Megillah 5

Sea walls.

When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us, God performed a miracle: The waters of the Reed Sea parted, and “the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (Exodus 14:29) This scene serves as the epic climax to the 1956 blockbuster film The Ten Commandments. As Charlton Heston, playing Moses, majestically spreads his arms, a gale force wind blows apart the sea into two towering walls of water through which the formerly enslaved Israelites walk to freedom. The special effects deployed to create that scene pushed the boundaries of what technology at the time could do, and it remains a powerful cinematic moment.

But, astonishing miracles and slick movie effects aside, can water really be a wall? That’s the question today’s daf tries to answer.

We have already learned that cities that were walled in the days of Joshua (who, of course, crossed through those walls of water with Moses and the Israelites) observe Purim a day later than all other localities, on the 15th of Adar instead of the 14th. But what exactly counts as a wall? Can a water boundary — one that does not miraculously stand on end but lies flat — be considered a city wall?

According to today’s daf, Hezekiah (an Amora) would read megillah in the lakeside city of Tiberias on both the 14th and the 15th of Adar because he was not sure if it was walled in the days of Joshua. At first the Gemara offers this solution to Hezekiah’s uncertainty:

Isn’t it written: “And the fortified cities were Ziddim-zer, and Hammath, Rakkath, and Chinnereth” (Joshua 19:35), and we maintain that Rakkath is Tiberias?

If you follow the rabbinic tradition and identify Tiberias with the biblical Rakkath, which this text describes as fortified, then it was certainly walled in the days of Joshua!

But then we learn that this was not actually the source of Hezekiah’s uncertainty. Rather:

This is the reason that he was uncertain: due to the fact that on one side, there was a wall of the sea.

Tiberias sits on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and therefore it would have had stone walls only on three sides.What Hezekiah wondered was whether the sea counted as the fourth wall.

To answer this question, the Gemara quotes an earlier tradition, a beraita, about the different rules that apply about selling one’s home in walled and unwalled cities. The upshot of this beraita is that, for the purposes of real estate, Tiberias was not considered a halakhically walled city, because it was not completely surrounded by a wall. Clear enough. So why was Hezekiah confused? 

The Gemara explains:

With regard to the sale of houses of walled cities, Hezekiah was not uncertain. Where he was uncertain was with regard to the reading of the megillah: What are the unwalled towns and what are the walled cities with regard to the reading of the megillah? Is it that these are exposed, whereas those are not exposed? If so, Tiberias is also exposed. Or perhaps it is that these are protected, whereas those are not protected, and it is also protected.

Hezekiah asks what we even mean when we say the word “wall.” Is a wall something that offers privacy or protection? After all, walls can keep certain things in or they can keep certain things out. If the purpose of a wall is to offer privacy, then certainly we cannot consider Tiberias to be fully walled — after all, anyone sailing the Sea of Galilee can see into the city! If, however, a wall is meant to offer protection from harm, then Tiberias, with the protection offered by three walls and the sea, should be considered walled. When is the sea a wall, and when is it just water? Hezekiah was just not sure.

Read all of Megillah 5 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 17th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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