Megillah 32

Learning through song.

Today on the final page of Tractate Megillah, the rabbis describe the ways one should handle the Torah in order to show it proper kavod, or respect. For instance, when closing the Torah scroll, one should make sure to align a seam right between the two rollers. This way, if the Torah scroll is accidentally yanked (God forbid!) the scroll will tear along the seam and not through the words. Also, when rolling the Torah scroll to a new position for reading, one should “roll it from the outside” — which means placing the rollers so that they are oriented from side to side, and then using the furthest roller to unfurl it. This prevents the Torah scroll from accidentally flying off the reading table. Conversely, when rolling the Torah scroll up for storage, one rolls “from the inside” using the nearest roller to tighten the scroll — again to keep it securely on the reading table. And when dressing the Torah for storage, the parchment is not awkwardly rolled in its cloth cover; rather, the cloth is lovingly wound around the parchment. 

Perhaps most importantly, one should never touch the parchment of the Torah scroll directly. As Rabbi Parnakh rather sternly reminds us, in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, one who places grubby fingers directly on the Torah scroll will be “buried uncovered.” It’s an arresting image — the idea that one who touches the parchment will, when the time comes, be shunted naked into the grave, without the dignity of a shroud.

If there is a single image we usually associate with the Torah scroll, it is the etz hayim, the Tree of Life. Counterintuitively, this teaching compares the Torah scroll to a human corpse — fragile and defenseless, requiring the utmost care and respectful handling. (Unsurprisingly, other sages immediately suggest that we should read this punishment metaphorically; that the person who touches the scroll is buried without the merit of mitzvot.)

Many of these rituals will look familiar to those who attend synagogue regularly. We always cover the Torah with a garment and touch the scroll with a yad, a special pointer, and we roll it carefully. Though in my synagogue, people usually roll the scroll from side to side rather than from front to back. 

We also chant the words of Torah when they are read aloud for the congregation. On today’s daf, we find a source for that practice as well:

And Rabbi Shefatya said that Rabbi Yohanan said: Concerning anyone who reads from the Torah without a melody or studies the Mishnah without a song, the verse states: “So too I gave them statutes that were not good …” (Ezekiel 20:25)

Notice that this applies not only to Torah, but also to the Mishnah, which is studied in a sing-song in many yeshivas. The Gemara does not tell us why the rabbis thought Torah should be chanted rather than spoken. Steinsaltz suggests that singing expresses fondness for the text, or that the tunes can be a helpful memory device. In a world where few people had access to written texts and their encounters with the holy word were largely auditory, it makes sense that a melody would help with memorization and parsing. Plus, it also serves to beautify the holy words.

If you are one of those people who cannot carry a tune or dreads singing in public, fear not, Abaye has your back. He immediately counters that the condemnatory verse from Ezekiel applies to Torah scholars who live in the same city and cannot get along, not someone who cannot or does not chant Torah. Those who were not blessed with singing talent are not condemned for it.

We’ll close our reading of today’s daf with a different voice — God’s voice. Again Rabbi Shefya teaches in the name of Rabbi Yohanan:

From where is it derived that one may make use of a bat kol (divine voice)? As it is stated: “And your ears shall hear a word behind you saying: This is the way, walk in it.” (Isaiah 30:21)

While the prophets heard God’s voice directly, the rabbis could only hear it one step removed, the “daughter” of God’s voice — a bat kol. Curious to know what it sounds like and how you can confirm it is real?

This applies only when one hears a male voice in the city, or when a female voice is heard in the fields. And when the voice repeats its message and says: Yes, yes. And also when the voice says: No, no.

The bat kol is distinguished by two features. First, it sounds different from other nearby voices. When one is in the fields, mostly populated by men, it sounds like a woman’s voice. When one is in the city, mostly teeming with women, it sounds like a man. The bat kol is also recognized by its firm repetition of the message, followed by an affirmative “yes, yes” or an emphatic “no, no.” 

Maybe we simple humans just need to hear things, especially divine messages, more than once. After all, as we learned in this tractate, the megillah is read twice on Purim, and the Torah is read three days of the week. All sacred texts are also read and studied over and over, year after year. And, of course, we end each tractate with the following blessing: Hadran alakh massechet megillah — We will return to you, Tractate Megillah.

Read all of Megillah 32 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 13th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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