The Reading of the Megilla on Purim Night

Posted by Daniel Landes on February 1, 1997
Topics: Holidays & Special Readings, Esther, Halakha, Modernity, Purim, Feminism

This Purim night at Pardes, both men and women will be reading the Megillah for the community. This reflects the clear statement of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who said, “Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah she-af heim hayu BeOto HaNes–They also were involved in the miracle” [Megillah 4a]. This statement is understood by Rashi as signifying that, “Women may read and fulfill thereby the obligation of men [who are listening to them]” [Hiddushei HaRosh]. This concurs with another Talmudic statement, “‘All are eligible to read the Megillah,’ ‘all’ signifying that women are included” [Arakhin 2b]. Maimonides also decides absolutely that women are obligated in its reading [Hilkhot Kriat HaMegillah I:1]. The Maggid Mishneh [I:2] concludes that according to Maimonides, a woman may fulfill the obligation for others. R. Yosef Kaphach Shlitah in his commentary on the Mishneh Torah deduces that this includes fulfilling the obligation for a tzibur (congregation), “and there is no [violation] of Kavod HaTzibur [respect for the congregation], for the obligation of men and women is equal” [Zmanim 2, pg. 824].

Rashi’s and Maimonides’ shared opinion is stated as Halakhah in the Shulchan Arukh in the section entitled, “All Are Obligated in the Reading of the Megillah” [Orakh Chayim 689], which lists women as fulfilling it for others and eliminating only the deaf-mute, the minor, and the mentally impaired. The Shulchan Arukh does, however, bring down a dissenting opinion (yesh omrim) that women do not fulfill the obligation for men. Rabbi Moshe Isserlis [Rama] on that basis also brings a yesh omrim that, “If the woman reads to herself, she makes the blessing, ‘to hear the Megillah,’ for she is not obligated in reading.” These dissenting opinions are based upon the BeHaG, who has a Tosefta that posits, in clear contradiction to the Talmud in Megillah and Arakhin, that women are exempt from the mitzvah of reading the Megillah and cannot fulfill the obligation for others. The BeHaG mediates the contradiction by stating that women are exempted from reading the Megillah (and consequently cannot fulfill the obligation for others), but are only obligated to hear it [a position not suggested in the Talmud]. Thus the dissenting opinion (yesh omrim) cited in the Shulchan Arukh.

Modern Halakhic deciders who opine that we are careful with this opinion of the BeHaG found in the yesh omrim nonetheless affirm that the main opinion of the Shulchan Arukh– that women are commanded and can fulfill the obligation for others–, following Rashi and Maimonides according to the clear position of the Talmud, is certainly the De’ah Haikarit–the essential position. [The Mishneh Brurah of Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan in the Shaar HaTziyun 689 Note 16; R. Ovadya Yosef in Yalkat Yosef Hilkhot Megillah 12, who relies on the main opinion in a Shaat HaDehak, “a pressing hour”; Rabbi Moshe Shternbakh in Teshuvot VeHanhagot I: Orakh Chayim 403, citing the “majority of poskim” deciders]. Since women are obligated, they can fulfill the obligation for others, including men, according to the generally accepted principle that women are bound by the parameters of areivut, halakhic responsibility for the performance of mitzvot by others [Shaar HaTziyun Orakh Chayim 27, Note 9, citing the definitive arguments of Rabbi Akiba Eiger, Tsuvah 7].

But even according to the BeHaG’s opinion, women are obligated to read the Megillah on Purim night. This is conclusively demonstrated by Rabbi Hanoch Henech Agus of Vilna in his classic work Marcheshet. He responds to the problem of why for the BeHaG women would be exempted from Megillah. He answers that Megillah is a subset of the recital of Hallel–as the Talmud states that we don’t chant Hallel on Purim, for the reading of the Megillah is itself Hallel: Kriatah 20 Haleila (Megillah 14a). Since women are exempt from the positive, time-bound mitzvah of Hallel, they cannot fulfill the obligation for men. But, the Marcheshet continues, this is not the case on Purim night, for at night there is no obligation of Hallel [The Hallel of the Haggadah is of a different character, and note that it is both broken up and lacking a blessing]. The reading of Megillah at night is an act of Persumei Nisa, publicizing the miracle. “In this, women fulfill the obligation for men, for their obligation there is equal.” This position is endorsed by HaRav Tzvi Pesach Frank, of blessed memory, the Rav and final Halakhic authority of Jerusalem for over forty years. He demonstrates the cogency of the Marcheshet’s interpretation even if one substitutes other reasons for exempting women from the obligation of reading during the day [Mikraei Kodesh Chanukah/Purim, pp. 132-3].

Thus, according to both the essential opinion of the Shulchan Arukh and even according to the yesh omrim, it is incontestable that women may fulfill the obligation for men by reading the Megillah on Purim night. Is this, however, a worthy policy? Our answer must be an unequivocal yes.

First of all, many women left out of participation in the Megillah reading at night feel the necessity to form their own groups for Megillah reading. This avoids the mitzvah of reading in the greater tzibur, for Berov Am Hadrat Melech, “in the numerical greatness of the people there is glory to the king” [Beer HeTaiv 690 Note 16]. Purim, which is the triumph of Jewish survival, is to be celebrated in giving glory to our God in a unified, public fashion. Group reading is a crucial way of demonstrating the miracle of Purim by manifesting an intact community.

Even more important is the position of women within Pirsumei Nisa. This is a defining category of Megillah, especially at night. One must join within the synagogue for the reading even if one could hear it from the open window of one’s home for the reason of Persumei Nisa. Women are integral to the miracle of Purim as described in the Talmud as af hein hayu beoto hanes–they also were in that miracle. The Tosefot quotes the Rashbam as to alternative readings of that statement, in the context of Purim, Chanukah, and Pesach. It could either refer to the central role of women in the miracles of those holidays, or it could mean that they were benefited by the miracle, but that their role is secondary, tifailot. The RaShaSh convincingly demonstrates, with many proofs, that Af Hein means “indeed,” that women played the essential role–hein hayu ikkar. This is certainly true in the Megillah, as anyone who has read it can see. Reb Velvel Soloveitchik [Hiddushei Hagriz Archin, pp. 57-8] takes the discussion a step further. He shows that the import of af hein hayu beoto hanes is more than the elimination of a pittur, the exemption that women have from positive, time-bound commandments. He maintains that the hein hayu is the creation of a special obligation for women, a hiyuv miyuchad, “for the miracle was done by them.” Thus for Reb Velvel this special obligation does not merely make them equal to men, but is unique to them, “the essential reason why they are obligated.”

Women, as facilitators of God’s miracle, have a paradigmatic role in Persumei Nisa. Esther, who was stirred into areivut, responsiblity, for her people, is described in the Megillah as “donning kingly [attire]” to meet Ahashveros on Israel’s behalf. The Midrash Rabbah explains that these were the robes of her kingly ancestors. Thus Esther dons not the robes of her surrounding society, of Persian nobility, but rather comes clothed in the royal garments of the house of Saul, who had neglected to completely defeat Amalek. Now it is her turn to complete the task. The women and men who will read the Megillah at Machon Pardes also come clothed for the reading not in the mores of the surrounding society, but from the deepest sources of our tradition.

About Daniel Landes

Born in Chicago, Danny studied in Chicago with Rabbi M.B. Sacks, the Menachem Tzion; in Israel with Reb Aryeh Levin, the Tzadik of Jerusalem, with the great mystic R. Zvi Yehudah Kook, and with the Chief Rabbi R. Avrum Shapiro. In New York he studied with the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik; and in Los Angeles with the Av Beit Din R. Shmuel Katz (on whose rabbinical court he served).

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