Orthodox women reading Megillat Esther on Purim are a common sight in many communities, but this year, a group of Orthodox women in St. Louis has written their own megillah!
On Tuesday, after nearly three years of preparation, the St. Louis Women’s Megillah Writing Project completed their megillah, just in time for Purim 2013. They celebrated this milestone with a siyyum, filled with words of Torah, reflections on their accomplishment, and a workshop for those who wanted to try out safrut (scribal calligraphy). Four primary scribes worked together to complete the megillah–Phyllis Shapiro, Shelly Wolf, Aviva Buck-Yael and Dorit Daphna-Iken. The megillah also contains illuminations by female artists, and was sewn together by another female participant.
This siyyum marks the completion of the firstmegillah written by Orthodox women in the United States, showcasing yet another way that Orthodox women can take ownership of their ritual experiences and use their skills to become active participants in their religious experiences. As a result of this siyyum, the Orthodox community has a new set of role models to look up to, and Orthodox women have a new set of possibilities open to them.
Phyllis Shapiro, first woman president of Bais Abe in St. Louis and project organizer, explains that she initially learned Hebrew calligraphy because she wanted to write mezuzot as house-warming and wedding gifts. She was discouraged when she learned that a mezuzah written by a woman is not kosher in Orthodox communities. A male friend suggested she redirect her new skill and “just write a megillah.” “The project was too big to take on by myself so I gathered a group of interested women to help,” says Ms. Shapiro. The project began in Spring 2010 with a group of ten women who studied the halachot of writing amegillah and began calligraphy classes. After two years of studying the halachah, and practicing their calligraphy, the group began to write on parchment in Summer 2012. Of the original participants, four wrote the megillah, three participants became involved with illuminating the megillah, and one sewed together the four pieces of parchment. “Working with a group was the best idea—the group aspect of the project was one of the most gratifying parts.”
The group began by studying the halachic aspects of writing a megillah with Rabbi Hyim Shafner of Bais Abe, and continued to learn the technical skills of creating each Hebrew letter through step-by-step videos online. They were eventually able to find a local rabbi, Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek Synagogue, to work with them in person as they continued to learn the calligraphy and the practical details of writing a megillah.
Resources and Advice
Not only have these women written a kosher megillah, that will be read on Purim this year, but they have also documented their journey, laying out a practical and clear roadmap for others who are interested in following their lead.
It is fascinating to watch the progression of the project through their blog, and to see the way these women slowly learned to create individual letters, and learned to use the special nibs and ink for writing on a klaf (parchment). They practiced each letter for weeks, using step-by-step guides and graph paper guides, before they transitioned to writing directly on the klaf, and on their megillah.
The group has been very thoughtful about the way they have approached this project—through studying and translating the halachic requirements of writing megillah, to studying the halachic sources that allow for illuminating the scroll. The blog contains detailed accounts of every step—from identifying prospective new members, to purchasing materials, to creating the guides for the calligraphy letters, to illuminating the megillah.
The blog includes translations of the laws of writing and sewing a megillah, a collection of sources permitting illuminations in the megillahand links to step-by-step guides for creating each letter.
Ms. Shapiro offers the following practical advice for women interested in writing amegillah: “Work with a group of at least four scribes. Find a good teacher for learning how to write the alphabet–we tried learning the STAM script on line, which was not a good idea. Buy all of your supplies at the beginning, including the parchment, ink, nibs and gid (thread) for sewing. Set up a light-table to work at. It is very easy to make a makeshift one – use a large piece of Lucite held up by two TV snack tables, and a lamp underneath. Copy a megillah that has the same format (number of columns and rows per column) as the one you will write. Copy it, cut the columns and tape them (with masking tape) behind your parchment pieces – this will take care of all spacing issues – and working at the light table, you just follow the model Megillah.”
Participants combined a variety of skills to help them with this project. Some of the women had prior experience with calligraphy, which served as a template for going forward, while one woman used her computer skills to create practice grids which were the same size as the letters in the megillah.
This brand-new, illuminated, kosher megillah will be used at the sixteenth annual women’s megillah reading in St. Louis this year. It is truly a special experience for any community to have an opportunity to read from a megillah created in their community, but it is unique that Orthodox women will have taken ownership of every aspect of thismegillah reading this Purim, beginning with the creation of their own megillah.
Shapiro concludes, “I’ve done lots of craft items over the years– from scenery for kids’ school plays to making chuppot–but nothing compares with this. We actually created a holy piece of Judaica – adding a scroll to our people’s sacred items.”
Check out the St. Louis Women’s Megillah Writing Project online at womensmegillah.blogspot.com.
Among the laws governing the reading of the scroll of Esther discussed in tractate Megillah is the stipulation that the megillah may not be read backwards: “One who reads the megillah backwards has not fulfilled one’s obligation” (17a). The story of the Jews in Shushan unfolds in linear progression, moving from “sorrow to joy and from mourning to festivity,” as we learn only in the penultimate chapter (9:22). Of course, since we read the megillah every year on Purim, we already know how it will end, and the triumphant hanging of the evil villain Haman whose plot to exterminate the Jews was foiled by the beautiful Queen Esther comes as no surprise. Even so, we are commanded each year to read the Megillah with a sense of “who knows,”inhabiting a world of lottery and chance in which we cannot divine the ending but can only pray for a better outcome. As Esther’s uncle Mordechai says to her, “Who knows, perhaps you have attained a royal position for just such a moment” (4:14).
I write these words on Rosh Chodesh Adar of 5773 (2013), exactly six years after I first learned Maskhet Megillah in daf yomi. I sit here nine months pregnant with twins, thinking back to a time when I did not know if I would ever get married again, let alone be privileged to bring children into the world. I try to put myself in the shoes of the person I was back then, pretending that I don’t already know about all the twists and turns that life would take to sustain me and enable me to reach this day. As I try to identify with that uncertainty, I am struck by the realization that in a world ofhester panim—a world where God’s face is hidden—the sense of “who knows” never completely dissipates. We may have a wider vista now that we have ascended to the top of one difficult mountain, but other, higher mountains lie ahead, and there is no guarantee that we will surmount them as well.
I think about this metaphor as I lie in bed, looking over the mountain that is my pregnant belly and wondering if I will ever be able to see directly down to my feet again. Last summer, when I first learned I was pregnant, I remember looking at the calendar and thinking that I’d probably give birth between Tu B’shvat and Purim. Tu B’shvat is over and gone, and with it all the flower and tree names we played around with these past few months. Today we ushered in Adar, the month of joy, and my husband reminded me that Rosh Hodesh Adar would make a great birthday. At this point, though, I don’t need any reminders. Everyone who sends me e-mails, surely in an attempt to be thoughtful and considerate, prefaces their messages with, “I’m not sure if you’re in the throes of labor as I’m sending this,” or “I wonder if you have already given birth.” No, no, not yet. The new month, whose invisible new moon is not even the barest sliver of a crescent, has not yet revealed what it holds in store. Still, it is a good thing to have made it to 39 weeks in a twin pregnancy. As a friend just reminded me, the zodiac symbol for Adar is two fish, perhaps because Adar is the one month that can fall out twice in a shana meuberet, a leap or “pregnant” year. But the symbol is also pregnant with personal meaning, since I have swam nearly every day these past nine months. “Are you teaching your babies how to swim?” the ladies at the pool always ask me. “Oh no, they are swimming already,” I assure them, imagining my two little fetus-fish awash in their individual sacs of amniotic fluid. At some point the seas will split and they will be cast on to dry land –hopefully long before Pesach, as I exhausted those metaphors in my previous pregnancy.
Meanwhile, as Purim approaches, I think of Esther enjoining the people to come together in fervent prayer that all should proceed smoothly when she risks her life to approach King Ahaseuerus (the last five letters of whose name, as commonly transliterated, are a near-anagram of uterus). The Talmud in the first chapter of Megillah interprets the verse that describes Esther’s reaction to hearing of the king’s decree to destroy and massacre all the Jews: “Va-tithalhal hamalka meod.”The word “Va-tithalhal,” often translated as “became agitated,” provides fodder for the midrashic imagination: “What is Va-tithalhal? Rav says: She became a menstruant. Rabbi Yirmiya says, “She suffered a miscarriage” (15a). Rashi explains that the cavities of her body dissolved. All these interpreters are playing with the etymological similarity between Va-tithalhal and “halal,” the Hebrew word for cavity or hole and the nomenclatural hallmark of the N’keva, the female. I wonder if maybe Esther heard the news and felt like she was in labor, bearing inside her womb the destiny of the Jewish people.
Sitting here on Rosh Hodesh Adar, attuned to the first signs of any contractions, I do not know when I will begin to feel changes in the holes and cavities of my body. The megillah is ten chapters, and I am already at the end of my ninth month – but I cannot scroll ahead to find out what happens in chapter ten. We read the megillah in order and live our lives day by day, and as Mordechai tells Esther “who knows” what tomorrow will bring. But as Adar begins, joy increases, and I can only pray that for us, too, it will be so.