 CE and ended in 1038. Geonim (plural of geon, also spelled gaon) were the presidents of the two great Torah Academies in Babylonia. Gaon means “exalted” and “renowned” and “genius.” The geonim were considered to be religious leaders of world Jewry until 1038. After that date Jews sought religious leadership in European rabbis. An example is the Frenchman Rashi who was born in 1040.

 

The following are very brief examples of information Dr. Cohn gives readers about the book of Esther and Purim.

  1. He discusses Esther in seven fact-filled chapters and adds two appendices on the laws and customs of Purim and how the book was treated over past and present generations, including how some scholars and even rabbis criticized the book.
  2. Bu the Talmud praises the book and mandated that it is the only one of the megillot that is read at night and again in the morning and the only one for which a blessing must be said before and after the reading.
  3. The Talmud, medieval manuscripts, and today’s printed editions of the Bible arrange the biblical books in different orders. Today all editions group the five megillot together, but not in chronological order of when they were written.
  4. Particularly strange about Esther is that the entire introduction to the book (1:1-2:4) seems completely unnecessary.
  5. But the author wants to teach us something about Ahasuerus and does so by way of social satire and condemnation of the Persian kingdom. The kingdom is very materialistic and the book emphasizes hedonism and the pursuit of pleasure that prevailed in the court of King Ahasuerus. Haman first adduces ideological arguments for destroying the Jews, but what convinces the king is Haman’s promise to transfer large sums of money to him. Haman incites the people to kill Jews by promising them monetary plunder. In contrast, the book mentions three times that the Jews “did not lay their hands on the plunder.” The book contains ten different feasts. The word mishteh, a drinking party, is a key word in the book and is repeated twenty times.
  6. The author emphasizes that Persia is a law-abiding country through the repeated use of the word “law” twenty-four times, yet, ironically, we see the king being ruled by his moods and impulses.
  7. Much in the book seems to occur just at the right time, but by sheer chance, leading rabbis to say that the events occurred by God’s intervention, although God is not mentioned in the book. For many, this is the religious message of the book.
  8. There are many remarkable similarities between the events in Esther and what occurred to Jacob’s son Joseph, which Cohn discusses. These include similar language and events, such as the king giving power by giving a ring.
  9. Cohn also speaks about the status of women in Persia and among the Jews by comparing Queen Vashti to Esther. Did Ahasuerus fear that Vashti was a role model for women’s liberation?

In short, this seventh book in Maggid’s excellent series gives readers a wealth of information in an easy-to-read format that will be enjoyed by scholars and non-scholars alike.

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