Megillah Reading by Women

Megillah Reading by Women - an Halachic analysis by Rabbanit Dr. Michal Tikochinsky

When I was growing up, my father, may his memory be a blessing, would read Megillat Esther (the scroll of Esther) for my mother on Purim day either right after he returned from the synagogue or sometime over the course of the holiday. Usually, the female neighbors also asked to join the reading and so it came to be that on every Purim a group of women would gather in our home to listen to the reading of the Megillah. I was so accustomed to going to this reading that even after I married, I continued to attend this family reading. The concept of a separate Megillah reading for women is not something new that was created in the last generation. In the Jerusalem Talmud it is told that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would gather his family together for the reading of the Megillah. Throughout the generations this was a comfortable solution for many women who were unable to come to the synagogue. However, until recently, it was typically a man would read the Megillah for the women. The question which we are going to deal with is can a women who reads the Megillah fulfill the obligation of other women and does this change have other implications on the laws of reading the Megillah? (1) The more that I am exposed to the phenomenon itself and not to the fanfare surrounding it, the more I realize how many strengths there are in a reading that is by women and for women and what great energy and Purim joy are found at these readings. In addition, when we examine the halakhot (laws), we see that Jewish law allows for these readings but does not obligate us to conduct them. Whoever wants to continue to go to the synagogue Megillah reading with the entire congregation present can do so, and whoever chooses to rely on the halakhic rulings mentioned in this article and attend a women’s Megillah reading can do so as well. The halakha permits each and every woman to choose from a diverse list of possibilities when it comes to fulfilling her obligation in the mitzvah of the reading of the Megillah. The Contradiction in the Sources of Chazal (The Sages of Blessed Memory): In the sources that deal with the obligation of women in the reading of the Megillah, there are two conflicting primary sources: The Mishna in Arachin shows the expansive position when it determines:“All are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, and all are qualified to read the Megillah.” The Gemara interprets that the generalization hinted at in the opening word of the Mishna: “Ha-kol”, “all” indicates that women are obligated in both reading and listening to the Megillah.(2) This Halakha sits well with the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, one of the first Amoraim, that women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah just like they are obligated in lighting Chanukah candles and eating matzah “for they too were involved in that miracle.”(3) According to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, the reason for obligating them is that the women were the heroines of these stories since “the main part of the miracle was done by them.”(4) Regarding Chanuka and Pesach, the argument that women led the redemption requires effort, either by saying that “in the merit of the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt” or by summoning secondary characters like Judith and the episode with Holophornes. In contrast, regarding Purim we don’t even need proof: The character of Esther brought redemption to the Jewish people in the days of Achashverosh. In the merit of her devotion she stands at the forefront of the holiday. We can add that if she didn’t request from the sages “establish me for the generations” the holiday would not been celebrated at all. (5) Can we learn from here that women are obligated in the mitzvot of these holidays even more than the men since in each case the women were instrumental in the main part of the miracle? The Tosafot do not follow this approach. According to the Tosafot, the meaning of what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said is that generally speaking, in the stories of these holidays the women were also in danger and then redeemed along with the men. Still, their interpretation of this issue is unambiguous. Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah with the same level of obligation as men, as it is written in the Tosafot: “From here we learn that women can fulfill the obligation of others.”(6) Rashi also states: “women are qualified to read the Megillah and can fulfill the obligation of males.”(7) On the other hand, there is a Tosefta that gives a full exemption to women from the reading of the Megillah. The Tosefta describes a hierarchy of obligations concerning the reading of the Megillah that concern different personalities. This is the language of the Tosefta:All are obligated in the reading of the Megillah- Kohanim (Priests), Leviim (Levites) and Yisrael (Israelites), converts, freed slaves, challalim (disqualified priests), netinim (designated people who can’t marry into Israel) mamzerim (progeny born of parents who were prohibited from cohabiting with one another), a born saris, a saris by human action, those with damaged testicles, those lacking testicles- all of them are obligated and all of them have the power to fulfill the obligation of the community.(8) The Tosefta opens with the listing of those who have identical obligations in the reading of the Megillah. Everyone on the list can therefore fulfill each others obligations. The Tosefta then lists exceptions, those who are obligated in the reading of the Megillah who can not exempt others, meaning that their reading is not on the same level of obligation:Tumtum (a person either male or female, but it is not clear which) and androginus (a person with both female and male characteristics) are obligated, but they do not have the power to fulfill the obligation of the community as a whole. An androginus fulfills the obligation for another androginus but not for a non- androginus; a tumtum does not fulfill the obligation for another tumtum or non-tumtum. (ibid) An androginus is a person with both female and male characteristics, a tumtum is a person whose genitals are concealed and we don’t know if they are male or female. The reason why an androginus can’t fulfill the men’s obligation but can fulfill the obligation of another androginus is that the female part of the androginus can’t fulfill the men’s obligation. (9) From here the Tosefta and the Mishna differ as to the case of the women. Those who continue reading the Tosefta will find that according to the Tosefta, women are totally exempt from reading the Megillah, this is different from the case of the androginus who is half male and therefore obligated in reading the Megillah:Women, slaves and minors are exempt and cannot fulfill the obligation for others. (ibid) The source from the Tosefta was brought as a source of doubt regarding women’s obligation in the reading of the Megillah which is different from what it says in the Mishna and in the discussion in the Gemara that explains it.  (10) The Halakhic Ruling: In light of the polarization of the two sources from the Sages, a number of opinions were presented, some of which accepted the position of the Mishna and preferred it over the text in the Tosefta. Some tried to reconcile the two sources and make a compromise between them. Others tipped the halakha to the side of the Tosefta and minimized women’s obligations. In practice, we can find five different halakhic opinions on this topic. It should be noted that some of these methods are systematic and delineated in the halakha, and some are narrow opinions and individual opinions which have less halakhic status. In any case, I will list them here, since in the general world view regarding the role and status of women, each of the opinions has its place, even if in the sources related to this matter some are better anchored and more reliable, we should not fear the other methods because of their lesser weight: 1.    Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah and can also fulfill the obligation for men:Rashi’s halakhic position on the issue in Arachin is that women are qualified to read the Megillah and to fulfill the obligation for men.(11) The Rambam rules that this is the halakha. Here is what he wrote in Mishneh Torah:All are obligated in the reading (of the Megillah) men and women converts and freed slavesAnd we educate the minors to read itAnd even Kohanim in their service disrupt their service in order to listen to the Megilllah…(12) In the next halakha the Rambam states:The reader and the one who hears from the reader each fulfill their obligation. He should hear it read from someone who is obligated in reading it. It is easy to see that the Rambam did not distinguish between the obligation of women and the obligation of men. He also thought that women could fulfill the obligation for the men. The basis of his ruling is the fact that generally the halakha follows the anonymous statement in the Mishna and the simple interpretation of the Talmud. In our case, when the Tosefta contradicts the Mishna and distinguishes between men and women in opposition of what it says in the Talmud, we can only reject it. This is also what the Maggid Mishna states. (13) Shiltei HaGiborim mentions that it seems to be the opinion of the Rif that women can fulfill the obligation of the community as a whole by reading the Megillah. This opinion is brought by the Shulchan Aruch and it seems that the Aruch HaShulchan also ruled this way.(14) 2.    Women are obligated like men but do not fulfill men’s obligation due to Kvod HaTzibur (congregational honor) This approach is a variation of approach #1. For this approach women do not fulfill the obligation of the men for a side reason and not for a fundamental reason. According to their view, we can say that the reading of the Megillah is similar to the reading of the Torah. Since a woman does not fulfill the obligation of the men for Torah reading, due to the issue of Kvod HaTzibur, and we don’t distinguish between one reading and another, in theory this approach is ruled in a similar way to the reading of the Megillah. This approach is found in the words of the Aruch HaShulchan and the Pri Megadim which are mentioned in the Mishna Brura.(15) This means that the reason why women do not fulfill the obligation of the men is not because their principled obligation is at a lower threshold, but because of Kvod HaTzibur. (16) This opinion does not preclude women from exempting other women and only relates to a public reading in which men are also present. 3.    Women are only required to listen and can fulfill the obligation for other women The author of Sefer Halakhot Gedolot from the Geonic Period (Bahag) took the position of the Tosefta into consideration and interpreted the Mishna and Gemara accordingly. The Bahag proposed a halakhic possibility which compromises between the approach of the Mishna which establishes absolute obligation and the approach of the Tosefta which presents an absolute exemption for women. He suggested that the Mishna spoke of listening to the Megillah while the Tosefta spoke about Megillah reading. The Bahag’s conclusion is that women must listen to the Megillah but are exempt from reading it:All are obligated in the reading of the Megillah…Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reading the Megillah (Tosefta)However they are obligated in listening, why?Since they were all in danger of ‘to destroy to slay and to exterminate’, all those who were in danger are obligated in listening to the Megillah. (17) The halakhic implication of the words of the Bahag is that women must hear but they are exempt from causing to hear (from reading) as such they can not fulfill the obligation of those who must not only hear but also read, meaning that they would not be allowed to read for men. The Baalei HaTosefot bring these words of the Bahag and point out that in every case, even according to the Bahag, a woman fulfills the obligation of hearing  for other women. The only thing that the Bahag determines is that men can not fulfill their obligation by listening to women read. The Rosh also brings the opinion of the Bahag and states: “Do not say that women only fulfill their obligation through the important reading of men. This comes to teach us that a woman fulfills the obligation for other women.”(18) Meaning, women can fulfill the obligation of other women through their reading, even if they do not fulfill the obligation of men. This opinion is brought in the Shulchan Aruch as an opinion of “yesh omrim”, “some say”, in the Rama and in the Levush. (19) The Vilna Gaon pondered this opinion since the very consideration of the Tosefta is problematic in his eyes. Therefore he notes that the first opinion of the Shulchan Aruch is what is important and according to that opinion, women are obligated and can fulfill the obligation of the men: The first opinion in the Shulchan Aruch seems correct to meSince the Tosefta is not qualifiedSince the Gemara is at odds with the Tosefta. (20) According the Vilna Gaon, we should totally reject the Tosefta since the opinion mentioned in the Gemara is that women are obligated. However, many poskim, (deciders of Jewish law) followed the opinion of the Bahag including the Levush and others.(21) 4.    They are obligated in listening only and do not fulfill the obligation for other women, they can only fulfill their own obligation Some of the poskim held the opinion that women were obligated in Megillah. However, they still believed that a woman could not even fulfill the obligation of other women since it would be dishonorable. This opinion appears in Korban Netanel who states: “A woman does not fulfill the obligation of many women since it would be a breach of propriety (Zila bahu milta). (22)  When we look into Korban Netanel’s words, we see that he relies on commentaries of Baalei HaTosafot in Masechet Sukkah. One who looks at the commentary of the Tosafot there will see that the consideration of Zila milta is mentioned in order to prohibit women from fulfilling the obligation of the men, relying on the words of the Bahag who determined clearly that women can fulfill the obligation of other women. (23) Therefore the words of the Korban Netanel are puzzling. 5.    Women are obligated in listening and can’t even read for themselves In Midrash Ne’elam Ruth which is derived from Kabbalistic literature it says: “Rabbi Abba said: Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, but they do not read for others, however they are obligated in hearing the blessing from the person who recites the blessing…and they are obligated in the reading of the Megillah- to listen from the mouth of the reader.” The Magen Avraham brings this Midrash to teach the halakha and writes: “In Midrash Ne’elam Ruth it says that she should not read for herself, rather she should hear it from the men.”(24) Aruch HaShulchan tries to understand the words of the Midrash and suggests that the view of the Midrash is “Reading was not established for them.” (25) Meaning, that you can read the opinion of the Bahag as a fundamental spiritual position according to which a woman is not a “reader”, and reading is not established for them. However, Aruch HaShulchan rejects bringing this Midrash as halakha, and after he brings the opinion of the Magen Avraham, states that this needs to be examined. The author of the Chayei Adam also wondered why Midrash Ne’elam Ruth was brought considering that it is not a central Midrash and is not well known. According to him, the language of the Vilna Gaon which quotes the Midrash does not require the halakhic result that the Magen Avraham decreed:And also women, even though they are obligated (in Megillah), in any case, they are not obligated to read it, rather they are obligated to hear it, they are obligated to hear it from a man. And even for herself she should not read it, rather a man should read it for her. This language that the Magen Avraham wrote in section 6 is not found in Zohar Chadash RuthAnd the Vilna Gaon brought his languageAnd he is not forced if he wants to say that she doesn’t read for others but for herself she can read and this needs to be examined further. (26) Indeed, a careful reading of the Midrash as quoted here does not obligate the halakhic conclusion of the Magen Avraham. One should doubt the use of a Kabbalistic source as an equivalent to the sources of the Sages. The penetration of Kabbalistic ideas into the halakhic realm indeed occurs in quite a few places, but this penetration was not accepted by all. And this is certainly not the way for making a halakhic ruling. Before us, we have five approaches, some of which are identical to the halakha that we follow, but different from the essential definition and explanation:1.    Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah in the same way as the men and can fulfill the obligation for males (Shulchan Aruch b’stam).2.    Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah in the same way as the men but they can not fulfill the obligation for males because of Kvod HaTzibur, similar to the case of Torah reading (Pri Megadim).3.    Women are exempt from reading and obligated in hearing the Megillah and can only fulfill the obligation for the women (Bahag, Shulchan Aruch “some say”)4.    Women are exempt from reading and obligated in hearing the Megillah and can only fulfill their own obligation, but can’t fulfill the obligation for other women (Korban Netanel).5.    Women are exempt from reading and obligated in hearing the Megillah and can only fulfill their obligation by hearing the Megillah read by a man (Magen Avraham). The hierarchy of possibilities attests to the long-standing debate over the place of women in the realm of halakhic ritual practice. From the proposal for absolute equality when it comes to a mitzva that there is no reason to say that men have obligated themselves more than women to the proposition that women's worship of God is secondary to that of men, depends on men and relies on them. It seems to me that this hierarchy is present in the religious public discourse and the range of approaches reflects different religious perceptions and experiences, whether it is the religious experience of men or that of women. However, in this halakhic case it is easy to see that there are two main approaches that rely on rabbinical sources: The ruling in the words of the Talmud which is unambiguous or the ruling that attempts to reconcile the contradictory approaches in the words of the Sages. In contrast to these approaches, proposals that rely on "new" theories or speculations imported from other halakhic issues or from grey halakhic sources. The view of the Magen Avraham that a woman is obligated specifically in listening and does not even exempt herself, is a singular opinion that was not mentioned previously in the teachings of the poskim. The position of the Magen Avraham also contradicts the Tosefta, according to which the androginous and the tumtum exempt themselves. The appeal of the Magen Avraham to Midrash Ne’elam Ruth, which is literally gone, is not convincing enough. Similarly, Korban Nataniel's proposal to say that women do not exempt women contradicts the explicit words of the Rishonim on which he himself relies. This approach is based on a non-halakhic source, and it seems that this obliges the Bahag to say the opposite. Therefore, on the basis of the accepted mechanism used in halakhic rulings, it would be a mistake to turn these approaches into a broad teaching or to fear and block women from reading even if it is just for other women. In my understanding, the two central positions must be taken into consideration: one is that women are obligated just like men and can fulfill their obligation and the second is that women are obligated to listen and cannot fulfill men’s obligation which is to read. However, they can fulfill the obligation for other women. Of course, women who wish to do so can fulfill their obligation by going to the communal reading at the synagogue rather than going to a women’s reading. Thus, all spiritual positions are kept side by side. Publicizing the Miracle The Shulchan Aruch rules that when the Megillah is read at the proper time (on the 14th or 15th of Adar) “one must seek out ten and if ten were not found, an individual may read the Megillah” (27), we see from here that it is preferable to read the Megillah in public. In contrast to other matters that require ten because they are defined as sacred, in the case of reading the Megillah the need for ten is derived from the obligation to publicize the miracle. Therefore, the question arises: who is included in these ten? Here there will be a difference between the two main halakhic approaches that we have brought. For the approach that holds the same obligation for the men and women, women are counted among the men. The Ran supports this position and compares this with the concept of zimun (the quorum needed to introduce Birkat HaMazon, Grace After Meals). In zimun women do not count in the minyan. He distinguishes between zimun and reading the Megillah and determines that for the Megillah, women are counted in the minyan:There are those that say that even though women can fulfill the obligation, they still can’t be counted in the minyan which needs ten for the reading of the Megillah as in the case in the Talmud, Brachot 45:2 on the topic of Birkat HaMazon. Even though women can form their own zimun, they do not join together with men to form a group of three to make a zimun because of the possibility of promiscuity. There (in the case of Birkat HaMazon) you can say that women aren’t counted since they don’t fulfill men’s obligations, but here, how is it possible that women can fulfill the obligation of men to read the Megillah and not be counted with them as part of the Megillah minyan? Certainly they can be counted. And if you ask why we are not worried here (in the case of the reading of the Megillah) about promiscuity as we were in the other case (of Birkat HaMazon), we can say that it is different here since when the men and women join together, there is no difference in the formula of the bracha (blessing) but in the case of zimun, there is difference in the formula and since their joining with the men is significant, we are worried about promiscuity. But here, in the case of the Megillah, their joining is not significant since the way that it is read is the same for an individual as it is for the community. And since their joining in is not significant, in the similar situation of Birkat HaMazon the women are allowed to join the zimun when there are already three men since their  joining in is not significant at all (as the zimun is made up of the three men). (28) The Ran explains that in the case of zimun, the women joining the men would be promiscuous since there would be a change in the nusach and women’s joining with the men would be significant. However, in his opinion, in the case of Megillah, women’s joining in is not significant since we don’t change the formula of the bracha and we are not worried about promiscuity and therefore women can be counted in the minyan. In his commentary on the Megillah, the Meiri briefly brings the Ran's opinion, according to which women are counted in a minyan for reading the Megillah and then rejects it:There are those who say that the obligation of the women is equal to that of the men to make the minyan of ten. And even though in the matter of zimun, they said that women make their own zimun and do not join with the men, this is only because of promiscuity ... But for minyan for the Megillah women do join.(29) The Meiri adds “and it will not be like this” but does not explain further why “it will not be like this” (why he does not follow the Ran). Is it because in the case of Megillah they are also worried about promiscuity or is there a different reason? The Rama also wrote “We have to doubt if women join the ten” and did not explain the reasons for the doubt. The Levush wrote as well “and they do not join the ten.”(30) It seems to me that the doubting in the words of the poskim relates only to the question of whether women are counted together with men. As can be seen from the Ran himself, the fear of promiscuity stands out in the counting of a minyan made up of both women and men. In addition, the reason for this struggle may be due to the fact that there is a doubt as to whether they are equal to men or not. And it is possible that those who feel that women are not obligated on the same level as men would also say that they do not join a minyan with men.(31) Therefore, it seems to me that certainly if there are ten women they would count as a minyan for the sake of publicizing the miracle and they are also obligated in saying the bracha Harav et rivenu” (God fights our battles) at the end of the reading which is only said when there is a minyan. This is what Rav Ovadia Yosef wrote in his Tshuva (answer) and he ruled:“As long as there are ten women it is correctly considered publicizing the miracle.”(32) Rabbi Chaim Sonnenfeld also favored the opinion of the Ran, permitting the women to be counted in the minyan for Megillah reading, and he wrote:Do not neglect the “yesh omrim”, some say (= opinion of the Ran quoted in Meiri as ‘yesh omrim”),Birkat HaMazon is different since you need ten for God’s honor and you need free people in the same way that other things which require a minyan do. However here, the reason for ten is for publicizing the miracle, and therefore we can say that it is permitted…(33) Since many women gather together to read the Megillah both in the evening and in the morning after the men have returned from the reading at the synagogue, in most cases the congregation that gathers together is made up of women and therefore it seems to me that every gathering of more than ten women can bless “Harav et rivenu” and can fulfill the obligation of a public reading. The blessing of “to listen to the Megillah” or “on the reading of the Megillah” In the synagogue, in the main Megillah reading, the reader recites “al mikra Megillah”, “on the reading of the Megillah” and this is the permanent nusach of the bracha. However, in the case of a women’s reading, there is a discussion of which bracha should be recited. If they are only obligated in listening to the Megillah, then seemingly they should bless “lishmoa Megillah” “to listen to the Megillah.” This opinion is mentioned in the Rama relying on the words of the Mordechai: “If a woman reads for herself she blesses: “to listen to the Megillah” since she is not obligated in reading it.”(34) According to this those who follow the custom of the Shulchan Aruch that women are obligated in reading, not just in listening, they should bless “al mikra Megillah” and those who follow the custom of the Rama that women are only obligated in hearing the Megillah will bless “lishmoa Megillah.”(35) However, in opposition to the view of the Rama, Rabbi Chaim Sonnenfeld writes that we should not change the codified blessing even for the women and we should not make a separate blessing for them. His view is anchored in the Vilna Gaon and the Pri Hadash. (36) Therefore, if women who follow the custom of the Rama blessed “al Mikra Megilla” they have an opinion to rely on. (37) The following is brought by Yalkut Yosef: There are some Ashkenasim who have the custom to bless “lishmoa Megillah” instead of “al mikra Megillah” before a women’s Megillah reading. However, the custom in all of the Sephardic communities, even when the Megillah is read for women is “al mikra Megillah”. And this is also the custom in some of the Ashkenasic communities. (38) Separate Readings for Women The custom that women read the Megillah separately from men is accepted and known since the time of the Amoraim. We see proof of this in the Talmud Yerushalmi:Bar Kafra said that we need to read the Megillah for the women and the childrenThis is what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi did. He would gather his children and family members and read before them According to this testimony, the reading for women was separate and usually part of the family reading. The Aruch HaShulchan states:Since women are obligated (in Megillah), young maidens who reach the age of 12 and one day are obligated to listen to the MegillahAnd every person must read (the Megillah) in his home for the women and the young maidensOr they should go to the women’s synagogueAnd in the Yerushalmi (chapter 2, Halacha 5) we see that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would gather his family members and read before them Aruch HaShulchan suggests one of two ideas: either women listen to the Megillah at home or they go to the women’s synagogue, meaning to a centralized reading specifically for the women. Rav Ovadia Yosef says that “we should encourage this minhag.”(39)  The communal Megillah reading in the synagogue does not necessarily fit with the needs of the women. It happened to me personally that I missed the first words of the reading since by the time everyone was sitting and quiet the first sentence of the Megillah was already over. When women sit too far away from the reader and can’t see or look at him, they are often unable to properly hear the Megillah. As well, when most of the children prefer to sit next to their mothers, there will always be a child who will whisper into their mother’s ear or make a loud noise that will cause her to miss hearing a few words and therefore invalidate the entire reading for her. From here we see that the ultimate solution for women is a separate reading specifically for the women. In this type of reading, there is no reason why a woman can’t read the Megillah, and even those who say that women can’t fulfill the obligation for men can still fulfill the obligation for other women. If the women prepare for the reading in a serious way, the reading can sound as beautiful, clear and accurate as the reading by a man. As it says above, if there are more than ten women, one can bless “Harav et rivenu” which is said with ten. As far as reciting the brachot before the reading of the Megillah, it may be better to have someone say them who follows the Shulchan Aruch and recites “al mikra Megillah.” This way they fulfill all of the opinions and there is no concern of a “safek bracha.