Megillah 3

Getting your priorities straight.

One of the most important things in life is learning to prioritize. Life is short and we can’t take advantage of all the opportunities thrown at us, so we have to be a bit choosy in figuring out what’s at the top of our to-do list and what drops toward the bottom.

That’s exactly what the rabbis are doing on today’s daf. In explicating the directive, found in the Scroll of Esther itself, that Jews in “every family, every province, and every city” must hear the the megillah read on Purim, Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina explains how far that command extends:

For what exposition do the words “every family” appear in that same verse (Esther 9:28)? Rabbi Yosei bar Hanina said: These words come to include the priestly and Levitical families, and indicate that they cancel their service in the Temple and come to hear the reading of the megillah.

So on our list of important things, hearing the megillah chanted on Purim takes precedence over performing the Temple service. Some commentators say the Temple work is merely postponed, not canceled, to hear the megillah, but still we get the gist of what’s most important. 

And it’s not just Temple rituals that are superseded by Purim:

This is also taught in a beraita: The priests at their service, the Levites on the platform, and the Israelites at their watches, all cancel their service and come to hear the reading of the megillah. The sages of the house of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi relied upon the halakha stated here and determined that one cancels his Torah study and comes to hear the reading of the megillah. They derived this principle by means of an a fortiori inference from the Temple service: Just as one who is engaged in performing service in the Temple, which is very important, cancels his service in order to hear the megillah, is it not all the more so obvious that one who is engaged in Torah study cancels his study to hear the megillah?

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s students invoke a beraita which teaches that various parts of the Temple service are canceled to enable those serving in the Temple to hear the megillah reading. On the basis of this teaching, they infer that hearing the megillah is more important than Torah study too, because Torah is understood to be less important than Temple service. It’s not clear from where they derive the relative importance of Torah study and Temple service, but nevertheless with this teaching we can begin to establish a hierarchy of priorities: Hearing the megillah is more important than the Temple service, which is more important than Torah study.

But the Gemara questions this, expanding on an encounter, related in the Bible, between Joshua and an angel:

As for the angel’s mission, the Gemara explains that the angel said to Joshua: Yesterday, you neglected the afternoon daily offering due to the impending battle, and now, at night, you have neglected Torah study, and I have come to rebuke you. Joshua said to him: For which of these sins have you come? He said to him: I have come now, indicating that neglecting Torah study is more severe than neglecting to sacrifice the daily offering. 

This sets us up for a conflict. Is Torah study more important than the daily sacrifices, as the episode from Joshua implies? Or are sacrifices more important than Torah study, as Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s students deduce? 

The Gemara attempts to resolve the conflict in this way:

This statement, with regard to the story of Joshua, is referring to Torah study by the masses, which is greater than the Temple service. That statement of the sages of the house of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is referring to Torah study by an individual, which is less significant than the Temple service.

This explanation introduces an important distinction between communal and individual Torah study, with the former being more important than the latter, which leaves us with the following hierarchy of importance: 

1. Hearing the megillah

2. Communal Torah study

3. Temple service

4. Individual Torah study

This discussion might not help us to prioritize in our own lives, but it does indicate the importance the Talmud places on hearing the megillah read and fulfilling one’s Purim obligations.

Read all of Megillah 3 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 15th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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