Today is July 10, 2020 -

The Reading of the Megillah

by Hazzan Michael S. Krausman

I have often said, as I look out at the massive crowd that flocks to Shul on Kol Nidre evening, “If I was going to pick only one night a year to come to synagogue services, I wouldn’t choose Kol Nidre night, I would come on the eve of Purim – it’s much more fun.”

The most poignant aspect of our raucous celebration of the festival of Purim, besides the wearing of costumes and the consumption of piles of Hamantashen, is the reading of the Megillah – the scroll of Esther. The task of reading the Megillah requires a great deal of skill and concentration; the skill of chanting the ancient document according to its traditional melodies and motives, and the concentration to be able to perform this task amidst the din of joyous Purim revelers – it’s a mitzvah to eat, drink and be merry on Purim!

Several distinct traditions make the reading of the Megillah both interesting for the congregation and challenging for the reader. Being a document that was originally sent as a letter or communique to all parts of the ancient Persian empire, the scroll of the Megillah must first be unrolled and then folded in a distinctive fashion before it is read. Like the Torah, the Megillah text appears in an ornate calligraphy. Since they were added to the text many centuries after its composition, all vowels, pagination, chapter and verse indications, and musical markings are absent from the scroll, leaving only the consonants to provide clues to the reader. A separate printed text is used to prepare for the reading.

The music of the Megillah is notated in printed texts in the form of ancient cantillation marks called T’ame Ha Miqra or trope. While the physical trope marks are identical throughout the Bible, each part of the scriptures has its own music. Thus, while the markings all look identical, Torah reading sounds differently from Haftara (prophets) which both sound differently than the book of Aicha or Lamentations – the dirge read to mourn the destruction of the Temple (Tisha B’Av). The unique cantillation of the Megillah is complicated by sections that are chanted according to the trope of the Book of Lamentations as well as by brief melodies that punctuate the regular flow of the reading.

The great musicologist A.Z. Idelsohn notes that in some Sephardic (Spanish and Middle Eastern) communities, the reading of the Megillah is performed in a plain chant, without the insertions of the plaintiff strains of the lamentations melody. Idelsohn suggests that the Ashkenazic (German and Eastern European) communities may have used the music of the Megillah to vent angry and painful emotions brought on by the actions of contemporary descendants of Haman; the wicked villain of the book of Esther.

The Book of Esther is a passionate and fascinating account. Its unique musical form serves to give voice to the ancient scroll; enabling the Megillah to display the entire range of human behavior and emotion: from the height of wisdom, sacrifice, joy and heroism to the depths of decadence, vanity, bigotry and despair.

Be sure to come to the synagogue to participate in the Mitzvah of hearing the reading of the Megillah; you will surely appreciate the magnificence of the message as well as the skill of the messenger. On top of that, it is guaranteed to be a delightful experience for the whole family.

Best wishes for a SIMCHAT PURIM-a Joyous Purim.