Megillah 19

The gantza megillah.

Today’s daf asks how much of Megillat Esther must be read on Purim to fulfill the mitzvah. It’s ironic that this is even a question. The phrase “the whole megillah” — or in Yiddish, gantza megillah — has entered common English, defined by as “everything; every aspect or element.” And yet the mishnah on today’s daf records three opinions about how much of the megillah must be read, only one of which requires all of it. The Gemara adds a fourth. 

They are:

Rabbi Meir: One must read the entire Megillah from beginning to end. We’ll call this the gantza megillah option.

Rabbi Yehuda: One must read from Chapter 2, Verse 5, which begins: “There was a certain Jew” — i.e. Mordechai. 

Rabbi Yosi: One must read from Chapter 3, Verse 1, which begins: “After these things.” 

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai: One must read from Chapter 6, Verse 1, which begins: “On that night.” 

What the rabbis are really asking here is: What is the essence of the story? What pivotal moment of the plot is necessary in order to understand its essence? If I arrive late to the movie and don’t see the tornado hit Dorothy’s house, have I missed the key to The Wizard of Oz

In the Gemara, Rabbi Yochanan explains that all four opinions are actually based on a single verse from the megillah itself. It’s just that — surprise! — the four rabbis interpret that verse differently. The verse in question is Esther 9:29: “Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Avihail, and Mordechai the Jew, wrote about all the acts of power to confirm this second letter of Purim.”

The rabbis understand that acts of power are the central piece of the “second letter of Purim” — i.e. the megillah — without which one hasn’t fulfilled the obligation of reading it. But which acts of power are we talking about?

According to Rabbi Meir, the acts of power refer to King Ahasuerus, and thus the first chapter — which gives context to his reign – must be read. According to Rabbi Yehuda, they are Mordechai’s power, and therefore we must read from Mordechai’s first appearance in the story in Chapter 2. According to Rabbi Yosi, they refer to Haman, and therefore we must read from the beginning of Chapter 3, when the king promotes him to be his top advisor. And Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai maintains that the acts of power are about the miracles that lead to the reversal of the king’s decree against the Jews, which begins in Chapter 6 when Ahasuerus recalls that Mordechai was never rewarded for saving his life from an attempted coup. 

Rav Huna agrees with Rabbi Yochanan that all four sages are looking to a specific verse to determine how much of the megillah must be read, but he disagrees about which verse it is. According to Rav Huna, it’s from Chapter 9: “Therefore, because of all the words of this letter, and of that which they saw concerning this matter, and that which had befallen them, the Jews ordained that they would keep these two days.

The Gemara goes on to flesh out which specific events are referred to by the phrases “this matter” and “that which had befallen them.” Was it the Babylonian exile? Haman making himself an object of worship? Mordechai’s refusal to bow to him? Or was it Esther inviting Haman and the king to a banquet, leading to her revelation that she is Jewish and consequently, the saving of the Jewish people?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what “the matter” is — at least halachically. The law as it’s observed today goes according to Rabbi Meir, which means that we are obligated to read the megillah in its entirety. Interestingly, the Talmud points out that even those who think we only need to read part of the megillah agree that the megillah must be written in its entirety, with ink on parchment. In this sense, at least, everyone is on the same page — or shall we say pages — of the gantza megillah.

Read all of Megillah 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 31st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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