What’s a Megillah?


A megillah (meh-gee-LAH or meh-GILL-ah) is a scroll. Usually, the term refers to one of five specific scrolls (megillot) read on specific days of the Jewish calendar:

Song of Songs (Shir ha Shirim)- read on the Shabbat during Passover.

Ruth – read on Shavuot

Lamentations (Eicha) – read on Tisha B’Av

Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) – read on the Shabbat during Sukkot

Esther – read on Purim

The megillot are not merely read, they are chanted to a particular tune or trope for the day of observance. This is not the same tune used for Shabbat Torah readings – it’s quite distinctive. I’ve linked each of the titles above to recordings, so that you can get a little taste of the trope.

Listening to a recording is a poor substitute for the experience of hearing a megillah chanted in person. Each reading takes place in the context of a community, and in the case of Lamentations and Esther the congregation also has a role to play. You’ll get a sense of that, too, from the recordings above.

Have you ever heard a megillah chanted live? What was that experience like for you?

Thoughts for the 4th of July

I listened this morning as the announcers on NPR read the Declaration of Independence aloud.

I noticed something I’d never noticed before: Passover and the Fourth of July have a lot in common. Both celebrate the moment when a small group of people made the decision to take an enormous risk. In both cases, the leaders went out on a dangerous limb and miraculously, the people went with them. In both cases, they defied a government with overwhelming power and resources.

Moses had defied Pharaoh repeatedly and to his face, but while that was going on, the average Hebrew was still making straw bricks to build Pharaoh’s monuments. Only on the first night of Passover did that average man and woman throw down their burdens and walk away. Surely there were skeptics who grumbled over the first Passover meal that Moses was crazy and the whole bunch of them were doomed. Not until the reception of the Torah and the forty years in the wilderness did Israel become a nation, and even then, a work in progress.

And so it was on July 4, 1776: not everyone thought that it was a great idea to defy the British Parliament and Crown. But eventually  the cruelties of the War of Independence forged a new nation, a nation that continues, fitfully, to pursue the ideals articulated in the Declaration.

Both acts, while daring, were incomplete. Freedom alone is not enough to sustain a nation. Passover’s liberation requires Shavuot’s Torah to sustain and propel the nation forward. The Declaration of Independence similarly requires the Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Otherwise “freedom” would have disintegrated into chaos and there would be nothing to celebrate – in fact, nothing to remember.

The Declaration of Independence is a soaring document written by a flawed man, signed by similarly flawed men. The Hebrews who downed tools and followed Moses into the desert were imperfect, too. In both cases, the journey begun in daring led later to the acceptance of responsibility, and continues in an ongoing pursuit of the ideals articulated by limited human beings.

So as we grill our Hebrew National hot dogs, as we watch the fireworks, let us remember that 0ur work is incomplete. Until we build societies that live up to our fine words, we are not done.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Happy Anniversary, Jewish People!

Shavuot is nearly here.

Sometimes I think that Shavuot is the Jewish festival of the future. We know that in ancient times Sukkot was the most-anticipated Jewish holiday, so much so that people called it HeChag, THE Holiday. And in our own era, the big Chag is Pesach, or Passover. More Jews worldwide celebrate Passover in some form than any other event in the Jewish year. But the third Chag, the third pilgrimage festival mentioned in the Torah has not yet been the “big” festival. I wonder if there is some future age in which Shavuot will be the day we all anticipate?

Unlike the others, Shavuot is just one day, sundown to sundown. There are no sukkot for partying, no seder table at which to sit. Instead we eat some cheesecake, say the appointed prayers, and Torah students stay up all night and study. We do these things to remember the fateful day when we, as a people, accepted the Covenant and received the Torah.

I fell in love with Torah study during a Shavuot all-nighter, and it always feels a bit to me like an anniversary. It’s become a time to ask myself, what Torah have I learned this year? What do I want to learn in the future?

That feeling is actually not so far from the reality. A Jewish wedding ceremony consists of two parts: Erusin [betrothal] and Nissuin [the actual wedding.] If Passover was a betrothal, with a formal commitment and the giving of an object of value (freedom) then the Giving of the Torah was the wedding between God and Israel, joined forever in a covenant. This truly is our anniversary celebration.

In Bava Metzia 59b, the sages remind each other Lo b’shemayim hee – “She [Torah] is not in Heaven.” On Shavuot, this year on the night of May 23, we will celebrate the moment when Heaven and Earth met, and Israel accepted the Torah into her arms.

Perhaps one day we will find a way to celebrate Shavuot that will express the gravity and joy of the occasion. Until then, I will simply say, Chag Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!

Tweeting #Torah to the Top

My Twitter feed will go a little crazy starting at midnight Friday morning, Pacific time. I’m part of a group of Jews who for the past few years have tried to tweet #Torah to the top of the “Trends” on Twitter before Shavuot. It’s an Internet-age way of acting out the ascent of Sinai – and it’s a lot of fun. We’ve been doing it since 2009.

You’re welcome to join in! For more info and some suggested tweets, you can check out the Facebook page for this project. But really, all that is involved is that you send tweets about Torah, or tweets of Torah, and use the hashtag #Torah. It started at midnight, your local time, and it will continue until sundown Friday, when Shabbat begins.

If you’d like to follow me, you can do so at @CoffeeShopRabbi. If you’d like to see our “ascent of Sinai,” just search on Twitter for #Torah. Those tweets are sometimes quite wonderful.

See you on Twitter!

Between Two Verses: Travel in the Book of Ruth

16 And Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more.

19 So the two of them continued until they came to Bethlehem. – Ruth 1:16-19

This week we begin to read the book of Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness,” in the Torah. (It also goes by the name Numbers.) And always about the same time every year, we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. I think that this is a beautiful coincidence, because it reminds us to notice something odd in the Book of Ruth.

The little Book of Ruth is full of compelling events. Near the beginning Ruth makes a very extravagant statement of love to Naomi, her widowed mother-in-law. She then follows Naomi on foot from Amman in Moab, to Bethlehem in Judea. There a number of things happen that culminate in the birth of a child.

Ruth and Naomi’s walk from Amman to Bethlehem is about 50 miles as the crow flies across a wilderness with few roads, little water, and sharp rocks. They would have passed just north of the Dead Sea, one of the most forbidding landscapes in the world. The fact that the two women hike across it without assistance or company is impressive.

Look at the passage of Ruth that opens this post.  You will see that the walk across the wilderness is sandwiched in between two verses of scripture, verses 18 and 19. Amazing, no? The book brushes by this feat of endurance as if it were nothing.

What are we to make of this? The sages of the Talmud did something interesting with it. They give us an oral tradition that it was on that walk that Naomi instructed Ruth in the things she needed to know in order to become a Jew.

Why on the trip? Why not in Bethlehem, after they arrive? I like to think that this is because the rabbis knew that becoming a Jew as an adult is a complex process. Conversion involves becoming part of the People Israel, a process that involves loss as well as celebration. Some very dear things have to be left behind; others have to be repackaged for travel. It is one reason that conversions usually take a year or more. It is a long journey through wild and uncharted territory, different for every person who makes it.

So even if the original writer of the Book of Ruth saw fit to skip from Ammon to Bethlehem between verses 18 and 19, modern day Ruths and their guides are not going to be rushed. Some will arrive in Bethlehem, some in other destinations, but all is revealed as the journey unfolds, the journey through the midbar, the wilderness.

Lag B’Omer for Beginners

Lag B’Omer falls on day 33 of  counting the Omer, the count of days from Passover to Shavuot. (Follow the link if you want to learn more about the Omer and how to count it.) It gets its name from the number 33, lamed-gimel, which can be pronounced as “Lahg.”

It is a festive minor holiday, a short respite from the semi-solemnity of the Omer. During the Omer season, traditionally we avoid celebrations such as weddings. We are so serious because we are remembering a plague that killed many of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the story, the plague stopped on the 19th of Iyyar, so we pause then for some minor festivities.

It is a very minor holiday, not mentioned in the Torah at all. Some of the customs of the day:

WEDDINGS – Lag B’Omer is the one day during the Omer when weddings are traditionally performed.

PARTIES – Parties are often held on Lag B’Omer, precisely because they are discouraged otherwise between Passover and Shavuot.

HAIRCUTS – Some Jews do not cut their hair during the Omer. On Lag B’Omer, they can get a haircut. It’s also the traditional day for children’s first haircuts.

BONFIRES – Bonfire parties are particularly popular on Lag B’Omer. In the northern hemisphere, spring weather is well-established by that day.

In 5775 (spring of 2015) Lag B’Omer begins at sundown on Wednesday, May 6. How will you celebrate?

What’s the Omer, and Why Count It?

There are also "apps" for counting the omer.

We are now “counting the Omer,” the days from Passover to Shavuot. In case you’d like to know more about it, here are two posts from past years that should answer some of your questions, and perhaps raise more:

How To Count The Omer

Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

Do you count the Omer? Do you use an app or other aid to do so? Have you ever made it all the way to Shavuot without an error? What do you get out of counting the Omer?

I look forward to your replies!