Updated: Apr 27, 2021
What is a Megillah?
The Hebrew word, Megillah, מגילה according to the Hebrew English Dictionary, means scroll or roll. A Megillah could be a scroll made from parchment, paper of papyrus. A connotation in Yiddush, of the term megilah, “gansen megillah” means “the whole long story” emphasizing its excessive length and tediousness.
The Hebrew Bible is categorized into three sections: The Five Books of Moses, also called, Torah, The Prophets and The Writings. Today, the term “Megillah” refers to five books within The Writings, namely,
1) Shir Hashirim, (Song of Songs)
3) Eicha, (lamentations)
4) Kohelet, (Ecclesiastes)
These Five Megillot appear in the above order in The Writings according to the chronology of the holidays of the Jewish calendar year beginning with Passover. On Passover, Song of Songs is read as Jewish ritual practice, on the Festival of Weeks, (Shavuot), The Book of Ruth is read, on Tisha B’Av, (9th of the Month of Av) Lamentations is read. On the Festival of Booths, or Tabernacles, (Sukkot), Ecclesiastes is read, and on Purim, the Book of Esther is read.
During the period of time from fourth century BCE to the first century CE, there were many scrolls that were written called megillot as the definition of the term “Megillah” means, a generic scroll, but it was not until the end of this long period when it was decided which books to include and which to exclude from the cannon of the Hebrew Bible and therefore which Books subsequently became coined “Megillot” specifically.
The term Canon means, “text standard”– rabbinic disputes as to which were considered holy and which not. Those books that were candidates for Canon were termed “מטמא ידיים”, “metame yadaim,” those books that “defile the hands.” The most famous dispute as to which book should or should not be included in the canon, “metame yadaim,” or not was Ecclesiastes, Kohelet which the Tannaic Sage, Rabbi Shammai opposed to the Canon whereas the Sage, Hillel accepted it. Those Megillot that were not accepted into the Hebrew Bible remained a distinct group of ancient Hebrew literature called Apocrypha. Megillot such as Megilat Antiochus that narrates the story of Chanukah, Book of Judith, Yehudit are not part of Hebrew Canon, they are not “holy” and they do not “defile the hands,” but are categorized as Books of the Apocrypha.
The Five Megillot that became canonized as part of the Hebrew Scriptures are not only based on the five Jewish Holidays, but also symbolize the Five Books of Moses, The Torah, as well as the Five Books of Psalms. The term Megillah became strongly associated with The Book of Esther specifically and is known as Ha-Megillah, The Megillah with a capital “T!”
The association of Ha-Megillah with the Book of Esther as opposed to the other Megillot is because of the strong emphasis of the rabbinic precept of “Mikra Megillah,” the annual public reading of the Book of Esther on the Jewish holiday of Purim. The Rabbinic precept of hosting and attending public readings of The Book of Esther, Megilat Esther using a hand written scroll with black ink on parchment is so strong in Jewish Law that should be performed by every Jewish person regardless of gender and it outweighs and precedes any positive precept of the Torah including learning Torah which is a continuous precept, burying the dead and circumcision.
Today, Megillat Esther in the form of a scroll on parchment is considered a highly sought after item used and cherished by laypeople and art collectors alike. There are many kinds of Megillot Esther, ones that only contain black script and ones that are decorated with art of varying themes and art-styles of various time periods. The artwork of these Megillot are truly interesting as do not merely express artistic talent, but also serve as interpretation of the text itself and says a lot about life and ideas in the specific time period of its creation.