Photo Credit: The National Library of Israel, Jerusalem
The ancient Esther megillah.

When Moses pleaded with G-d to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the Golden Calf, he said: “And now, if You leave behind their sin [then good]. And if not, then please erase me from Your book (sefer) that You wrote” (Ex. 33:32). In this passage, the Hebrew word sefer denotes “book” or “written document.” Other terms in the Bible and in later rabbinic discourse mean “books.” As befits the People of the Book, several such terms have come into use. This essay explores some of those, including iggeret, megillah, machzor, and kuntres and attempts to pinpoint their meanings and explain how they differ.

We begin our discussion with an insightful analysis of the word sefer, the generic term applied to the 24 books of the Bible (although some books are described as a megillah). This word is also used to describe a Torah scroll (Sefer Torah). But why is a Torah scroll called a sefer? My illustrious ancestor, Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1786), explains that the word sefer is related to the word sfar (“border”), because just like a border protects a country, in that one must clear the secured border in order to enter, so does the Torah protect the Jewish people by insuring their closeness to G-d. On the other hand, “sefer” is also applied to legal documents, like a marriage document, which the Mishnah (Yevamot 15:3) calls a Sefer Ketubah.


In a similar vein, Rabbi Moshe Shapiro (1935-2017) explains how all words derived from the samech-peh-reish root are interrelated and refer to the concept of unifying disparate parts. The verb sippur (storytelling) denotes joining together multiple details to form a single narrative. This is similar to a sfar (border), which confines everything within its “boundary” and unites them into one political unit. These two terms are related to mispar (number) and sofer (counting), because the system of counting joins all numbers together in an organized and logical way. Finally, all of this relates back to the word sefer (book), which includes all the details and contents recorded therein and binds them together into one entity. This explanation applies not only to holy books but to books in general.

Professor Raymond P. Dougherty of Yale University (1877-1933) wrote the following insight to explain how sefer derives from the core meaning of “to count”: “The act of counting is primarily a mental process, but memory is fallible, and so there must be recourse to a written tally or record. Hence, the secondary meanings of the verb developed, with the result that sofer came to mean ‘scribe’ and sefer became a term for ‘record,’ letter,’ and ‘book.’”

Interestingly, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 24b) notes that the Persian equivalent of the word sefer is dvir, and the Talmud uses this to explain the connection between the original name of the city Dvir and its newer name, Kiryat Sefer (Jud. 1:11).

As mentioned, some books of the Bible are called a megillah, while some are called a sefer. Rabbi Shmuel Strashun (1794-1872) notices that when the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) lists the various books of Tanach, it is careful to use the word sefer when mentioning the Book of Psalms (Sefer Tehillim) and the word megillah when mentioning the Book of Esther (Megillat Esther), but does not use those two words when discussing any other of the 24 books of the Bible.

To explain this phenomenon, Rabbi Strashun postulates that the term sefer referring to Psalms implies an affinity between that book and the quintessential sefer – the Sefer Torah (i.e., the Pentateuch). He accounts for this affinity by noting that like the Five Books of Moses, Psalms is also divided into “Five Books,” and the total number of verses in Psalms is somehow similar to the total number of verses in the entire Pentateuch (see Kiddushin 30a).

In explaining why Esther is called a megillah, Rabbi Strashun explains that this refers to the requirement that the Book of Esther read on Purim be written on a separate scroll of parchment and not on one that includes other books of the Bible (see Radak to Jer. 36:1, and see also Megillah 19a).

Throughout rabbinic literature the term megillah without further specification refers to Megillat Esther, and, similarly, the blessing that the rabbis instituted over reading Megillat Esther is “al mikra megillah.” As an aside, because Esther is seen as the quintessential megillah, Rabbi Strashun finds the position of Masechet Sofrim (14:3) difficult, because that work stipulates reciting the blessing al mikra megillah upon publicly reading any of the so-called Five Scrolls: Ruth, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. Nonetheless, the Vilna Gaon (Biur HaGra to Orach Chaim §490) adopts this custom, and it is still followed by many communities in Israel.

Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) traces the word megillah to the biliteral root gimmel-lammed (“round/circular”). Other words derived from this root include gal (“heap” of stones in a circular formation), gollel (“to roll”), galgal (“wheel”), gulgolet (skull), and magal (sickle). The word megillah fits with the core meaning of gimmel-lammed because it refers to a scroll comprised of multiple sheets of parchment sewn together and subsequently rolled up. Rabbi Pappenheim also notes that the word gilayon (often mispronounced as gilyon) similarly derives from this root and refers to a single sheet of parchment upon which one might write something and then roll it up. In later usage, the Hebrew word gilayon came to refer to the empty margins of a written document, and then to glosses often written in those margins.

Ever since I was a child, I thought that the difference between a sefer and a megillah lay in how many pins the scroll is rolled up into. I understood that the word sefer denotes a scroll that is rolled up on two wooden pins (like a Sefer Torah, Sefer Yehoshua, Sefer Yishaya, or Sefer Trei Asar), while the term megillah refers specifically to a scroll that rolls up into one wooden pin (like Megillat Esther and the other four Megillot). More recently, I have tried to find a source for this distinction, but have come up empty-handed. If anybody has any relevant sources that they came point me to, please contact me directly.

(To be continued)


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Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein writes The Jewish Press's "Fascinating Explorations in Lashon Hakodesh" column.