• Rav Ezra Bick


Introduction to the Study of Talmud

Megilla: 07: 21b


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We are going to learn a lot of gemara today, so get ready.

Last week, we learned that the minimum number of verses read is ten. We also learned that the minimum number of olim is three. We also learned that the minimum number of verses to be read by a single oleh is three. Simple arithmetic reveals that two olim will read three verses each, and one oleh will read four. The question is: which oleh reads four?

That question may strike you as not particularly pressing. Why not answer that it makes no difference. But remember that we have seen that the minute details of the reading of the Torah are chosen for their significance, including most prominently the number of verses read. It appears that the Sages treat each detail seriously and instituted rules for every one. It would therefore not be surprising if they had rules for exactly how to divide ten by three. We now turn to the gemara.

We are on 21b, thirteen lines from the bottom.


Rava said: If the first read four (verses), it is praiseworthy; if the second read four, it is praiseworthy; if the third read four, it is praiseworthy.

If the first read four, it is praiseworthy, as was taught: The donations to the office (of the Temple) were with three boxes of three sa'in each, and they were marked A, B, and C in order that we know which was donated first, so as to bring the sacrifices first from it, as it is a mitzva to use the first.

If the second read four, it is praiseworthy; as was taught: "They shall shine against the face of the menora" - this teaches us that they face the western light, and the western light is against the Holy Presence. And R. Yochanan said From here (we learn) that the middle one is praiseworthy.

If the third read four, it is praiseworthy, because (of the rule that) we ascend in holiness and do not descend.

Rav Papa came to the synagogue of Avi Gover and the first read four, and Rav Papa praised him.

אמר רבא: ראשון שקרא ד' משובח; שני שקרא ד' משובח; שלישי שקרא ד' משובח.

ראשון שקרא ד' משובח, דתנן: בשלש קופות של שלש סאין תורמין את הלשכה, והיה כתוב עליהם אב"ג לידע איזה מהן נתרמה ראשון, להקריב ממנה ראשון, שמצוה בראשון.

אמצעי שקרא ד' משובח, דתניא: "אל מול פני המנורה יאירו" - מלמד שמצדד פניהם כלפי נר מערבי ונר מערבי כלפי שכינה. ואמר רב יוחנן: מכאן שאמצעי משובח.

ואחרון שקרא ד' משובח, משום מעלין בקודש ולא מורידין.

רב פפא איקלע לבי כנישתא דאבי גובר וקרא ראשון ארבעה, ושבחיה רב פפא.

Let us first explain the text.

Rava stated that whether the first, second, or third oleh reads four verses, it is praiseworthy. We shall shortly discuss just what he might have meant by this, but the gemara treats it as three different statements about each oleh - there is a different reason to prefer the reading of the extra verse by each one of them. A proof or explanation is therefore advanced for each preference.

1. The first - A half-shekel was donated by each Jew once a year to support the Temple sacrificial budget. The beraita states that there were three collection boxes, and they were marked, so that we would know which was first. The reason was that the first for collecting would also be used first for purchasing the sacrifices, since it is a mitzva, it is preferable (and hence, praiseworthy) to be first.

What conclusion can we draw? I would say that the source indicates that that which comes first is in a honored position and a mitzva  done with it is an enhanced mitzva. In our case, that means that the first reading, the first oleh, is a more honored position, and therefore by his reading the longer reading, we are enhancing the reading of the Torah.

2. The second - The "western light," despite its appelation, was not the westernmost light of the holy menora in the Temple. This should be clear once we remember that the menora was in a North-South axis, so there was in fact no westernmost light. The "western light" refers to the middle light. The other lights were tilted towards the middle ("against the face of the menora" means against the body of the menora.The six lights, three on each side, came out of the main body; the middle light was the actual body of the menora.). The middle light was tilted towards the sanctuary, which was to the west of the menora.

This shows that the middle is the most important, as all the lights "faced" the middle, while the middle "faced" God.

This shows that the middle is important because of the fact that the other positions honor it by surrounding it. It is the center of attention, as it were, unlike the first which derives its importance from the fact that it is not dependent on the others. In our case, being second, in other words the center, becomes the most prominent.

3. The third -  The end has a special place of importance, based on the rule that we ascend in sanctity and do not dscend. In its origin, this rule indicates that one may not take a holy object and change its use to a less important one. To increase its state of holiness is acceptable. Since reading the Torah is an act involving holiness, the holiness of the Torah, we can see the reading as an ascent. The best should be saved for last - and hence, it is praiseworthy that he get more verses.

Now that we understand the details, we get to the big question. What exactly does it mean to say that every possible way of dividing up the reading is praiseworthy? Is this not the same as saying that it makes no difference how it is done?


Take time to think about this. Reread the gemara - what can be derived from the story at the end?

Our inclination is to sum up Rava's statement by saying that there is no difference how we divide up the ten verses. All ways are equally commendable. In fact, that appears to be the view of the Rambam, who quotes the halakha of Rava as follows:

  • Three who read ten verses, two read three (verses) each, and one reads four. It is praiseworthy whether the one who reads the four is the first or the last or the middle one. (Hilchot Tefilla 12,4)

The Rambam collapses the statement of Rava so that instead of praising each instance, he summarizes that all ways are good. In other words, it makes no difference.

But the gemara does not really sound that way. Rava specifically commended each possibility, and gave a different reason for each. If only one or two items had been praised, we would have seen it as an expression of preference for a better way. Following that method of reading, it sounds as though Rava was explaining why path one is preferable, then why path two is preferable, then why path three is preferable.The outcome is that all paths are preferable, as strange as that sounds.

The Rambam, assuming we read him correctly, would presumably claim that Rava's detailed explanation why each possibility is praiseworthy is meant to exclude the opposite claim. Lest you think that the first oleh should not read four, since this might seem presumptuous, and he should deliberately leave it for the later readers, Rava explained why there is a positive reason for him to read four. Similarly, lest you think that the middle reader should not read four, as he has no importance, Rava explains why the middle is also  important. The same, more or less, could be said for the last oleh. In the end, Rava's purpose is indeed to explain why anyone can read four.

However, the final story about Rav Papa appears to weigh against this understanding. Why does Rav Papa praise the first oleh for reading four, and even more important, what is the motivation for the gemara to cite this story? It would appear that Rav Papa was giving a special yashar koach to the first oleh and not merely telling him that he had not erred.

Now take a look at Rashi.


The first. of the three who read four verses is praiseworthy, and so the second and the third, if the first did not and the second did, or if neither the first nor the second read four verses and the third read them, he is praiseworthy. And if the parsha was longer and each of them read four verses, all are praiseworthy.

ראשון. מן השלשה שקרא ארבעה פסוקים משובח וכן שני וכן שלישי, אם לא עשה הראשון ועשה השני או אם לא קראו לא הראשון ולא השני ארבעה פסוקים, וקרא אותן השלישי משובח, ואם יש להן ריוח בפרשה וקראו כל אחד ארבעה פסוקים כולן משובחין.


It is possible to infer from Rashi - though I am not absolutely sure that this is correct - that the first oleh should read four and only if he did not should the second one read four. This already would be different than what we inferred from the Rambam. But I am most interested in the final comment of Rashi. Rashi says that if there are twelve verses in the reading, each one should read four and then each one is commended. This definitely implies that it is commendable to read four verses rather than three. It is only after accepting that fact that the question of who should read four in the case of ten verses arises. The answer is that it is always commendable to read four, and this is true for all three of them (though perhaps for different reasons), exactly as we tended to understand Rava. Naturally, practically speaking, this gives the first oleh the most power. That, in my opinion, is what the story of Rav Papa proved. The first oleh took the privilege of reading four, and Rav Papa praised him, for he had done the right thing, rather than waiving his privilege.

Back to the gemara

We do not subtract from them, or add on them:
It was taught: The one who opens recites a blessing before it and the one who concludes recites a blessing after it.

אין פוחתין מהן ואין מוסיפים:

תנא: הפותח מברך לפניה והחותם מברך לאחריה

Immediately on reading this section, we notice that the reference words ("We do not subtract from them, or add on them") seem to bear no connection with the statement of the gemara that follows. This illustrates a common idiosyncracy of the printed gemarot. Very often, the reference words are not exactly correct - the gemara belongs to the phrase that immediately follows  the words that are actually printed. In this case, the quote from the mishna to which the gemara is referring is the continuation of the sentence quoted - "He who opens and he who concludes in the Torah recites a blessing before it and after it." The gemara cites a beraita which explains and clarifies this statement. The language of the mishna  might be read to imply that the first and last olim each recite two blessings, one before their reading and one after. The beraita  clarifies that what was really intended is that the two blessings are recited by the two of them, one blessing by one person. The one who opens recites an opening blessing before the reading; the one who finishes the reading recites one blessing after the reading.

In other words, in all readings of the Torah, there is only one blessing before the start of the reading and one at the end. The intermediate olim do not recite any  blessings at all. This will undoubtedly surprise anyone who has ever heard the Torah read in public. It turns out that the gemara noticed this as well.

But today, when all of them recite a blessing before and after it, the reason is that it was a rabbinic enactment, because of the ones who come in and the ones who go out.

והאידנא דכולהו מברכי לפניה ולאחריה, היינו טעמא דתקינו רבנן גזירה משום הנכנסין ומשום היוצאים.

"The ones who come in and the ones who go out" - Rashi explains:

  • Because of the ones who come in - If someone would come in to the synagogue after the first one had recited the blessing, and if he were not to hear the others reciting blessings, he would say that there is no blessing before the Torah.
  • Because of the ones who go out - and they did not hear the concluder reciting a blessing after it, and the previous ones did not recite a blessing; the ones who go out will say that there is no blessing after the Torah.

The gemara explains that there has been a change in the way we recite blessings over the Torah. In the mishna, only one set of berachot was recited over the entire reading. Because of the problems that would arise due to people coming late and leaving early (yes - this was already a problem 1700 years ago), the Sages instituted that each oleh should recite the set of two berachot over every individual Torah reading.

It seems that the Sages were especially insistent that every one should know that there are berachot before and after the reading of the Torah. Why it was so important that no one reach a false conclusion concerning the reading of the Torah is not clear and not explicated in the gemara. It seems to echo the famous comment of the midrash that the Land was destroyed because "they did not recite a blessing before the Torah." This is usually explained to mean that having the right attitude towards the Torah, regarding it as the word of God and a cornerstone of the election of Israel and its relationship with God, is essential to being God's people. The Sages were especially concerned about people who might have an intellectual interest in Torah, but not a religious one. The blessings before and after the reading ensure that Torah be placed in a framework of God's giving it to Israel.

It may appear extremely strange that at one time some of the olim did not recite a blessing, but you should remember that essentially the oleh was meant to actually read the Torah. The minhag today of having an official reader (baal kore) for all olim is much later. In the times of the mishna, seven people were called to take turns reading from the Torah; not reciting a blessing would not be that great a change.

We shall see in the future how this change concerning the berachot could affect other halakhot.