The Five Megillot

The word megillah has several meanings depending upon the context of its use. This article will explain all of those meanings.

What is a Megillah?

Megillah is the transliteration of the Hebrew word spelled mem-gimmel-yud-lamed-hey. This is a noun derived from the Hebrew verb galal (gimmel-lamed-lamed).

The verb galal means to roll or wrap. Hence a megillah is a book that is rolled up, usually called a scroll.

The word megillah in various forms is found 21 times in the Bible. Most of these uses (14 of them) are in Jeremiah Chapter 36 in relation to writing and the first reading of Lamentations.

Here are a few of those verses:

Jeremiah 36

2. Take a scroll, and write in there all the words that I [God] have spoken to you against Israel, …

27. And the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, after the king had burned the scroll, and the words which Baruch wrote from the mouth of Jeremiah, saying,
28. Take again another scroll, and write in it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah has burned.

The word Megillah can also refer to the Mishna and Gemara tractate of that name.

However, Megillah (plural: megillot) usually refers to 5 specific books of the Bible (more about that soon).

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The Whole Megillah

The word megillah has entered into English usage as a slang term in a couple of ways.

Sometimes it means a long involved story or an overly complicated sequence of events.

It is also used to mean everything that is under consideration at that time.

The person using the term will usually emphasize completeness saying something like, “I told you everything I know, the whole megillah!”

As is common with Hebrew words that come into English, megillah has a counterpart in Yiddish. The Yiddish for “the whole megillah” is “gantseh megillah.”

The Five Megillot

The Five Megillot and Their Holidays

Five rather short books of the Bible are known as The Five Megillot:

  • Song of Songs
  • Ruth
  • Lamentations
  • Ecclesiastes
  • Esther

In the standard order of the Hebrew Bible, they are found together after the Book of Job. This is in the section of Tanach known as the Writings (Hebrew: ketuvim).

Each of the 5 megillot are associated with a different holy day of the Jewish year.

  • Song of Songs – Passover
  • Ruth – Shavuot
  • Lamentations – 9th of Av
  • Ecclesiastes – Sukkot
  • Esther – Purim

The public reading of Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes takes place during morning prayers at the time of the Torah reading. Some congregations do not read them publicly, but urge their members to read them on their own.

Both Passover and Sukkot are week-long holidays. The reading of their associated megillah takes place on the Shabbat of the Intermediate Days of the Festival (Chol HaMoed).

Lamentations is read on the night of the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). Some congregations also read it during the day at the end of the morning service.

Purim – The Megillah Reading Holiday

The most famous of the 5 megillot is Esther. The Book of Esther is read on the Jewish festival of Purim.

According to Jewish law, every adult Jewish man and woman should read Esther two times on Purim, once at night and once the following morning. Most people listen carefully while a skilled member of the congregation reads it out loud.

Megillah Blessings

There are blessings associated with the reading of the megillot. In general, these blessings are only recited when a megillah is read from a kosher handwritten scroll, not from a printed book.

Here are the three blessings recited before the reading of Esther, the Purim megillah (ArtScroll Translation):

1. Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding the reading of the Megillah.

2. Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who has wrought miracles for our forefathers, in those days at this season.

3. Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this season.

The following blessing is recited after the reading of Esther:

Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the universe, (the God) Who takes up our grievance, judges our claim, avenges our wrong; Who brings just retribution upon all enemies of our soul and exacts vengeance for us from our foes. Blessed are You, Hashem, Who exacts vengeance for His people Israel from all their foes, the God Who brings salvation.

Before reading Song of Songs, Ruth,and Ecclesiastes, only blessings #1 and #3 are recited. There is no blessing recited after the reading.

On Tisha B’Av no blessings are recited either before or after reading Lamentations.

Further Reading

You can read more about Esther here.

Also, I’ve started a series of articles on the Book of Ruth.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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