How Many Purims: The Question of Early Megilla Reading

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


One of the fascinating aspects of the laws of reading the megilla on Purim - unique to this mitzva - is the great diversity witnessed in the its performance. Unlike other mitzvot, which are strictly regimented in the manner of their performance, reading the megilla is a mitzva that varies greatly, depending primarily upon location. The first mishna in megilla conveys a sense of this diversity when it declares "megilla can feasibly be read on the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, or 15th of Adar."


The ensuing segment of the Mishna describes the schedule as follows: the standard day for reading megilla is either the 14th or 15th of Adar, depending upon whether one resides in a regular city or one which has been surrounded by a wall since the period of Yehoshua bin Nun. Additionally, Chazal provided a special dispensation to those who reside in small hamlets. As it is more difficult for them to execute the reading of the megilla (for reasons to be described later), they were allowed to read the megilla on the proximate Monday or Thursday preceding Purim. If, for example, Purim occurred on Friday, they would read on the prior Thursday. If Purim were on Sunday, they would pre-schedule the megilla to the prior Thursday. If Purim occurred on Wednesday or Tuesday, they would read on Monday. This shiur will investigate the nature of this halakha.


The most appropriate manner in which to begin our evaluation is to study the source of this halakha. The gemara itself (Megilla 2a) immediately poses this question and provides a very interesting response. The gemara asserts that we cannot imagine a situation in which the Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola, living during the time of Esther and Mordechai, established the 14th and 15th days of Adar as the days for reading the megilla, and subsequently Chazal (in the time of the Mishna) derived a different day for the small villages, based upon a translation of a verse in the megilla. This situation would clash with the notion that a subsequent court may not rescind the decree of a prior court ("ein beit din yakhol levatel") unless they are superior in number and wisdom. It is inconceivable that the development of the village reading evolved subsequent to a more sweeping designation of the 14th and 15th as megilla-reading days for all Jews. Essentially then, we must assume that all possible days and all options were developed by the original Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola as part of one encompassing takkana (enactment).


Where, then, can we find in the megilla some mention or allusion to this option? While reading on the 14th or 15th is clearly stipulated in the megilla, the 11th, 12th and 13th are barely referred to. Ultimately, the gemara supplies some casual reference that might in some manner HINT at these days. For example, the gemara mentions the PHRASE "le-kayem aleihem yemei ha-Purim ha-eilu bi-zmaneihem" as suggestive of the possibility that "zemanim tuva ikka" (there are many possible dates on which the megilla may be read).


To summarize: The gemara was unwilling to consider a scenario by which the permission to read the megilla on earlier days evolved subsequent to the original sweeping designation of the 14th and 15th. Hence, any source is only an allusion to what had already been legislated, rather than a source from which to derive a new paradigm.


The Yerushalmi poses the same question regarding a source for the early reading of the megilla, but does not encounter the same problems as the Bavli. It proceeds naturally toward locating a source without being troubled by the possibility that these earlier days were established by subsequent generations of legislators. What accounts for the different perspectives of the Bavli and Yerushalmi?


To answer this question I would like to examine a dispute between Rashi and Tosafot about a different issue - one that could exhibit structural analogies to the question of "ein beit din yakhol levatel." The gemara in Yevamot (13b) considers the prohibition of "lo titgodedu," which prohibits (among other things) forming competing parties, each of which follows halakha in different manners. Reish Lakish asks Rabbi Yochanan why our mishna, which describes different days on which to read the megilla (depending upon location), does not violate this principle of lo titgodedu. It is unclear what, if any, response Rabbi Yochanan provided. Ultimately, though, Abaye supplies criteria for gauging lo titgodedu. If the different customs are promulgated by courts in different towns, no transgression has been performed. If, however, two different courts in the same town issue conflicting verdicts, and different parties adopt disparate customs, lo titgodedu has been violated.

Tosafot question the ramifications of Abaye's conclusion according to Rashi's understanding of the custom of villagers pre-scheduling the megilla reading. Rashi had already explained (Megilla 2a) that the villagers were handicapped by not having individuals capable of reading megilla. Hence, they were allowed to read on days in which they traveled to larger cities (Monday and Thursday) to attend the courts that were in session. On those days, they would ask a local city resident to read on their behalf. This schedule would seem to provide a classic situation of lo titgodedu. Abaye permitted differences as long as they occurred in DIFFERENT TOWNS. According to Rashi, the megilla would be read in a large town for the villagers on the 11th of Adar, and a few days later, on the 14th, the megilla would be read again in the exact same town for the local residents!

Based on this difficulty, Tosafot alter Rashi's conception of the custom of the villagers. According to Tosafot, they knew how to read the megilla, but would be inconvenienced by gathering for Purim to actually read the megilla. Presumably, they lived at great distances from one another and would be aided if they were allowed to read megilla on a day on which they gathered in any event. According to Tosafot, they were allowed to read on Mondays and Thursdays because on these days they would gather to read the Torah. On these same days, they were permitted to read the megilla IN THEIR OWN VILLAGES. As the differing readings occurred in DIFFERENT LOCALES, no problem of lo titgodedu would seem to apply.

How would Rashi answer this question? Why doesn't the practice of prescheduled reading of the megilla conflict with Abaye's parameters for lo titgodedu? Possibly, Rashi's definition of this practice is one that by nature would not be relevant to lo titgodedu. Indeed, Reish Lakish believed that lo titgodedu would apply and asked Rabbi Yochanan about this potential clash. Rabbi Yochanan did not agree that the issue was problematic, and Abaye's ultimate guidelines, though relevant elsewhere, do not have to be applied to megilla.

One fundamental question must be posed about the nature of this early reading: What in fact happened when these days were offered to the villagers? Was Purim rescheduled for them to an earlier date? Or did they receive a special dispensation or kula (leniency) to read the megilla prior to Purim? Was a separate and parallel track to Purim established, or were they allowed to get by without reading the megilla on Purim but rather proximate to it?

This question might have fueled the debate between Rashi and Tosafot. The latter may have believed that a separate Purim was established and the presence of two tracks or two models invites the concern of lo titgodedu. This prohibition remains relevant, and Abaye's ultimate criteria must be superimposed. Hence, Tosafot redefined the villagers' practices so that the megilla would not be read in the same city on different days. Rashi might have countered that their early reading does not entail a different Purim. They are allowed to read on a day of non-Purim in order better service their particular needs (in Rashi's case, the lack of experts available in these villages to read the megilla). They are not developing an alternate Purim as much as enjoying a leniency. The implementation of this schedule might not have aroused the issue of lo titgodedu.

This question - the nature of the rescheduling of village megilla reading - might have formed the basis for the differing perspectives of the Bavli and Yerushalmi. The Bavli is fairly uncomfortable with a two-staged approach. In no way can the Bavli tolerate a situation in which originally the Chakhamim included all people in the 14th or 15th day, and subsequent courts overruled this designation. Such a condition would violate the principle that later, smaller and less prestigious courts cannot repeal earlier precedents. Hence, the Bavli was forced to collapse any assignment of days into one original package.

The Yerushalmi's lack of concern with this factor may have stemmed from its viewing the earlier date not as an alternate Purim, but rather as a special leniency for these villagers to recite megilla on a non-Purim day. The later court did not rescind the original ruling, as much as modify its application to certain individuals. Hence, the Yerushalmi is free to envision a more natural evolution to the different days of megilla reading. Originally, the 14th and 15th were established as universal dates of megilla. Subsequently, when Jews began to live in hamlets (presumably after the destruction of the second Temple when in Bavel the population was more significantly dispersed), Chazal created a leniency for these small-town residents. Before developing this leniency, they found some textual basis in the actual phrasing of the megilla.


We might discern the same issue, which propelled the debate between Rashi and Tosafot about lo titgodedu, dictating the different sources cited by the Bavli and Yerushalmi for the phenomenon of early reading in villages. Of course, we must still address the issue of how Rashi (who supposedly views the early reading as a special leniency) accounts for the tension which the Bavli finds within a potential two-staged takkana.


Now let us turn to the practical ramifications of this issue. The Ran raises an interesting question. Given that they are allowed to read the megilla early, when would these villagers perform the other mitzvot of Purim? The gemara itself partially addresses this issue when it investigates the day on which these villagers performed the various mitzvot of Purim. Indeed, they would distribute matanot la-evyonim on the early day on which they read the megilla. Since the indigent anticipated the day of Purim for the financial relief it would provide, it might be unethical to raise their expectations by reading the megilla and not delivering charity on that very day.


By contrast, the gemara demands that the actual seuda (feast) and the celebrations of simcha (joy) surrounding the meal should be scheduled only on Purim proper (eina ela bi-zemana). Even though the megilla can be read early, the simcha of Purim must be experienced on the universal day. The gemara does not, however, address the question of mishlo'ach manot and whether they too can be pre-delivered on the early megilla reading day. Do we recognize the early day as a partial alternative Purim (on which the megilla is read, matanot la-evyonim distributed and mishlo'ach manot delivered), or do we view the reading as a special dispensation to villagers to read on a non-Purim date? We might add matanot la-evyonim on that day so as not to exploit poor people. We will not, however, deliver mishlo'ach manot, because we do not recognize that day as Purim – even though the megilla is being read.


The Ran's ultimate conclusion is that mishlo'ach manot are distributed on the universal Purim day, because they should be given on the same day as the seuda. This Ran speaks to the nature of mishlo'ach manot and its relationship to seuda as much as it comments upon the nature of the early day of reading. (The relationship between mishlo'ach manot and seudat Purim was discussed in a previous shiur – see


Another issue arises from the gemara's discussion of public megilla reading (Megilla 5a). Rav claims that if the megilla were to be read in its proper time, it can be read even in private. The absolute need for a minyan applies only if the megilla is read at an improper time. Many explanations are supplied for the discrepancy between megilla reading in the proper schedule and one "she-lo bi-zemanah." What Rav does not define, however, is the identity of an improper reading.


Many Rishonim suggest that "she-lo bi-zemanah" refers to a person who lives in a walled city who reads on the 14th because he might not obtain a megilla to read on his proper day – the 15th. Others speak about someone who departs on a journey, who can conceivably read as early as the 10th. Rashi, however, claims that by discussing "she-lo bi-zemanah," Rav was indeed referring to villagers who read early. Rav viewed this reading as "not at its proper time," and therefore demanded that ten people be present. Conceivably, we might argue with Rashi that village reading should be considered "bi-zemanah," since it was a rescheduling of Purim for the villagers. As a regular reading, it should not require ten people in attendance.


A third issue that might be affected by the nature of the early reading would be the question of who actually reads on behalf of the villagers. As mentioned, Rashi believes that the early reading occurred in the large cities because the villagers were not able to read on their own. When they gathered in the large cities on Monday or Thursday, a ba'al keriya read on their behalf. Tosafot in Yevamot question Rashi's position, based upon a Yerushalmi in Megilla which does not allow a person living in a walled city to read for "open-city" people on the 14th. As this is not the day during which he must read the megilla, he cannot read it on behalf of others. Similarly, someone residing in a regular city may not recite the megilla on the 15th for those living in walled cities. How, then, does Rashi allow a city resident (who is obligated to read megilla only on the 14th) to read for the villagers on the early date? Based upon this objection, Tosafot claim that the villagers knew how to read, but were allowed to read for themselves on the day they gathered IN THEIR villages anyway to hear Torah reading. How would we defend Rashi's position allowing a city resident to read for villagers even though he is not obligated to read on that day?


We might defend Rashi by suggesting that since this reading is not an alternate reading of the megilla on a different Purim but rather a reading "she-lo bi-zemanah" (to employ Rav's phraseology), in effect it is a day on which NO ONE is OBLIGATED to read the megilla. In general, a person cannot read on a Purim that he is not celebrating; someone who will celebrate the Purim of the 14th cannot read for those celebrating the 15th, and vice versa. As these early days for villagers are not considered alternate days of Purim but rather non-Purim days on which the megilla is read, there is no problem for a person not celebrating Purim that day; in effect, no one is experiencing Purim, so everyone is on equal footing.


A final issue might be detected in a fascinating Ran. Adopting Rashi's position (that the megilla was read for the villagers in the large cities by a city resident), the Ran is troubled as to how these villagers heard an evening reading. After all, they would gather in the large cities in the morning and would ostensibly have the opportunity to hear a reading at that point. The night before, however, they did not yet reach the large cities and certainly could not read in their small hamlets since they were not expert in reading. The Ran suggests that maybe the villagers were excused from the night reading, just as they were allowed to read early.


This is a crucial statement regarding the nature ofthe night reading of the megilla. It suggests that the readings are not equivalent; the day reading is more significant and the night reading may be waived in certain exigencies. However, the Ran might also be making a statement about the nature of the villagers' reading. If Purim for them were merely rescheduled, we might not expand this decree to waive the night reading. Why should a rescheduling also warrant waiving half of the mitzva? Alternatively, if the villagers were essentially allowed to read on a non-Purim day – in light of their inability to read for themselves – then this takkana effectively is a leniency, which could conceivably be expanded with greater leniency - not reading at night at all. The Ran's willingness to expand the villager decree and waive their night reading might indicate that he views the move not as a rescheduling, but rather as a leniency allowing them to read on non-Purim.




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