Megillah 21: We Stand on Guard for Thee

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

One of the ways we show respect for a person is to stand in their honour, and such an honour is not only bestowed on people. The notion of the “changing of the guard”, with those guards standing at attention, is one of the ways we demonstrate honour to institutions of great importance. “We stand on guard for thee” has even been incorporated into our (Canadian) national anthem.

One of the most widely observed Jewish laws is the one that requires standing in the presence of a sefer Torah[1]. Our most important prayer is known simply as the Amidah, standing. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to read, “one may read the Megillah standing or sitting…something that is not so by the reading of the Torah” (Megillah 21a). Megillat Esther has a special status in the Biblical canon. Esther and Mordechai referred to it as a “letter”, and it is treated as such in Jewish law. A Megillah scroll remains kosher even if up to half of it is missing; we fold it like a letter; it may be handled with bare hands; and the one reading it on behalf of the congregation (not to mention the congregation itself) may do so while sitting. In contrast, not only does the ba’al koreh have to stand when he reads the Torah, all who study Torah are also meant to stand. “’And you [Moshe] stand with Me’—Rav Avahu said: ‘If this verse had not been written, it would be forbidden to say it; it’s as if even G-d were standing’” (21a). 

Rav Avahu, living in the third century, understood the difficulty of standing while learning, and invoked this verse to also teach that teacher and student are to learn as “equals”—either “both of them on the ground, or both on a couch” (Rashi). A teacher of Torah is not a lecturer, but a facilitator who studies together with his “students”. It is this attitude that encourages and obligates students to challenge their teachers, arguing and debating so that the truth may emerge[2].

The Gemara then quotes a seeming contradiction regarding the posture of Moshe at Sinai. “One verse says, ‘and I sat on the mountain’; and another verse states, ‘and I stood at the mountain’”. While I might have said that, over the course of forty days, Moshe both stood and sat and there is little significance to such, the Gemara takes a different approach—actually, four different approaches.

The first time one learns, one must stand, but when reviewing the material, one may sit; one neither stands nor sits, but leans; one does, in fact, have to stand, and Moshe’s statement that he “sat” at the mountain is to be interpreted that he spend much time at Sinai; and finally, that for those aspects of Torah that are easy to understand, one should stand, but for difficult portions of Torah, one should sit.

Whether or not one was technically required to stand, it was ancient custom that one stood for learning. “Our Rabbis taught: from the time of Moshe until Rabban Gamliel the Elder (1st century CE), they did not learn Torah except by standing; when Rabban Gamliel died, sickness came into the world[3], and they learned Torah sitting down; and this is what was is meant by the teaching that when Rabban Gamliel died, the honour of Torah was nullified[4]”. The reality was that an insistance on standing to learn was no longer feasible and had become counter-productive. Moving forward, we would sit while we learned. And while this may have been necessary, it constituted a diminution of the honour of Torah.

However, that honour due to Torah ceased with the death of Rabban Gamliel seems contradicted, or at least modified, by another teaching recorded in the very same Mishnah where this teaching originated. “When Rabbi Akiva died, the honour of Torah was nullified” (Sotah 49a). It was Rabbi Akiva who “expounded upon every tittle and tittle, heaps and heaps of laws”, something not even Moshe Rabbeinu fully understood (see Menachot 29b). When he died, this attention to every nuance of Torah was lost, and the respect due Torah was greatly diminished. But this leaves us a bit puzzled. Did honour cease at the death of Rabban Gamliel in the first century of the Common Era, or about 90 years later with the death of Rabbi Akiva?

It seems to me there is no contradiction. Up until the time of Rabban Gamliel, people stood for Torah. With his death, we started to sit—with the goal being to study with extra energy and ability, for even greater focus on the Torah. It was hoped that by “conserving our energy”, greater efforts would be put into the study of Torah. However, with the death of Rabbi Akiva, we realized such was not the case. We were sitting, but the great delving into the depths of Torah was lost. The dignity of Torah was diminished, retroactively demonstrating that the honour of Torah ceased with the death of Rabban Gamliel.

We live in an era where many learn Torah in all kinds of newfangled ways—on our smartphones, in the car, on the phone, by email, Facebook, YouTube, and who knows what else. In many ways, this is wonderful and has brought many more into the orbit of Torah. Yet at the same time, we must ensure we give Torah the honour it deserves—and such honour requires great concentration, great efforts, single-minded focus and hard work.

 

[1] We must ensure that we never give an object—no matter how holy—more honour than a human being, whose very essence reflects G-d. “Rava said: How foolish are the rest of the people who stand in the presence of a Torah scroll, but do not stand in the presence of a great person!” (Makkot 22b).

[2] This tradition was central to the Yeshiva world of the 19th century. For an analysis of the importance of independent thought and the “prohibition” to accept one’s teacher’s words if “he has questions on them”, see the commentary of Rav Chaim of Volozhin (the founder of the modern Yeshiva movement) to Pirkei Avot 1:4.

[3] The Gemara does not explain what this “sickness” was, but it would appear to be connected to the general spiritual malaise that afflicted the Jewish people in the buildup to the destruction of the Second Temple (Rabban Gamliel died approximately 20 years before its destruction).

[4] This seems to be the first reference to the concept of nitkatnu hadorot, that often, as generations go by, our spiritual sensitivity lessens.