When, Where and How to Read the Megilla

  • Rav David Brofsky

Reading the Megilla with a Minyan


The Gemara (Megilla 5a) discusses whether the Megilla, when read during its proper time, may be read privately, without a quorum.


Rav said: The Megilla, when read in its proper time, may be read even by an individual; when read in a different time (i.e. on the 11th – 13th of Adar, as described by the Mishna Megilla 2a) – it must be read in the presence of ten. R. Assi said: Regardless of whether it is read in its proper time or not, it must be read in the presence of ten.


Some Rishonim (Behag, Yereim, R. Amram and R. Gershom, as cited by Hagahot Maynoniyot, Hilkhot Megilla 1:10) rule in accordance with R. Assi, and maintain the one who reads the Megilla alone should not even recite the berakhot before the Megilla! Most Rishonim, however, adopt Rav’s lenient view, and this is the position codified in the Shulchan Arukh.


Another question arises concerning the scope of the debate between Rav and R. Assi. Do Rav and R. Assi both agree that be-diavad (after the  fact) one who reads the Megilla alone has certainly fulfilled his obligation, but disagree as to whether there is a preference to read the Megilla in a quorum? Or, do they disagree on the level of be-di’avad, such that according to R. Assi, one who reads without a quorum has not fulfilled his obligation at all?


The Beit Yosef (690) cites the Rosh (Megilla 1:6) and Rashi (5a s.v. R. Assi) who explain that R. Assi stated his opinion only on the level of le-khatechila (the preferred standard).  According to Rav, then, there is not even any preference to read the Megilla with a quorum. This is also the view of the Ba'al Ha-ma’or (Rif; 3a).  


The Behag, however, disagrees, and explains that R. Assi in fact disqualifies a Megilla reading conducted privately, and Rav maintains that one should preferably read with a quorum. Some attribute this understanding to the Rif (3a) and Rambam (2:8), as well.


Apparently, R. Assi held that one must actively create a proper environment of pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle) by reading the Megilla with a quorum, either le-khatchila (Rashi, Rosh, Baal Ha-ma’or) or even be-di’avad (Behag, and possibly Rif and Rambam). Rav, however, maintains that reading on the proper day, when everyone else reads, provides sufficient pirsumei nisa to justify reading alone, perhaps even le-khatechila


Interestingly, the Orchot Chayim (Hilkhot Megilla 24) cites the Ra’avad as ruling that while one should preferably read the Megiila in the presence of ten, he may read alone if the others have already heard the reading. The Ra’avad explains that a person in this case may read privately because "there was already a publicizing in the city through the public reading." In other words, while the day of Purim itself does not generate enough pirsumei nisa to justify reading the Megilla privately (le-khatechila), once the Megilla has been publicly read in the city, then the desired pirsumei nisa has been achieved and one may then read alone.


            To what extent, and at what cost, should one maximize the pirsumei nisa aspect of one’s Megilla reading? The Arukh Ha-shulchan (690:25) writes that it is customary to endeavor to hear the Megilla read with a quorum, and "the larger the congregation, the greater the hiddur [enhancement of the mitzva], as 'the glory of the King is in the multitude of the people' ("be-rov am hadrat melekh" - Mishlei 4:28)." He notes, however, that if one cannot hear the Megilla properly in the synagogue because of the noise, then it may be preferable to gather ten people and read the Megilla at home. We will return to this point when we discuss the custom to make noise upon hearing Haman’s name.


The Times for the Megilla Reading


The Gemara in Megilla (4a) teaches that one must read the Megilla both at night and during the day:


Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: A person is obligated to read the Megilla at night and to read it again during the day, as the verse states (Tehillim 22:3), "My Lord, I cry by day but You do not answer, and by night but have no respite." It was similarly stated by Rabbi Chelbo in the name of Ulla of Bira: A person is obligated to read the Megilla at night and to read it again during the day, as the verse states (Tehillim 30:13), "In order that my soul may sing praises to You and not be silent; Hashem, my Lord, I will forever be grateful to You."


One might question the nature of these two readings and their relationship to one another. Are these two readings identical in nature, and the Gemara simply teaches that one should perform the same mitzva twice, or are they two distinct obligations, each with its own source and nature? In presenting this halakha, the Gemara employs the term "ve-le’shanota," which literally means "to repeat,” perhaps indicating that these two readings are indeed identical.


We might begin by examining a debate among the Rishonim as to whether the berakha of she-hechiyanu should be repeated before the daytime reading. Rabbeinu Tam (cited by the Rosh 1:6) and the Ri (in Tosafot s.v. chayav) rule that she-hechiyanu should indeed be repeated during the day. The Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 1:3) and Rashbam (cited in the Mordekhai, Megilla 781) disagree, and rule that one should recite she-hechiyanu only before the nighttime reading.


Seemingly, the Rambam and Rashbam believe that although one reads the Megilla twice, the second reading simply repeats the first mitzva, and therefore does not warrant an additional recitation of she-hechiyanu. Rabbeinu Tam and the Ri, by contrast, apparently maintain that the second reading deserves its own berakha as it is something more than a “repeat performance” of the first reading.


According to this view of Rabbeinu Tam and the Ri, why and how would the daytime reading differ from the nighttime reading?


Some suggest that the daytime reading contains an additional dimension which is lacking in the nighttime reading. Tosafot, for example, writes:


Even though one has recited zeman [the berakha of she-hechiyanu] at night, he repeats the berakha during the day because the primary expression of pirsumei nisa (the publicizing of the miracle) occurs at the daytime reading. The verse implies this as well, as it says, "by night but have no respite" – in other words, even though one reads during the day, he must still read at night. The primary reading is during the day, as the main festive meal is during the day…


According to Tosafot, the additional focus upon pirsumei nisa adds a special dimension to the daytime reading. The Rosh adds that "the primary pirsumei nisa occurs during the day, during the time of the festive meal, as well as the matanot la-evyonim and mishlo’ach manot." Apparently, as the distribution of the matanot la-evyonim and mishlo’ach manot, and the festive meal, all occur by day, the pirsumei nisa is most effectively expressed during the day of Purim, and it therefore lends its character to the day's reading of the Megilla.


Others note that the nighttime and daytime readings of the Megilla may also originate from different sources. R. Yechezkel Landau, for example, in his Noda Bi-yehuda (Mahadura Kama, O.C. 41), suggests that while the morning reading was established by the prophets, and is therefore categorized as divrei kabala (originating from prophetic revelation), the nighttime reading was enacted later by the Sages.


In a previous shiur (http://www.vbm-torah.org/purim/pur72db.htm), we noted that for these reasons, some distinguish between the daytime and nighttime readings, suggesting that they differ in content, or in level of obligation. For example, R. Chanokh Henikh Agus, in his Marcheshet (1:22:9), posited that through the daytime reading one fulfills two mitzvot: pisumei nisa and hallel. The hallel component of Megilla most likely applies only by day, when hallel is generally read. The Marcheshet applies this distinction to the issue of whether a woman may read the Megilla on behalf of a man.  The Behag rules that a woman cannot discharge a man's obligation of Megilla, and the Marcheshet explained that this is because women are exempt from the hallel component of Megilla.  Accordingly, he writes that, at least theoretically, a woman should be able to read the Megilla for a man on Purim night, when their obligations are identical.


As we saw, R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (Mikra’ei KodeshPurim, 29) offered a different reason why a woman might be able to read for a man at night, even according to the Behag. He cites R. Aryeh Leib ben Asher Ginzburg (1695-1785) as contending (in his Turei Even, Megilla 4a, s.v. nashim) that while a man's obligation in Megilla originates from divrei kaballa, a woman's obligation, which is based upon the principle of af hein hayu be-oto ha-neis, is rabbinic in origin, and thus a lower level of obligation. For this reason, he explains, a woman cannot discharge the higher obligation of a man. Based upon this distinction, R. Tzvi Pesach suggested that men and women might share the same level of obligation on Purim night, when Megilla reading constitutes only a Rabbinic obligation, and therefore a woman would be able to read the Megilla for men at night! We already noted that these suggestions were made in the context of theoretical Talmudic discourse, regarding one interpretation of the Behag, and therefore should bare to practical relevance.


Another possible indication of the different levels of obligation between the nighttime and daytime readings appears in the Ran (Rif; Megilla 1a s.v. ela). The Gemara (beginning of Masekhet Megilla) relates that the residents of the small villages would come to the cities on Monday and Thursday, and were allowed to hear the Megilla reading there, in the cities, even a few days before Purim. According to the Ran, the villagers would only hear the morning reading, but not the evening reading.  We might suggest that the primacy given to the morning reading was due to either the heightened pirsumei nisa, as described by the Tosafot and Rosh, or the nighttime reading’s fundamentally lower level of obligation, as discussed.


The Shulchan Arukh (692:1) rules in accordance with the Rambam, that one should not recite she-hechiyanu before the daytime reading, and this is the practice of Sefaradim.  Ashkenazim, however, follow the ruling of the Rema (ibid.), in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam and the Ri, that one should repeat the berakha during the day.


The Magen Avraham (1) cites the Shelah as recommending that an announcement be made before the reader recites the berakhot that everyone should have the se’udat Purim and mishlo’ach manot in mind when reciting or hearing she-hechiyanu. Sefaradim, who recite she-hechiyanu only once, before the evening reading, should have this in mind at night, while Ashkenazim, who repeat this berakha before the morning reading, should have this in mind during the recitation of she-hechiyanu before the morning reading.


(Interestingly, the Bei’ur Halakha discusses whether the occasion of Purim itself mandates reciting she-hechiyanu, as do the other festivals. I discussed this issue in a shiur addressing the question of whether one who cannot light Chanukah candles should still recite she-hechiyanu: http://vbm-torah.org/archive/moadim69/12-69moed.htm.)


Regarding the proper time for the evening reading, it is certainly preferable to wait until nightfall (tzeit ha-kokhavim) to read the Megilla. The Ra’avad (Rif; Megilla 3a), however, records the custom in Narbonne to read the Megilla before dark, on the thirteenth of Adar, out of consideration for those who experienced difficulty fasting until nightfall. Several other Rishonim cite this Ra’avad (see Orchot Chayim, Megilla 23; Meiri, Megilla 2b). The Terumat Ha-deshen (109) likewise rules that one who cannot complete the fast may read as early as pelag ha-mincha (one and a quarter halakhic hours before nightfall), based upon Rabbeinu Tam's view that even the nighttime shema may be recited as early as pelag ha-mincha.


Based on these Rishonim, the Shulchan Arukh (692:4) rules that one who is unable to hear the Megilla at night may read it, with its berakhot, already from pelag ha-mincha. The Peri Chadash (687) disagrees, and insists that one who reads the Megilla before tzeit ha-kokhavim should repeat it after nightfall – with the berakhot!


Interestingly, R. Ovadya Yosef (Yabia Omer, O.C. 1:43), in a response written in Adar of 1947, relates that during the period of the British Mandate, before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Mandatory authorities imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew, violators of which were liable to execution. R. Yosef was asked whether people who were unable to hear the Megilla after tzeit ha-kokhavim due to the curfew could read it during the previous day.  


He concludes that the extenuating circumstances warranted acting leniently, and thus communities should hold public readings on the thirteenth of Adar, before dark, and read the Megilla with its berakhot.


One may not eat on Purim night or on Purim morning before fulfilling the mitzva of Megilla reading (Shulchan Arukh 682:4). This halakha might pose some difficulty on Purim night, which follows the fast of Ta’anit Esther. Moreover, many married women who are unable to hear the Megilla reading immediately at nightfall, and fulfill the mitzva after their husbands return from synagogue, might have difficulty fasting until after hearing the Megilla.


The Magen Avraham writes that fundamentally, Halakha forbids only eating a substantial quantity (a ke-beitza)of bread or cake before Megilla reading. When necessary, therefore, one may be lenient and partake of drinks, foods other than bread and cake, or less than a ke-beitza of cake before hearing the Megilla. The Acharonim write that one who has great difficulty fasting should certainly eat and drink in small quantities before Megilla reading, rather than read the Megilla before nightfall. If a small amount doesn't suffice, one should eat a meal and ask a friend to remind him to attend the Megilla reading (Mishna Berura 692:16).


  Regarding the daytime reading of the Megilla, one should preferably read the Megilla only after sunrise (netz ha-chama), though one who reads after dawn (alot ha-shachar) has fulfilled his obligation.


The Reading of the Megilla: Law and Custom


Let us briefly review a number of the practical halakhot relevant to the reading of the Megilla.


Generally, one who fulfills a mitzva through the reading of a text, such as keri’at shema, should preferably hear his recitation, though be-di’avad (after the fact), if one did not hear what he recited, he has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation. With regard to the Megilla reading, however, the Beit Yosef (689) cites the Rif, Rambam and Rosh who apparently believe that even be-di’avad one who did not hear his reading has not fulfilled his obligation. The Beit Yosef is inclined to reject this view, but he explains that these Rishonim perhaps require the reader to hear his reading in order to achieve maximum pirsumei nissa, a factor which quite obviously doesn’t play a role in the mitzva of shema. In any event, one who reads the Megilla should preferably do so audibly such that he can hear his reading.


The Mishna (Megilla 17a) teaches that one who reads the verses of the Megilla out of order has not fulfilled his obligation; this halakha is codified in the Shulchan Arukh (690:6). Therefore, one who arrives late to a Megilla reading should not simply listen until the end and then read the part which he missed. Rather, he should recite the berakhot, and then read from a printed Tanakh until he catches up to the reader, at which point he should listen to the reader.  Assuming he catches up before the reader has read more than half the Megilla, he fulfills his obligation despite having read part of the Megilla from a printed text.


The Tur (690), citing the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megilla 2:2), teaches that we do not correct the reader for certain mistakes. The Ran (Rif, 5b) explains that if the mistake changes the meaning of the word, such as if one reads “yosheiv” (“sitting” - Esther 2:21) as “yashav” (“sat”), or “nofel”(“falling” – 7:8) as “nafal” (“fell”), he must reread the word, in its proper order (see Shulchan Arukh 690:14).  


The Rashba (Teshuvot 467) and Ran (Rif; 5b) write that one must hear every word of the Megilla. The Ri’az (Shiltei Giborim 5a) disagrees, insisting that only if one misses a word which alters the text’s meaning does he fail to fulfill the mitzva. The Acharonim (see Bi’ur Halakha) rule in accordance with the Rashba, and therefore, as mentioned above, one who misses a verse should read it from a printed Tanakh and then catch up to the reader.  


Preferably, one should not speak at all throughout the entire Megilla reading. The laws of interruption for Megilla are similar to those of interrupting during keri’at shema, as we discussed elsewhere (http://vbm-torah.org/archive/tefila/67-10tefila.htm). One who interrupted should read the verses which he missed from a Tanakh, as described above.


The Gemara (Megilla 16b) teaches that one should read the sons of Haman (Esther 9:7-10) in a single breath (Shulchan Arukh 690:15), in order to demonstrate that they were all killed together. It is customary to begin the breath from the words “chamesh me’ot ish” and to conclude with the word “aseret.” Tosafot note that one who did not read these verses in a single breath has nevertheless fulfilled his obligation.


It is customary for the congregation to read the “four verses of redemption” (2:4, 8:15, 8:16. 10:3) out loud, and then for the reader to repeat them (Rema 690:14).  It is also customary for the reader, when reciting the verse “ba-layla ha-hu” (Esther 6:1), which relates how the “king” could not sleep, to raise his voice, hinting to the dual meaning of the word “ha-melekh” (“the king”). Some also gently raise or shake the Megilla when reading the words “ha-igerret ha-zot” (9:26).


There are some phrases that the reader repeats, with slight changes, in consideration of divergent texts (Esther 8:11, 9:2). Some repeat the entire verse instead of just the phrase in question.


One of the customs most prominently associated with the reading of the Megilla is the custom to make noise upon hearing Haman’s name, which appears fifty-four times in the Megillat Esther. This practice appears as early as the twelfth century. R. Avraham b. Natan Ha-yarchi, in his Sefer Ha-manhig, writes:


The custom of the children in France and Provence is to take two stones, to write upon them the name of Haman, and to hit them against each other when the reader mentions Haman and his evil [deeds], and “Let the names of the wicked rot” (Mishlei 10:7).


This practice met with considerable opposition. Some expressed concern that the noise may prevent the congregants from fulfilling their obligation to hear every word of the Megilla. Others objected to the apparent violation of synagogue decorum. Many note that the Maharil, for example, reportedly did not make noise during the reading of Haman’s name (Sefer Maharil, Minhagim). In 1783, a riot nearly erupted in London when the community leaders of the Beit Kenesset Ha-Sepharadi Ha-merkazi summoned the police to forcefully expel members who made noise during the reading of Haman (http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/tetzaveh/pare.pdf).


The Rema (690:17) records this custom, and concludes, “One should not mock this custom, as it was not established without reason.”


Some have accepted additional “stringencies” upon themselves, and attempt to drown out other phrases in the Megilla besides Haman.  There are those who jokingly jeer upon hearing the word “mas” (taxes - 10:1), and there are reports of certain anti-Zionist sects who make noise when the reader reads the word “medina” (“state”)!


As mentioned, there were halakhic authorities who expressed concern over the possibility that congregants will not properly hear each word of the Megilla as a result of this custom. Each community must find a proper balance between the desire to retain this ancient custom and the concern that the congregation properly fulfills the mitzva of keriat ha-megilla.