The Torah Reading of Purim

  • Rav Shlomo Levy

Translated by David Strauss


Nine verses?

            The Torah portion read on Purim is the story of Amalek's war against Israel:

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Refidim. And Moshe said to Yehoshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: tomorrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in my hand. So Yehoshua did as Moshe had said to him, and fought with Amalek: and Moshe, Aharon and Chur went up to the top of the hill.

And it came to pass, when Moshe held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moshe's hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aharon and Chur supported his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Yehoshua harried Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword.

And the Lord said to Moshe, Write this for a memorial in a book, and rehearse it in the ears of Yehoshua: that I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven. And Moshe built an altar, and called the name of it “The Lord is my banner”; for he said, Because the Lord has sworn by His throne that the Lord will have war with Amalek from generation to generation. (Shemot 17:8-16)

This the shortest Torah reading of the year, consisting of only nine verses. This is problematic, as the Gemara (Megilla 21b) explicitly states: "Not less than ten verses [of the Torah] should be read in the synagogue."

This difficulty was raised by the Rif (Megilla 12a), who cites possible solutions in the name of the Yerushalmi. According to the first solution, at the end of the section recording the incident involving Amalek, "the story ends," and therefore we can make do with only nine verses. According to the second solution, brought also in the Yerushalmi before us (Ta'anit 4:3), the story of Amalek is "the order of the day," that is to say, a passage appropriate to the theme of the day of Purim. The Tosafot offer a third answer, which combines the two solutions mentioned above (Megilla 21b, s.v. ein pochatin): “The story of Amalek is different, as it is the order of the day, and the story ends with it.”

The Story Ends With It

            The Gemara (Bava Kama 82a) relates that Moshe ordained that the Torah be read publicly every three days, so that the people of Israel should not go three days without the Torah. Later Ezra came and added more specific regulations to Moshe's ordinance. The Rambam summarizes the matter as follows:

Moshe, our teacher, ordained that the Jews should read the Torah publicly on Shabbat and on Monday and Thursday mornings, so the [people] would never have three days pass without hearing the Torah.

Ezra ordained that [the Torah] should be read during the Mincha service on Shabbat, because of the shopkeepers. He also ordained that on Mondays and Thursdays, three people should read [from the Torah], and that they should read no fewer than ten verses. (Hilkhot Tefilla 12:1)

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explains that the purpose of Moshe's enactment was experiential – to ensure a connection to God every three days. Ezra was not satisfied with that, and instituted minimal collective Torah study every three days. The essence of Moshe's ordinance was spiritual-emotional hearing, which Ezra transformed into intellectual study. Ezra therefore established that each of the readers should read at least three verses, and that the entire reading should include at least ten verses. In this way Ezra wished to ensure that public Torah reading not involve the reading of verses without a context, in a manner that they cannot be properly understood, but rather that it constitute the study of a meaningful textual unit. Therefore, suggests Rabbi Soloveitchik, since the entire passage of the war against Amalek is comprised of only nine verses, its reading fulfills Ezra's enactment, and there is no need to add another verse. This is the solution proposed by the Rif – since "the story ends" after nine verses, reading the passage of the war against Amalek suffices.

The Order of the Day

            As stated above, the Rif cites another solution to the difficulty raised above, according to which the obligation to read at least ten verses applies only to the routine Torah readings on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat afternoon. The Torah readings on the festivals and other special days are "the order of the day," and Ezra's ordinance does not apply to them.

            Indeed, alongside Moshe's enactment and Ezra's enactment, the Rambam records another enactment – to read on each festival and special day a passage appropriate to it:

Moshe instituted [the practice that], on each festival, the Jews should read [a passage] appropriate to it. Also, it [is proper] on each festival to ask about and explain the subjects [pertinent] to that festival. (Hilkhot Tefilla 13:8)

The Torah reading on the festivals is not only a fulfillment of Torah study, but also part of the required rejoicing on the festival:

Although eating and drinking on the holidays are included in the positive commandment [to rejoice], one should not devote the entire day to food and drink. The following is the desired practice:

In the morning, the entire people should get up and attend the synagogues and the houses of study where they pray and read a portion of the Torah pertaining to the holiday. Afterwards, they should return home and eat. Then they should go to the house of study, where they read [from the Written Law] and review [the Oral Law] until noon.

After noon, they should recite the afternoon service and return home to eat and drink for the remainder of the day until nightfall. (Rambam, Hilkhot Yom Tov 6:19)

We see, then, that the mitzva of rejoicing on a festival is fulfilled not only with eating and drinking, but also with reading from the Torah. Therefore, the regulations established by Ezra for routine Torah reading do not apply whatsoever to the reading of the Torah on the festival days, which is part of an entirely different framework. This is what the Yerushalmi means: Since the reading involves a passage that is appropriate for the day, it need not be comprised of at least ten verses.

As we noted earlier, the Tosafot cite both explanations, implying that both are necessary. On Mondays and Thursdays, there is an obligation to read at least ten verses; even if the story ends after nine verses, another verse must be added. But as for a reading enacted because it is "the order of the day," there is no reason to add another verse that is not connected to the theme of the day. Therefore, it suffices to read an entire unit, even if it is comprised of less than ten verses.