Shiur #05: Reciting a Blessing Over the Five Megillot

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein


In the previous shiur we noted the fundamental paradox connected to the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Arukh. On the one hand, we are dealing with a work of exceedingly broad dimensions; as stated by the Vilna Gaon's disciples, this is their master's most important halakhic work, one which gives expression to years of investment. It was perceived by his students as a guide book with a principled and educational statement for future generations. On the other hand, the Vilna Gaon wrote it with extreme brevity, thus requiring of the reader excessive concentration to unravel it mysteries. The abbreviated style, the code words and the allusions all discourage the reader, and on the face of things, this literary approach does not fill any need or offer any benefit. The Gra's non-accessible writing erects barriers before anyone wishing to study it, thus impairing the usefulness of the commentary.


Consideration of this paradox brings us back to the bi-polar figure of the Vilna Gaon himself. Was he a recluse detached from his community or did he impact upon those around him? Did he use his remarkable mental energy for a personal journey of discovery, Torah study, and service of God, one that fascinated, bound and even subjugated him to fully exhaust his talents and abilities? Or was the Gaon guided by a sense of historical mission, so that he strove to leave his mark and shape the spiritual steps of the Jewish people?[1] It would appear to an onlooker that these two opposing trends cannot coexist. But the following anecdote - one that we already related in the past – suggests that the Vilna Gaon did not see a contradiction between the two tendencies.


One of the Gra's close associates, the Maggid of Dubnow, once asked him: How does one influence others? The Gra answered with a parable. A large goblet is surrounded by rows and rows of smaller cups. The more wine that is poured into the large goblet in the center, the more wine that overflows and fills up the smaller goblets. This parable reflects the Gra's individualistic approach. The relationship between the master and his disciple is based first and foremost on each one's independent search for his personal and unique path. It is precisely from here that the dialogue and connection between them grows. The example of the master who continuously fills himself up and advances along the way teaches the disciple how he too can fill himself up and progress.


Indeed, the Vilna Gaon wrote in a style that was understandable to and appropriate for himself, but he gathered around him students, and his writing was aimed at them, and through them to an even wider community. He believed in this approach. There is room to consider the effectiveness of his chosen path, and the question whether a shift in emphasis might have yielded greater benefit to the public at large. It is true that the Gra's disciples who took upon themselves to spread his legacy adopted the necessary courses of action aimed at disseminating the Gra's teachings in the world. But the master himself acted as he did, and despite – or perhaps, by virtue of - this choice, his influence reached where it reached.


After having stated this fundamental point, let us return to the task at hand – painting a picture of the Gra's halakhic approach through representative examples. This time we will examine a passage from the Gra's commentary which clashes frontally with a ruling of the Rema. On the face of it, the Gra's custom regarding the matter at hand appears elitist, but deeper consideration reveals the large scale impact that his approach had on prayer patterns. In this case as well, we will make use of the Gra's commentary to the Shulchan Aruch together with his Ma'aseh Rav, and examine the overlapping between the two, as well as the development from the one to the other.


The Blessing "Al mikra Megilla"


We are all familiar with the blessing recited before reading the book of Esther: "… who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us about reading the Megilla [al mikra Megilla]." The formulation of this blessing raises questions. Why does it use the non-specific term "the Megilla," rather than "the Megilla of Esther"? You might say that it is clear that the reference is to the Book of Esther, for there is no other Megilla. This, however, is not true, because, according to rabbinic tradition, five biblical books are called Megillot. The impression is that the blessing was formulated in such a way that it would be appropriate for all the Megillot, and that it is used on Purim for Megillat Esther. Here too, however, there is a difficulty, for nowhere in the Talmud is there even a hint that there is a mitzva to read the four other Megillot, despite the fact that in the Ashkenazi world it became the accepted custom to read them at different occasions. It turns out then that this blessing is used only on Purim, and the difficulty concerning its non-specific wording remains unresolved.


Let us consider now the customary practice of the Vilna Gaon, as it is reported in Ma'aseh Rav:


On Shabbat Chol Hamoed of Pesach and on the second day of Shavuot, after the Yotzerot and before Ein Kamokha, we read the Megilla with the cantillation notes, from a scroll written on parchment like a Torah scroll, with rollers. One person reads and everybody else listens. The reader recites two blessings, "Al mikra Megilla" and "Shehecheyanu." (Ma'aseh Rav, 175)


We see then that the Gra accepted the Ashkenazi custom to read Shir Hashirim on Pesach and Ruth on Shavuot. The reading took place after the Yotzerot, the piyyutim, which, as may be recalled, were recited by the Gra at the end of the Shacharit service, and before the Torah was taken out of the ark for the Torah reading. But according to the Gra, the Megillot were read in a special fashion: they were written on parchment like a Torah scroll, the entire congregation listens to the reader as they would for the Torah reading, and a blessing over the mitzva (as well as the Shehecheyanu blessing) is recited prior to the reading. According to this, the blessing "Al mikra Megilla" is in fact a general blessing that was enacted for all of the Megillot.


While the Vilna Gaon's custom is more commonplace today than in the past, most of us would still see it as a novel and even exceptional practice. Indeed, there is no mention of this blessing in the Talmud, other than in connection with the book of Esther. But the truth is that this blessing is very ancient. The first mention of this practice is found in tractate Soferim:


For Ruth and Shir Hashirim, Kohelet, Eikha, and Megillat Esther, one must recite a blessing, and say "Al mikra Megilla," even if it is written among the [Holy] Writings. One who reads from the Writings must say: Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to read from the Holy Writings. (Soferim 14)


It is not clear whether tractate Soferim relates specifically to the widespread practice of reading these Megillot on their appointed times, or to any reading of the Megillot.[2] Based on a comparison with the latter part of the passage, which requires a blessing when reading from Scripture, there are grounds for adopting the second understanding. In any event, this clear source is widely cited by the early Ashkenazi authorities in order to obligate a blessing over the reading of Shir Hashirim on Pesach, Eikha on Tish'a Be'av, and similarly with the other Megillot. Machzor Vitri cites this source several times. For example:


And they sit and read Megillat Ruth… And in tractate Soferim it says: One who reads from Ruth, Shir Hashirim, Eikha, Kohelet or the book of Esther must recite the blessing, "Al mikra Megilla." (Machzor Vitri, 312)


And similarly in the Hagahot Maimuniyot in the name of the Maharam of Rothenburg:


And our master wrote that over the Megilla of Kinot and the Megillaof Ruth and the Megillaof Shir Hashirim one recites: Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us about reading the Megilla, as we find in tractate Soferim. And this was the customary practice of the Maharam.(Hagahot Maimuniyot, Hilkhot Ta'anit, chap. 8)


Another disciple of the Maharam of Rothenburg, Rabbi Mordechai Ben Hillel, issues a similar ruling (Megilla 783), and so too is it brought in the Ashkenazi Minhagim books of the second half of the fourteenth century, like that of the Maharil.


When do we first hear explicit opposition to the recitation of such a blessing? The sixteenth century is a turning point. Among the Jews of Spain, the custom to read the Megillot – apart from Esther and Eikha – on a particular day of the year was accepted only in some communities,[3] and nowhere was it customary to recite a blessing before the reading. Exposure to the custom of reciting a blessing elicited a response from the Sephardi authorities. The Beit Yosef cites the practice of the Maharam and notes:


It is not the custom to recite a blessing on any Megilla other than the Book of Esther. (Beit Yosef, Orach Chayyim, 559)


Rabbi David Ben Zimra, as well, notes that it is not the custom to recite a blessing. He argues that this reading is not obligatory or a mitzva, and therefore there is no room for a blessing as though it were a mitzva (Responsa Radbaz, VI, no. 2091)


Indeed, during this period a shift is taking place in the Ashkenazi world as well. In Poland, the custom to recite a blessing weakened, despite its ancient history. So notes the Rema in his strictures to the Shulchan Arukh:



And it is customary to recite Shir Hashirim on Shabbat Chol Hamoed (of Pesach). If Shabbat falls out on the last day of Yom Tov, it is said on that Shabbat. And similarly regarding Kohelet on Sukkot. And it is customary to recite Ruth on Shavuot (Abudraham). And the people are accustomed not to recite over them the blessing "Al mikra Megilla"or the blessing "Al mikra Ketuvim."(Rema, Shulchan Arukh, 490:9)


The Rema makes no mention of the custom to recite a blessing, but merely says that it is not the custom to recite a blessing, and the implication is that this is also his position. How are we to understand this shift? One of the Rema's halakhic responsa is devoted to this matter (Responsa ha-Rema, no.35). He clarifies that he is aware of the fact that his ruling runs counter the old and widespread custom that is mentioned in the books of "the founders of the customs," such as the Maharil and the Abudraham. He explains further that for this reason he was precise in his wording when he wrote, "And the people are accustomed [ve-ha-am nahagu] not to recite," rather than "And the custom is not to recite[nohagim]," in the way that he usually formulates such comments. This deviation is meant to allude that we are dealing with a new custom that has spread among the people, and which indeed runs counter to the rulings of the early authorities. The Rema continues to explain at length why in this case he is inclined to accept the popular custom, against the ruling issued by the early authorities based on the passage in tractate Soferim.


His main argument is that this reading is neither a mitzva nor obligatory, and therefore a blessing recited over a mitzva should not be recited over it. The Rema, however, must deal with a great difficulty: Did tractate Soferim not know that is no such mitzva? The Rema answers that tractate Soferim can be understood in two other ways, according to which there is no source for the ancient Ashkenazi custom.


According to one explanation, tractate Soferim is not dealing with the annual readings of the Megillot with which we are familiar, but rather with a person who rises early in the morning to study Torah. The book of Ruth is also Torah, and reading it requires a blessing recited over a mitzva. Therefore, a person who has not yet recited the blessings recited over Torah study must recite a blessing before he begins to read it. The special formula, "Al mikra Megilla," accords with the type of Torah he is studying. In any event, when we read the Megillot after having already recited the blessings over the study of the Torah in the morning, there is no obligation to recite a blessing.


Reading the Megillot - by the Congegration or by Individuals?


The Rema's second explanation is instructive, as it teaches us something important and surprising about the manner in which the Megillot were read in the synagogue in his day.


Suppose, says the Rema, that tractate Soferim indeed speaks about our custom to read the five Megillot at appointed times during the year. Nevertheless, it stands to reason that it is dealing with a reading that is very different from the reading common in the days of the Rema.


It is possible that in their days, one person would read these Megillot before the congregation to allow those who are not fluent to hear their reading. Therefore it writes to recite a blessing, as with other things that we read before the congregation. Therefore, in our day, when we only read that way for Eikha and Esther, one should not recite a blessing for the other Megillot. For when each individual reads these Megillot it is merely like anyone reading Torah. And there is no issue of showing respect for the community, for each individual reads for himself. Know [that this is true], for the reason that those who are called up to read from the Torah recite a blessing is only to show respect for the community, as is mentioned in the words of the Tosafot and the Rosh in the first chapter of Berakhot. All the more so with these readings, where there is no issue of showing respect to the community, since each individual reads for himself. (Responsa ha-Rema, no. 35).


The Rema proposes here that the need for a blessing depends on the manner of reading. Apparently, the customary practice according to tractate Soferim was that one person read the Megillot for the entire congregation, and all the people listened to his reading. Such a reading justifies a blessing, as a show of respect to the congregation, as in the case of public Torah reading, for which the Sages instituted a blessing. Our custom, however, argues the Rema, is that each person reads the Megilla for himself, with the exception of Eikha and Esther. Certainly then there is no reason to recite a blessing over the other three Megillot.


We are surprised to learn that in the days of the Rema, the customary practice was not that all the Megillot were read by the cantor. A visitor to the Rema's synagogue in Cracow on Chol Hamoed Pesach would see the entire congregation reading Shir Hashirim at the same time, like the daily psalm or Pittum ha-Ketoret.[4]


Truth be told, a precise reading of the sources clearly indicates that this had always been the custom. Thus writes a disciple of Rashi in Machzor Vitri:


And the entire congregation reads the book of Kohelet while seated. (Machzor Vitri 380)


Accordingly, the Posekim who require a blessing write that each person should recite a blessing over his own reading. Thus writes the Maharil:


Shir Hashirim is read before the Torah reading. And each person recites the blessing: "Al mikra Megilla." (Maharil, the order of prayer for Passover)


The book of Ruth is read on the second day [of Shavuot]. And each person recites before reading it the blessing: "Al mikra Megilla." (ibid., Hilkhot Shavuot)


This reality, argues the Rema, contains an internal contradiction. A blessing can only be recited over a public reading of the Megilla, that is, when one person reads it for the entire congregation.



To summarize, it was the customary practice in Ashkenaz for centuries that each individual would recite the blessing, "Al mikra Megilla," and then read the Megilla from a text in his hands (with the exception of Eikha and Esther). For some unclear reason, during the time of the Rema it was already customary to read the Megilla without first reciting a blessing, and this is the custom which the Rema himself supported bedi'eved.


The Gra's Early and later position


In his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, the Gra does not expand upon his rejection of the Rema's arguments. He merely cites tractate Soferim and the early authorities who record the custom -


To recite a blessing even when they are not written on parchment, and all the more when they are written on parchment like a Torah scroll. This was the customary practice of all the early authorities. (Commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 490)


He notes that a blessing should be recited even when the congregation lack a parchment scroll and read from a printed book.


His words imply that he fully approves of the ancient custom. The Gra is not alone in this, and he relies explicitly on several authorities close to his time: the Levush, the Bach, and the Magen Avraham.[5]


But now we must go back to the Ma'aseh Rav:


We read the Megilla with the cantillation notes, from a scroll written on parchment like a Torah scroll, with rollers. One person reads and everybody else listens. The reader recites two blessings, "Al mikra Megilla" and "Shehecheyanu."


If the author of Ma'aseh Rav notes that the Megilla was read with the cantillation notes from a scroll written on parchment, and that the entire congregation listened to a public reading, it is reasonable to assume that these novelties were introduced by the Gra. It is likely that the book does not note the customary practices of the Gra that were self-evident, those that were no different from what was common in all places. This suggests that the general custom in Poland and Lithuania was for each individual to read the Megilla for himself, without the cantillation notes used in public readings. These changes constitute an additional development, beyond the position of the Gra himself as it appears in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh.


In addition, the Vilna Gaon introduced the "Shehecheyanu" blessing over the Megillot. The novelty here stands out against all the sources that we saw, none of which mention the "Shehecheyanu" blessing in this context. It is absolutely clear that nobody ever recited the "Shehecheyanu" blessing over the Megillot (apart from over Esther) before the Gra.


The account in Ma'aseh Rav indicates that in the end, the Gra was not satisfied with the obligation to recite a blessing over the mitzva, as had been the customary practice for generations. Rather he promoted the reading of the Megillot to a higher Halakhic level in several senses: The Megilla must be written on parchment; the Megilla must be read in public with cantillation notes by the cantor, to whom all must listen; and in addition to the blessing recited over a mitzva, the "Shehecheyanu" blessing must be recited. It would appear that underlying this upgrade is a conceptual change made by the Gra. Our next task will be to try to understand this development.


Before turning to the substance of that discussion (which will be reserved for the next shiur), I wish to clarify the question that awaits our consideration. We saw that all along the way, the Gra remains committed to the recitation of a blessing over a mitzva for all the Megillot. The difference between his initial position (in his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh) and his later position (in Ma'aseh Rav) is whether the blessing recited over a mitzva necessitates the other upgrades that we mentioned.


In general, we can say that this point lies at the center of the dispute between those who require and those who reject the blessing. For example, we saw that the Rema in his responsum writes that a blessing should not be recited over a non-public reading of the Megillot. He also raises an additional argument: Were there an obligation to recite a blessing, it would be necessary to read the Megilla from a parchment scroll, as in the case of Megillat Esther. Since we are not accustomed to require this, this proves that no blessing should be recited. In contrast, another authority, Mahari Bruna rejects the Rema's approach:


And I say that since there was no enactment to read it, for we do not find in the Mishna, or Baraita, or Gemara, that it was instituted to read [a Megilla] in public, with the exception of Megillat Esther in order to publicize the miracle… But as for Eikha there was no enactment that it should be read in public, but rather each and every individual reads it for himself, and whoever reads it recites a blessing, as is mentioned in tractate Soferim… Therefore there is also no concern how it must be written, since there was no enactment to read Eikha in public; we were not commanded to roll it and to sew it with tendons. (Responsa Mahari Bruna, no. 16)


In other words, the reading of Eikha and the other Megillot is at a lower rank and less strict than the reading of Esther. We are dealing with a reading that was never cast on the public, but rather on each and every individual, and therefore there is no need for parchment. However, even when individuals read those Megillot from books rather than from parchment scrolls, a blessing must be recited.


In his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh, the Gra agrees with the words of Mahari Bruna, that the obligation to recite a blessing stands on its own. But his final position seems to indicate that he retracted this position and agreed with the Rema, that the blessing introduces additional requirements regarding the manner of the reading and the nature of the book from which it must be read. But rather than withdraw from the obligation to recite a blessing, the Gra expanded the requirements and obligated not only a blessing over the commandment, but also all the additional laws associated with it.


As was stated, we need to better understand the nature of this reversal. On what point do these positions disagree – that which requires the blessing "Al mikra Megilla" regardless of other details, and that which maintains that the reading of the Megillot by individuals, as was customary in Ashkenaz, can never justify a blessing recited over a mitzva? And why in the end did the Gra adopt the second view? We will answer these questions in the next shiur.


(Translated by David Strauss)


[1] The tension between these two types is a common phenomenon among Torah and spiritual giants. Three generations ago, the Chafetz Chayyim admonished a certain brilliant Torah scholar who used to seclude himself in his study and refrain from any involvement in communal matters. "I too could have acted like you," argued the Chafetz Chayyim, "and reached great spiritual heights, but the state of our generation does not allow for such luxuries." Later in his life, that brilliant scholar moved to Eretz Israel and turned into a most influential figure, known to all as the Chazon Ish.

[2] We will consider the matter below, based on the responsum of the Rema. This depends on the dating of the fixed custom to read the Megillot on their appointed times. The reading of Ruth is mentioned already in Midrash Ruth Rabba, which is cited in the Yalkut Shimoni and in the Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 490). Tractate Soferim was redacted during the Geonic period, more or less at the same time as Midrash Ruth.

[3] And so too until today.

[4] The discussion regarding the Megillot brings to mind the dispute among the Posekim regarding the reading of the haftara on Shabbat. In some places it is customary for the congregation to listen to the Chazan, while in other places everybody reads the haftara along with him. This in turn is connected to the type of book from which the haftara is being read – from a parchment scroll or a printed book. We will not expand upon the issue here. See Orach Chayyim 284, and the Posekim there; Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. X, p. 4.

[5] The Magen Avraham, in the wake of several Minhagim books, sets Kohelet apart, saying that a blessing should not be recited over it. This is because its status as part of the Holy Writings is in dispute. The Gra rejected this position; according to him, a blessing must be recited over all the Megillot – "as they are all equal regarding this blessing."