Meaning in the Music of the Megillah

February 21, 2012 Jay LeVine

Every story has its music. The story of Esther, told on Purim, has music – the cantillation of the Megillah (scroll of Esther). But every piece of music also has its story. This essay will share some of the fascinating story behind how we chant parts of the Megillah.

The ethnomusicologist Martin Stokes describes music as "providing means by which people recognize identities and places," and the trope for Esther fulfills this aim with gusto.1 More dramatically expressive than the trope for Torah, Haftarah, and the other megillot, Esther trope grabs the listener and shouts "Here is evil Haman, here is courageous Mordechai, here is the heroine Esther!"

A Chasidic saying describes the power of a melody as being able to take you from where you are to where you want to be. The melodies used to chant the scroll of Esther certainly do this. Not only does the trope (cantillation) often dramatically emphasize the words and plot of the story, but it also sometimes subverts the plain meaning of the text to accord with a later rabbinic teaching from the midrash, taking the text from where it was to where the rabbis wanted it to be.

One example of this is the use of the melancholic trope of Lamentations, sung on the saddest of Jewish days, Tisha B'av, to read certain phrases on Purim, arguably the most joyous celebration. The reasons for using Lamentation's doleful dirge are numerous:

In Midrash Esther, the claim is made that the vessels used at Ahasuerus' feast in Esther 1:7 are actually sacred vessels from the destroyed Temple, thus evoking sadness at the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent exile. Esther 2:6 explicitly mentions the exile from Jerusalem. Other verses that take the Lamentations trope (3:15, 4:1, 4:3, 4:16) are connected in some way to mourning or deep distress. In 5:7, the midrash again creatively inserts a reference to the Temple, having Esther say in her petition to the king for a banquet that she is specifically not requesting to rebuild the Temple. Finally, 8:6 starts with a linguistic similarity to the start of the book of Lamentations, and for that simple reason also merits the Lamentations melody.2

Not every musical oddity is so sad, however. There are numerous phrases which are much more melodic and like a song than the typical chant, signifying joy – although sometimes a type of joy that may make us uncomfortable, such as the jubilation when Haman is hung. Put more aesthetically, many customs surrounding Purim and the Megillah reading are done to encourage happiness and express gratitude for past and future deliverances of the Jewish people.3

As has been often noted, God does not appear (at least explicitly) in the story of Esther. However, the story of the music does include God – in the chanting of 6:1. The verse tells of King Ahasuerus' sleeplessness, and according to the midrash, on this night so too did God suffer sleeplessness because of the imminent danger to the Jews. This verse is chanted with the musical motif that is also chanted about God the King, HaMelekh, on the High Holidays, invoking the sense of possible doom but also hoping and praying that the harsh decree will be averted by those with the power to do so.

The music of Megillat Esther would be nothing without the story of course, for there would be no reason for it to exist. However, the story of Megillat Esther would be lacking without the subtle richness the music brings to it. The music emphasizes words, people, and plots; the music transforms simple meanings into layered references to many texts of Jewish tradition; the music transcends its origins as an aid to the story and becomes an integral part of that story.

This Purim, hear what the chanting of Megillat Esther has to tell about itself, the story of Purim, and our rich and thriving Jewish tradition.

1. Friedmann, Jonathan L., ed. Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity: Continuity and Fragmentation. St. Paul, MN: Paragon House, 2008.

2. Nulman, Macy, ed. Concepts of Jewish Music and Prayer. New York: Cantorial Council of America at Yeshiva University, 1985.

3. Binder, A.W. "Purim in Music." The Purim Anthology. Ed. Philip Goodman. Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1952. 209-221.

Jay A. LeVine is a second-year rabbinical student at the Los Angeles campus of HUC-JIR. He is currently serving as student rabbi at Congregation Ohr Shalom in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.

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