The Mitzva of Megilla - To Read, Not to Write

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


The following two problems exist concerning the halakhot of megilla:

1) The whole megilla must be read, and if even one letter is left out, the obligation has not been fulfilled. On the other hand, though the reading must be done from a kosher megilla scroll, it is not necessary that the scroll contain the entire text of the book of Esther. It suffices that most of the text be written. We hold that "the majority is considered equivalent to the whole thing" (so long as an entire subject or episode has not been omitted, etc.), and the remainder may be recited by heart.

This difference is difficult to understand: Since the reading has to be done from a text, it would appear that reading by heart is of no halakhic significance. On the other hand, since a complete text is not required, it would follow logically that it suffices to read most of the megilla, according to the principle that "the majority is equivalent to the whole." Yet we are obligated to disregard this principle and supply the unwritten parts "by heart." How are we to understand this inconsistency?

2) The Mechaber (siman 690) holds - like the Rosh - that one may learn the midrash on the megilla during the reading itself, for instance by reading one verse at a time and then orally reading the midrash on it. But in siman 68 he forbids the recitation of piyutim (liturgical poems) during the berakhot preceding Keri'at Shema, considering them a hefsek (interruption). Apparently the same would be the case concerning the discussion of Torah matters during the berakhot, as learned from Keri'at Shema and its berakhot, and it would seem to be a case of kal va-chomer since the Rema (ibid.) permits piyutim but forbids divrei Torah. This distinction requires our attention, particularly in light of the gemara in Berakhot (14a) which compares Keri'at Shema and the megilla from the point of view of hefsek.

Is the Megilla inferior to other Kitvei Ha-kodesh?

A possible direction for the solution of the problem lies in the opinion of Shmuel (Megilla 7a) that the megilla does not render one's hands tamei (impure), as opposed to the other kitvei ha-kodesh (holy writings). By saying this, Shmuel is conferring paradoxically, INFERIOR status on the megilla, as compared to the other scriptures. This is so because the "impurity" of scriptures is a rabbinic ordinance, designed to require people to keep their holy books apart from their food, for fear of defiling the food. The Rabbis were thus protecting the writings from desecration by animals who would be attracted to the food stores. Shmuel holds that the megilla does not merit being included in this injunction.

What is the reason for this inferiority? Despite the fact that the megilla was written with ru'ach ha-kodesh, like all Scripture, Shmuel explains that "it was given to be read, not to be written." The Rishonim found difficulty with this: How is it possible that we are not commanded to write it? Is it not the case that we do not fulfill our obligation by reciting it by heart?

The Ritva explains that Shmuel indeed holds that there is no mitzva to write the megilla; however, since there is a mitzva to read it (unlike the other kitvei kodesh, which are to be written but have no special accompanying mitzva that they be read), therefore it does not render the hands of the reader tamei, and its level of holiness is somewhat lower than the rest of Tanakh.

What is the basis and proof for Shmuel's opinion? We can explain by examining the Yerushalmi (1:5): "R. Shmuel bar Nachman in the name of R. Yonatan said, Eighty-five elders, and among them more than thirty prophets, despaired over this. They said, 'It is written, "These are the mitzvot which God commanded Moshe" - THESE are the mitzvot that we were commanded by Moshe, but Moshe told us that no other prophet would later come along with any innovation. Now Mordekhai and Esther wish to innovate something!' They would not budge from there, arguing over this matter until God enlightened them and they found proof for it in the Torah and in Nevi'im and in Ketuvim, as it is written, 'Write this as a remembrance in a book' - 'this' refers to the Torah, etc.; 'remembrance' refers to the Nevi'im, etc.; 'in a book' refers to the Ketuvim..."

What exactly troubled the Sages so deeply? If it was the WRITING of the megilla - the whole of Nakh (non-Pentateuchal biblical books) was written after the Torah, so what innovation is presented by the writing of the megilla? If it was the READING of the megilla that disturbed them - how would "Write this as a remembrance in a book" serve as a source for this? Indeed, the Bavli (7a) uses this analysis in response to Ester's request, "Write my book for future generations," as the basis for the agreement of Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola to WRITE the megilla.

However, it seems that the Bavli and the Yerushalmi are addressing one and the same issue, because the writing and the reading of the megilla are both part of one problem - the problem which made the Sages so reluctant to grant Esther's request to "write my book." In order to include a book in the Scriptures, it is not sufficient that it be written with ru'ach ha-kodesh, since only those texts that were NECESSARY for all generations were included in the kitvei kodesh (Megilla 14a). The war against Amalek receives extensive attention in Tanakh, and the Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola did not consider the megilla to be a significant addition on this subject (7a - "Send to her saying, have I not written you... etc."). Although this argument sounds convincing, its refutation is self-evident. Klal Yisrael invested the megilla with significance for posterity by taking upon themselves to read it every year, and this very custom lends the megilla the status of being "necessary for all generations"!

But it was this very point that distressed the Anshei Knesset Ha-gedola. Apart from Megillat Esther, the status of each of the books of Tanakh is based on its absolute significance and necessity - even if no one recognizes them. If a certain book is neglected by Klal Israel, this only serves as testimony to their apathy; the status and value of the book itself, as one of the kitvei ha-kodesh, is in no way diminished. So how do we arrive at the idea that one of the kitvei kodesh has a status that is not independent, but rather depends on its being read every year?

Ultimately the Sages learned from the above derivation that the megilla should be written for all generations, and it seems from this that the commitment to read the megilla on a regular basis suffices to justify its inclusion in the Nakh. This idea may be hinted to in the verse, "Write this as a remembrance in a book, and make Yehoshua hear it" - i.e. it is possible that a book can exist whose entire writing and fulfillment is dependent on its practical use ('remembrance'). In any event, it seems that this special characteristic of the megilla led Shmuel to lower the status of the megilla in relation to the rest of Tanakh. But even if we differ with Shmuel and hold that the megilla does render the hands of the reader tamei, we may still accept the basic premise - that the status of the megilla as one of the kitvei kodesh is derived from its being read every year. It was Klal Yisrael who included Megillat Esther in the Tanakh, and continues to do so for all generations.

A Re-definition of the Mitzva of megilla

Now we may take another step and re-define the obligation of reading the megilla in light of what we have said above. It may be that awarding the status of kitvei kodesh to the megilla is not result of the reading, but rather the essence of the definition of the mitzva. This may be understood from the pasuk, "And Esther wrote... to fulfill tdocument of Purim." We should not understand that a scroll is required because reading "by heart" is halakhically invalid. Rather, the written book has a critical role to play in the fulfillment of the mitzva. The obligation is to take the book of Megillat Esther and, through reading it, to create and establish the status of this "Purim document" as one of the kitvei kodesh.

Accordingly, it is clear why we may learn the midrash on the megilla during its reading. Midrash is an attribute which is exclusive to kitvei ha-kodesh, and hence its reading together with the megilla serves to establish its status as one of the books of Tanakh. This is actually the idea of the whole reading, and therefore this is not considered a hefsek. (See Tzofnat P'aneach on the Rambam, perek 2 of Hilkhot Megilla, who writes that according to Shmuel, above, the megilla in fact should not be the subject of midrash.)

In the same way we can explain the halakha that it is not necessary to read the entire megilla from the written text. Apparently, the halakha distinguishes between the megilla itself as an object, and the act of reading. If the minority of the text is missing, the megilla is still considered a "sefer," because "the majority is equivalent to the whole" (see the Ran on the Rif, 5b). Regarding the act of reading, no omission is permitted. Our dilemma stemmed from the mistaken assumption that since a text is required, this means the reading by heart is invalid, hence our conclusion that the "majority" principle adheres to the act of reading. As we have seen, the written scroll is not required in order to validate the reading, and there is nothing wrong with reading by heart. On the contrary, it is the reading whose function it is to "validate" the scroll, and affirm its status as belonging to the kitvei ha-kodesh. The law is, therefore, that the status of the megilla is established through its being read, and parts that are missing may be supplemented by heart in order to complete it.

Finally, let us turn our attention to the words of the Rambam at the end of Hilkhot Megilla: "All the books of the Nevi'im and all the Ketuvim will eventually be done away with in the days of the Messiah, except for Megillat Esther which will exist like the Five Books of the Torah and like the laws of the Oral Torah, which will never fall away." What makes Megillat Esther different from the other books of Tanakh in this respect? We may answer that the difference lies in the mitzva to read the megilla - since a mitzva is never canceled, the megilla remains an essential part of our canon. However, based on what we have said above, we see that the whole essence of the mitzva of reading the megilla keeps the megilla from being forgotten and neglected. If Klal Yisrael ceased to read the megilla each year, it would fall away long before the days of Mashiach. The force of Knesset Yisrael's commitment refreshes the megilla each year, and this force will keep it going forever.

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)