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Vayikra 5782 ~ March 11, 2022

What constitutes a city? How is a city different from a village? Having studied Urban Geography and Urban Planning while still in high school, I might understand the standard definition. Yet the Mishna, a rabbinic legal text from the Second Century, provides us with an entirely different set of parameters. Based on these parameters, the rabbis of the Mishna made decisions as to when Megillat (The Scroll of) Esther should be read in the community, or for that matter, even the Torah.

Many of us are under the impression that the Torah is always read on Shabbat in a specific cycle.  Festivals such as Passover, Yom Kippur and the High Holy Days each have their own specific readings. Some of us are aware that the Torah is also read on Saturday afternoon at services, and on Monday and Thursday mornings.  The Mishna known as Megillah codifies several other traditions including: How many aliyot are read depending on which type of holiday we are celebrating or day of the week; how many versus are the minimum that constitutes an aliyah at the Torah; whether a minor can not only read from the Torah, but whether that individual may say the blessings prior and following the reading of the Torah and whether that individual may lead the blessings before and after the Shema or serve as the leader of the service as the Amidah and the Kedushah are chanted out loud for the congregation. At a different time, we may discuss these rulings.

However, our Mishnah known as Megillah, dealing with Purim, asks the question of when does one read the Megillah in a community.  It begins by stating that the Megillah may be read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th of Adar. The traditional day is the 14th throughout the world. The 15th is reserved for cities that were walled from the time of Joshua, such as Jericho and Jerusalem. And there is the fact that one does not read the Megillah or celebrate it on Shabbat, moving the reading back to a previous day. 

Interestingly enough, demographics also play a role in deciding when the Megillah is read. The Mishnah states that a city, in the Jewish world, can only be called such if it has ten idlers in it. What is in an idler? A retired person who has the time to attend services on weekdays and Shabbat and help to constitute a minyan. If there are only nine, that place is referred to as a village. As such, the Megillah might be read on the Monday or Thursday of the 11th, 12th, or 13th. Why on those days? The Mishnah goes on to tell us that the rabbinic courts met on those days. People would come into the larger city to sell their wares and their produce. They would bring their disputes and their legal questions to the rabbinic courts. For that reason, the Torah was read on Mondays and Thursdays as well. Since many lived on farms, they were not able to travel on foot to the larger community on Shabbat and were not able to hear the Torah being chanted. So, the rabbis instituted the reading of Torah on days that rabbinic courts met. The same held true with the reading of the Megillah. Since many were unable to attend on a non-court day, and since there were less than ten idlers in the city, the Megillah was read when a minyan could be present, and those from the farms and outskirts could make their way into town.

The students in my religious school class asked me, “So Rabbi, is New London a city or a village?” I said to them, “That depends.” The State of Connecticut recognizes New London as a city based on its general size, its demographics and its services.  But whether or not the rabbis of the Mishna agree may be left to those who constitute a Jewish community and not only their desire, but their commitment to ensure a prayer quorum at services, be it on weekdays, Shabbat, Festivals, High Holy Days, and, yes, even the reading of the Megillah on Purim.

In that regard we can all be proud of the fact that Congregation Beth El and New London may be called a city by the definition of the rabbis for Friday evenings, Shabbat mornings, Festivals, the High Holy Days, and most weekday evenings.  Our weekday mornings services that were regularly attended during the height of the pandemic, have reverted back to the second definition of that of a village.  In many communities much larger than our own, including the shul that I davened in Massachusetts, the rabbis might assign a similar demographic title to the community.

We should be proud of what we continue to achieve as a congregation and as a city as defined by the rabbis. And at the same time, we should accept the rabbis’ definition of the reality of the nuanced change of mornings in our community.  As such, after lengthy discussions with our executive board, our morning attendees and the head of our religious committee, we will be making a slight change to our daily morning service schedule with the hope that more will join us. At the same time, on days when services are not officially held, we will continue to keep the link open, so that those who want to perhaps join together might do so. (Please see the announcements.)

As I have said to those who attend, even when we are just two individuals together, two creates a more dynamic prayerful moment than when davening alone. At the same time, we inspire and encourage each other to be present on days when we appreciate the significance of those who are in attendance. Our reading for this Shabbat opens with the word: Vayikra, as in Hashem calls out…, with the instructions on how Jewish religious expression would be observed as the Children of Israel evolved as a religious community in the wilderness. And it calls out to us how, in a similar fashion, our religious expression has evolved into prayer and hopefully calls out to us in a most spiritual and significant manner.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782