Megillah means “scroll”. Megillot or megillahs (plural) generally refers to the 5 megillahs, which are read from in the synagogue on holidays. Specifically, megillah is most identified with the megillah of Esther (megillat or megillas Esther), which is read on the Purim festival. In fact, when one mentions megillah or “the megillah”, generically, he is undoubtedly referring to megillas Esther.
These are the 5 megillahs:
- Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim), read on the intermediate Sabbath of Pesach (Passover)
- Ruth, read on the festival of Shavuos (Weeks)
- Lamentations (Eichah), read on the night of the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av) Some read it again in the morning.
- Ecclesiastes (Koheles), read on the intermediate Sabbath of Sukkos (Tabernacles)
- Esther, read on the festival of Purim – at night and again the following morning
Consult your rabbi for more information about these festivals and why each megillah was instituted to be read on the specific holiday.
Many synagogues read the megillot from printed books. The only megillah that must be read from a kosher, hand scribed parchment is the megillas Esther. It is also common and meritorious for each congregant to follow the megillah reading from his own hand scribed, parchment scroll. A common gift from the bride’s family to their new son in law is a megillas Esther! It is also a common birthday and anniversary gift from a wife to her husband. It is common in Israel and somewhat in the Diaspora to read each of the 5 megillot from a hand scribed, kosher parchment.
A beginning sofer, scribe has to start somewhere. What better place to start than the megillat Esther. The reason for this is that it is the only scroll in The Torah, prophets and writings (Tanach), which doesn’t contain any of the specially sanctified divine Names. As a result, the beginning sofer can write the megillah without having to worry about the special sanctification of the divine Names nor the potential problems that could arise if he were to make mistakes on sheets containing the divine Names or even in the Names themselves. Generally the beginning sofer will write 1-4 such megillas until he feels comfortable and satisfied with his writing and related skills then move on to mezuzahs. Understandably these megillahs may not be that aesthetically pleasing but have the advantage of being less expensive to purchase. Of course, experienced scribes also write Megillot Esther.
Megillot Esther are usually written with columns of 11, 14, 21, 28, or 42 lines. Megillot Esther are commonly written with the word “HaMelech” (The King) at the head of almost all the columns. Many people demand HaMelech megillahs but the source for this tradition is not known to the writer. There is also an old tradition of illuminating megillahs, specifically that of Megillat Esther. Many people have attractive crowns (in various styles and colors) made at the top of each column or at least over the words, HaMelech, while others have much more sophisticated illumination work done.