Purim Isn't Just for Play - Mishnah Megillah 2:1
Posted by The ShtarkShirts Project Blog on
Post by Noa Rubin:
I know we’re all afraid to say it (see March 2020), but it is almost Purim again. In the height of pandemic life, I find myself seeking meaning in unconventional places. It’s not unlike me to turn to Jewish tradition, but I’ve chosen to push myself (and you!) to brave the unknown, where I believe we can find something fresh at a time that we could really use it. But first, I turn to an oft-cited mishnah.
Mishnah Megillah 2:1
הקורא את המגלה למפרע, לא יצא. קראה על פה, קראה תרגום, בכל לשון, לא יצא. אבל קורין אותה ללועזות בלעז והלועז ששמע אשורית, יצא
One who reads the megillah out of order has not fulfilled the religious obligation. If they read by memory [literally ‘by mouth’] or read a translation in any language, they have not fulfilled the religious obligation. But they have fulfilled the obligation if they read it in a foreign language that they speak. And, someone who speaks a foreign language and listens to it in Hebrew has fulfilled their obligation.
My students frequently ask me something I often wondered as a child: why do we need to practice Judaism in a language we don’t understand? The obvious answer is that we do holy things in the holy language of our ancestors. And while that might be enough for some non-Hebrew speakers, it falls short for most.
I’ve been learning Hebrew since kindergarten and have taken it at the college level. I can understand most Hebrew, enough to get the gist of just about anything, but I am pretty shy about my speaking and writing. That being said, when I listen to Hebrew music, sit in shul, or even hear people speaking Hebrew in public, unless I am actively and intentionally trying to understand, I get almost nothing.
In mishnah Megillah 2:1, the Rabbis give us the option to fulfill the mitzvah of reading Megillah in our own language. I encourage people to take this opportunity-- translation is an effective educational tool, but I want to speak to the value of ‘not totally getting it.’
The Rabbis are not giving us the okay to get nothing from reading the megillah; if that were the case, we would certainly be allowed to recite it from memory and they wouldn’t be concerned whether we read it in Hebrew. The ceremony of chanting from a physical megillah scroll is a part of our Purim experience-- even if we do it differently this year. The fact that not everyone knows Hebrew, even at the time of the Mishnah, is something our tradition acknowledges here.
Why would I listen to music in Hebrew and pray in Hebrew if the meaning is not always obvious to me? Firstly, the more I do these things, the more I start to learn them. While I did not have all the tools to translate my siddur by the time of my Bat Mitzvah, I’d listened to enough services and recordings to feel comfortable in most settings. With that familiarity grows fondness. In many congregations, you might see heads lift up and the singing get louder around commonly recited prayers. We get excited about the words we know and we start to feel more connected to them. There is a great enthusiasm in ‘booing’ for “Haman” and I don’t think it’s just because ‘booing’ is fun; we love to hear a word we recognize, even out of context (because honestly, most of us don’t know exactly where we are in the megillah for the entire duration of the megillah reading...it’s long!)
Secondly, the religiosity of the unknown is mysteriously wonderful. There is an almost inexplicable spiritual high in our experience of discovery. I feel strongly that if we are willing to tune into what we do not know and just listen, we might feel something. In the waves of unknown words, the text wails and cries ‘learn it!’ Let yourself feel what you do not know by paying attention to melodies; let your senses engage the ritual; it’s not for everyone, but there’s value in experiencing the parts of our rituals that are outside of the words because there is meaning embedded there too.
And then, go learn the thing. The Rabbis give us permission to read the translation so that we can learn it. Translation and close reading brings us that much closer to understanding the text in its original form. Once you do know it, in the Hebrew or otherwise, go deeper. There is no end to learning a text, or digging deeper in our Torah. Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:22-3 recounts a powerful statement from our sages:
בֶּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ. וּבָהּ תֶּחֱזֵי, וְסִיב וּבְלֵה בָהּ, וּמִנַּהּ לֹא תָזוּעַ, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ מִדָּה טוֹבָה הֵימֶנָּה
בֶּן הֵא הֵא אוֹמֵר, לְפוּם צַעֲרָא אַגְרָא:
Ben BagBag said ‘Turn it over and turn it over, for everything is in it. And look in it and turn old and gray in it. And do not turn from it, because you have no better portion than it. Ben HeyHey said according to the pain [work] is the reward.
Keep pushing, keep learning, even if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing. There is always more to the text, and like with just about anything else, the output is a function of the input. Especially on Purim, take joy in the toil of upkeeping our traditions, celebrate, fill your heart (and perhaps your liver) with zeal and enthusiasm for learning something new! Marbim b’simcha!!
Originally from Los Angeles, Noa Rubin (she/her) is currently working for CityYear AmeriCorps at a school in East Harlem. She graduated Barnard College and List College ‘20 where she studied Sociology and Talmud. She will be attending Rabbinical School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in fall of 2021. Noa loves all things Torah, justice, and youth-oriented. You can catch her on instagram @sagecanine or twitter @rubin_noa. While partial to Gemara, she’s very excited about Shtark Shirts and and all the Torah learning it’s inspiring!