The Torah Reading of Purim

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
Based on a shiur by Rav Moshe Taragin
Adapted by Yitzchak Barth
Translated by David Strauss
The Mishna in Megilla states:
On Mondays and Thursdays and on Shabbat at Mincha, three read from the Torah, neither more nor less.
The Gemara (ad loc.) explains:
What do these three represent?
Rav Assi said: They correspond to the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.
Rava said: They correspond to priests, Levites and ordinary Israelites…
But now, that which Rav Shimi taught: Not less than ten verses [of the Torah] should be read in the synagogue… What do these ten represent?
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: They correspond to the ten men of leisure in the synagogue.
Rav Yosef said: They correspond to the Ten Commandments…
Rabbi Yochanan said: They correspond to the ten utterances with which the world was created. (Megilla 21a)
Both Tosafot[1] ad loc. and the corresponding passage in the Yerushalmi[2] raise an objection from the Torah reading on Purim morning, when only nine verses are read. The Yerushalmi offers the following answer:
This is different, for this [the section of Amalek] is the order of the day.
Tosafot as well repeat this answer:
The section of Amalek is different, as it is the order of the day, and it concludes an issue.
In other words, the story in its entirety is told in nine verses, and since this is the order of the day, we need not add any additional verses.
The Rif (12a) also cites the Yerushalmi, but he implies that we are dealing here with two separate answers:
  1. It concludes an issue.
  2. It is the order of the day.
This stands in contrast to Tosafot, who imply that the two answers build one upon the other.
In order to understand the answers suggested by the Rishonim, we must first understand the essence of the enactment of public Torah reading.
The Enactment of Moshe and the Enactment of Ezra, According to the Understanding of Rav Soloveitchik
The Gemara in Bava Kama 82a mentions the enactment of Ezra, who introduced precise rules for public Torah reading: three readers and ten verses, corresponding to the ten men of leisure in the synagogue. Public Torah reading itself, says the Gemara, was enacted much earlier — already in the days of Moshe.
For it was taught: And they went three days in the wilderness, and found no water” (Shemot 15:22), upon which those who expound verses metaphorically said: Water means nothing but Torah, as it says (Yeshayahu 55:1): “Ho, everyone that thirsts, come for water.” It thus means that as they went three days, without Torah they immediately became exhausted.
The prophets among them thereupon rose and enacted that they should publicly read the Torah on the Sabbath, make a break on Sunday, read again on Monday, make a break again on Tuesday and Wednesday, read again on Thursday and then make a break on Friday so that they should not be kept for three days without Torah.
However, at that time, there were no precise rules about how the reading was to be conducted.
Rav Soloveitchik explains the difference between Moshe's enactment and that of Ezra by saying that Moshe's goal was experiential — to create a connection to God every three days. After the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds, the people of Israel felt that they did not have sufficient contact with God.
So also writes the Rambam:
Moshe, our teacher, enacted 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 enacted… He also enacted 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)
Ezra's enactment, then, was to study Torah, rather than to emotionally experience hearing the Torah, and therefore every reading had to be a "unit of Torah," which was defined as no less than three verses.
Here are several proofs to Rav Soloveitchik's understanding:
  1. The Mishna in Rosh Hashana 32a brings two opinions regarding the number of verses required referring to kingship, remembrance and shofar-blowing: either ten verses or three verses. We see that even according to the minimalist position, one must recite no fewer than three verses, which constitute a significant unit, as explained by Rav Soloveitchik.
  1. The same is true with respect to Rosh Chodesh, regarding which the Gemara establishes on Megilla 21b, "It is not proper to leave over less than three verses to the end of the paragraph." This law is clear according to Rav Soloveitchik's explanation, as three verses constitute a significant unit, and therefore one should not leave over less than that when reading from the Torah.
  1. Further evidence for the fact that three verses is the minimum measure of a significant reading may be brought from the Mishna on Megilla 23b, which states that one should not read to the translator more than one verse at a time from the Torah or more than three verses at a time from the Prophets. Rashi explains that one should not read to the translator more than one verse at a time from the Torah, so that the translator will not make a mistake; but from the Prophets there is no concern about errors, for in any case halakhic rulings are not issued based on the words of the Prophets. We see that after three verses, there is an obligation to translate, once again, because this is the minimum number of verses for Torah reading.
Based on these proofs, Rav Soloveitchik argues that Ezra turned Torah reading from an experiential enactment — hearing the Torah — to an enactment of public Torah teaching. He, therefore, expanded the reading to three verses for each reader and established that ten verses constitute a "study unit," and so we must read at least ten verses on days of public Torah reading. This may also be the symbolism of "the ten men of leisure in the synagogue." Since these ten men sit in the synagogue and study Torah, the Rabbis enacted in corresponding manner a minimum study of ten verses (and so too with the verses of kingship, remembrance and shofar-blowing). As for Purim, Rav Soloveitchik explains that since "the issue is concluded" after nine verses, no additional verses need be read.
The Rif's second answer (that this is "the order of the day") should be understood differently. As we have seen, the weekly Torah reading cycle requires reading ten verses. This obligation may apply only to the routine reading of Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat afternoons. However, when it comes to readings the goal of which is "the order of the day," this enactment does not apply.
The Gemara itself distinguishes between the enactment of Ezra and the enactment of Moshe:
"And Moshe declared to the children of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord" (Vayikra 23:44). It is a mitzva that [the section relating to] each one of them be read in its season. (Megilla 32a).
It may be argued that the rule of reading at least ten verses does not apply to these readings, and therefore it is clear why the Bavli does not raise the Yerushalmi's question; for Ezra's enactment, that no less than ten verses may be read, applies only to the standard readings of Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat afternoons, and not to the special Torah readings of the holidays. For this reason, the Yerushalmi's question does not arise at all.
According to what we have said, it should be understood that when the Gemara mentions Moshe's enactment, it mentions the obligation to study "the laws of each festival on that festival," not necessarily by way of public Torah reading. This is also the way that the Rambam explains the enactment:
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 Purim
Now we must discuss defining the Torah reading on Purim as the reading of a passage “appropriate to it." This is not a simple point, as we shall explain.
The Rishonim discuss the question whether or not in our day as well (after the abolition of the Sanhedrin) "Israel sanctifies the appointed times," or perhaps this situation pertained only during the days of the Sanhedrin, when it would sanctify the months and the years. The Rambam writes[3] that after the abolition of the Sanhedrin, the people of Israel sanctify the festivals by way of calendrical calculations.
Rav Soloveitchik explains that reading the Torah on the festivals is part of the fulfillment of the mitzva of establishing the festivals in our time.
Another possible explanation of reading the Torah on the festivals is that this reading constitutes a fulfillment of the mitzva of rejoicing on the festival.
Neither one of these two explanations apply to Purim, when there is no yom tov sanctity that might obligate Torah reading, and also there is no mitzva of rejoicing on the festival, but only the mitzva of feasting and rejoicing — which expresses itself in eating and drinking, but not in Torah reading.
The Position of Tosafot
Thus far, we have explained the position of the Rif, who distinguishes between the two explanations in the Yerushalmi and considers each one on its own. The position of Tosafot, that the two answers are built one upon the other, may be understood in two ways:
  1. The main answer is that "the issue is concluded." Since the issue is concluded, there is no need to fulfill the requirement of ten verses. The matter of the "issue" applies only on the festivals, when the reading relates to the essence of the day. On ordinary days, one may not stop at the end of an issue, because there is no central idea to that day, and it is possible that one must continue to read additional issues. In other words, "the order of the day" defines the subject matter of the reading and determines whether it has already been concluded or whether other verses should be added to it.
  1. The main answer is "the order of the day." The Beit Yosef[4] writes in the name of the Orechot Chayim that we are not particular about ten verses on Purim in order "to cut off Amalek." The Taz asks about this: Why doesn't the Beit Yosef mention the answer of Tosafot? He explains that this answer is not a separate answer but rather an explanation as to why it is that from the outset the Rabbis did not add another verse, even though it is possible to read only nine verses, as Tosafot explain. According to this, Tosafot may mean to say that nine verses may be read, because this is "the order of the day," and the reason that we do not add another verse is that "the issue is concluded" — in order not to impair the reading by adding irrelevant verses.[5]

[1] Ad loc., s.v. Ein.
[2] Megilla 4:2.
[3] Hilkhot Kiddush Ha-chodesh 5:1.
[4] OC 693.
[5] Tosafot in Ta'anit 27b write that we do not add verses on Rosh Chodesh because verses may only be added when they are part of the broader topic, but in the case of Rosh Chodesh, such verses may not be added. This is also the way Tosafot explain why we do not add on every Shabbat the verses related to the special offerings brought on Shabbat — because these verses do not belong to the same topic.