The Five Rolls

I recently discovered this among my study notes and thought it belonged in the light:

The Five Rolls

The Five Rolls (Hebrew, Hamesh megillot) refer to five books of the Hebrew Bible that, following ancient Jewish tradition, came to be read on five of the Jewish annual festivals. In the oldest periods, all biblical books were written on scrolls, and these five (along with the Torah) are commonly written on scrolls even in modern times. In the Hebrew Bible, all five are found in the third major section of the Hebrew canon, the Kethubim (= the Writings). In the Masoretic tradition, they are grouped together in chronological order (though in some Hebrew Bibles they are grouped in the order of the festivals.)

Is read on Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) prior to the reading of the Torah. The book’s association with the festival of harvest derives from the return of Naomi to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest. Also, an ancient Jewish tradition that King David both was born and died on Pentecost further developed the association of the book with the feast, since the book gives David’s ancestry. Traditionally, the day that Israel accepted the Torah at Sinai was on Pentecost, and Ruth’s acceptance of the faith of Israel further strengthens the tie between the festival and the book.

Is read at the Feast of Passover. In addition to its public reading in the synagogue on either the seventh or eighth day, it is sometimes read at the Passover seder meal. The general association of the Song with the Passover derives from the ancient interpretation that the Song is an allegory of the love between Yahweh and Israel. Later, in Christian circles, this same allegorical interpretation was popularized except that the meaning behind the allegory became Christ’s love for the church.

Is recited during the Feast of Booths. It is read in the morning service prior to the reading of the Torah passage. The association of the book with the final celebration in the Jewish liturgical year derives from the various references within the book to joy and gladness, especially 11:2, which is thought by some Jewish interpreters to refer to the festival week itself. (The picture is The Birds, who popularised a verse from this book).

Is read on the ninth of Av (July/August) during the synagogue service as an expression of public mourning for the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem (AD 70). These dirges of grief are broad enough to include the destruction of both the first and second temple as well as the failure of the first and second Jewish revolts. The Lamentations generally are recited in the evening and the morning.

This reading is the central feature of the Feast of Purim, and it is required that the story be read from an actual scroll. (The other four books might be read from scrolls, too, but they are just as likely to be read from printed Hebrew Bibles.) The Book of Esther is considered the most important of the Five Rolls, and according to Jewish tradition, the recitation of this book at Purim was first ordered by Mordecai and Esther themselves.


The association of these books with Jewish festivals was a gradual process. The reading of Esther at Purim was practiced during the second temple period, and so was familiar to Christ.

The reading of Lamentations also is very ancient. The association of the other books with their respective festivals originated in various periods, along with musical traditions, melodies and accents for their recitation.

In Christian tradition, these books have been rearranged so that they do not appear together. Ruth follows Judges, since the story occurred during the period of the judges. Lamentations follows Jeremiah, since the tradition of the Septuagint is that Jeremiah was the author. Esther follows Ezra and Nehemiah as part of the history of the post-exilic period.

The Song and Ecclesiastes fall into the poetical books after Proverbs, probably because of the traditional opinion that Solomon wrote all three.


The River Teign in Devon ©

The smaller pictures used above come from the excellent Bibledex web site, although I swapped Song of Solomon and Esther around!


One thought on “The Five Rolls

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  1. Thanks for this, I was certainly taught it when I read Eugene Peterson’s “Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work” but forgot in the intervening 15 years! Thanks!

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