Talmudic pages

Megillah 21

Sitting or standing.

In a mishnah on today’s daf, we encounter some fairly straightforward rules about reading the Book of Esther: The reading can be done either standing or sitting, it’s fine for two people to read the megillah together, and if it’s the custom in a given place to recite a blessing over the reading, then recite a blessing. If not, don’t. 

In the Gemara, the rabbis note that the first rule — that both standing and sitting are permitted for megillah reading — applies only to megillah reading. 

It was taught: This is not the case with regard to the Torah. The Gemara asks: From where are these matters derived? Rabbi Abbahu said: It is as the verse states: “But as for you, stand here with Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments and the statutes” (Deuteronomy 5:28), (which indicates that the Torah must be received while standing). 

The rabbis justify a tradition that sitting is not permitted for Torah study by citing a verse in Deuteronomy in which Moses, in the midst of his long recounting of the laws revealed at Sinai, quotes God telling him to “stand” with God (the word could also be translated as “remain”) and receive the Torah. On that basis, the rabbis hold that Torah should only be taught while standing. 

Of course, we know this is not the practice today — and probably wasn’t in the time of the rabbis either. Walk into any institution of Jewish learning, and people will be sitting around while studying. Indeed, as the Gemara will note shortly, the word for a school of Jewish learning is a yeshiva, whose root literally means sit (or dwell). And while it is the universal practice for the Torah reader to stand when chanting from a Torah scroll in the synagogue, in most communities the rest of the congregation remains seated. 

This discrepancy was not lost on the rabbis, who relate this teaching by way of explanation:

The sages taught: From the days of Moses until the time of Rabban Gamliel, they would study Torah only while standing. When Rabban Gamliel died, weakness descended to the world, and they would study Torah while sitting. And this is as we learned in a mishnah (Sota 49a): When Rabban Gamliel died, honor for the Torah ceased.

According to this tradition, Torah was in fact studied only while standing from the time of Moses until the death of Rabban Gamliel in the first century of the Common Era. But after Gamliel’s death, they just didn’t make Torah students like they used to. Scholars could no longer muster the strength to stand for long stretches as Moses did.

Except maybe Moses wasn’t standing either. The Gemara goes on to cite two verses from Deuteronomy, one of which confirms the earlier claim that Moses was standing when God taught him the Torah, and another which indicates the opposite. 

One verse says: “And I sat (va’eshev) on the mount” (Deuteronomy 9:9), and another verse says: “And I stood on the mount” (Deuteronomy 10:10).

So was Moses standing on Mount Sinai or sitting? The rabbis have a classic biblical contradiction on their hands, and they float a couple of possibilities to resolve it. Maybe Moses stood while God taught him, but sat while he reviewed his learning. Or maybe Moses was neither standing nor sitting but bowing. Or maybe yeshiva doesn’t mean sit in the strict sense, but merely to remain in place, which clearly Moses did for 40 days on Mount Sinai. Or maybe he studied only the easy parts of the Torah while standing and sat for the hard stuff. 

Whichever it is, the bottom line for the rabbis, and for us today, is clear: You can sit while you study Torah, whether learning new stuff or reviewing the old, whether difficult or hard. And maybe fortuitously for those of us who like to enjoy a beverage (or several) on Purim, while hearing the megillah too. 

Read all of Megillah 21 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 2nd, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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