Women’s Obligation in Megilla Reading
By Rabbi David Brofsky, Ra”m at Midreshet Lindenbaum
The Talmud explicitly establishes that women are included in the obligation of mikra
Megilla,despite the general rule exempting women from time-bound commandments (“mitzvot asei she-hazman gerama”):
R. Yehoshua b. Levi said: Women are obligated in the reading of the Megilla, as they,
too, were included in the miracle (af hein hayu be-oto ha-neis). (Megilla 4a)
Similarly, the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megilla 2:4) states:
Bar Kappara said: One must read the Megilla beforewomen and minors, for they, too,
were involved in the doubt [i.e. danger] (she-af otam hayu ba-safek). R. Yehoshua ben
Levi acted accordingly: he gathered his sons and the members of his household and
read [the Megilla] in their presence.
The Rishonim elaborate on this halakha, and discuss the issue of whether a woman may
read the Megilla for a man in order to fulfill his obligation.
Most Rishonim (including the Rambam, Hilkhot Megilla 1:1) maintain that men and
women share an equal obligation in mikra Megilla, based upon the Talmud’s comment in Arakhin (3a), “All are qualified to read the Megilla… [this comes] to include women.” Therefore, in their view, a woman may certainly read for a man (Rashi, s.v. la’atuyei; R. Yishayahu of Trani[Riaz] in Shiltei Ha-giborim to the Rif, Megilla 4a; Ritva, Megilla 4a; Meiri, Megilla 5a; Or Zarua 2:368).
Some, however, insist that a woman may not read the Megilla for a man, based upon a
comment in the Tosefta (Megilla 2:4):
All are obligated to read the Megilla: kohanim, Levites and Israelites… [but] women are
exempt and do not enable the many [i.e. men] to fulfill their obligation.
The Ba’al Halakhot Gedolot (or Behag), for example, writes that although women are obligated
because of “af hein hayu be-oto ha-neis,” they still may not fulfill the obligation on behalf of a
man (Tosafot 4a, s.v. nashim; Rosh, Megilla 1:4).
The Rishonim and Acharonim address the question of why, according to this view, women
cannot fulfill a man’s obligation, give that they are included in the mitzva. One approach (see
Semag, Divrei Soferim – Asei 4; Ritva, Megilla 4a, s.v. she-af hein) claims that although men and
women indeed share an equal level of obligation, a woman should not read for men due to
external considerations, such as kevod ha-tzibbur (“congregational honor” – see Megilla 23b), or zila behu milta (impropriety).
Tosafot express this view in Sukka (38a, s.v. be-emet ameru):
…Because we are dealing with a community, it would be a breach of propriety(zila behu
milta) were a woman to assist the masses in fulfilling their obligation. Thus, women are
obligated in Megilla reading, but the Ba’al Halakhot Gedolot rules that women cannot
assist the masses in fulfilling their Megilla obligation.
The Kolbo (45) cites R. Yitzchak ben Abba Mari of Marseilles (author of the Sefer
Ha-Ittur) as prohibiting a women from reading for a man for a different reason:
The author of Aseret Ha-diberot wrote that when reading [the Megilla], women do not
enable men to fulfill their obligation; the reason is kol be-isha erva [their voice is
considered like “nakedness”].
According to this view, a woman should not read the Megilla for men because this would violate the law that forbids men from listening to a woman singing.
We should note, however, that although the Shulchan Arukh (E.H. 21:1) indeed rules
(based on the Rosh and Rambam) that men should refrain from listening to a woman’s singing
voice, especially during the recitation of keri’at shema (O.C. 75:2-3), most Poskim maintain that a woman reading the Megilla would not violate this halakha. They note the implication of the Mishna (Megilla 23b) that a woman may even publically read the Torah, if not for the
consideration of kevod ha-tzibbur.
Other Rishonim explain that a woman cannot read the Megilla for a man not due to
external factors, but rather because women’s obligation of mikra Megilla differs fundamentally
from men’s. The Rosh (1:17), for example, writes:
And the Ba’al Ha-halakhot ruled that women are only obligated to HEAR the Megilla;
however, her reading [of the Megilla] cannot assist the men in fulfilling their obligation.
For the men are obligated to READ [and do not fulfill their obligation] until they hear the
Megilla read by men, who are obligated in READING like them – and hearing [the
reading] from women is not equivalent to [meaning, it is a lower level of obligation than]
the men’s reading for themselves… And according to Halakhot Gedolot and Tosefta, the
statement in Arakhin, “All are qualified to read the Megilla…to include women” needs to
be explained [as follows]: not that women are qualified to read for men, but [rather that
they are qualified to read] only for women. [And the significance of this statement is] that
one should not suggest that women cannot fulfill their obligation until they hear an
important [i.e., high-level obligation] reading of men. [The Gemara] teaches us that a
woman can indeed assist her fellow [woman in fulfilling her obligation].
According to the Behag, then, a woman’s obligation of Megilla reading is of a different nature
than a man’s, and for this reason a woman’s reading does not suffice to fulfill a man’s obligation. Interestingly, the Mordekhai (Megilla 779) claims that the Behag had a different text of the Gemara, which read, “Women are obligated in hearing the Megilla [mashma Megilla].”
The Behag’s position may also affect a different question, namely, the blessing a woman should
recite before reading the Megilla. According to the Rishonim who equate a man and woman’s
obligation in mikra Megilla (either theoretically or also practically), women should recite the same berakha recited by men – “al mikra Megilla.” However, the Behag (especially as understood by the Mordekhai) would presumably rule that women should recite “al mashma Megilla” (“on the hearing of the Megilla”), as their obligation differs from men’s. Similarly, the Rema (O.C. 689:2) writes, “There are those who say that if a woman reads for herself she recites the blessing li-shmo’a megilla (to hear the megilla), since she is not obligated to read.”
We find in the Acharonim other reasons, as well, for why a man’s obligation may
fundamentally differ from a woman’s. Some claim that a man’s obligation is either fundamentally broader, or stems from a higher level of obligation, than the women’s requirement.
R. Chanokh Henikh Agus, in his Marcheshet (1:22:9), explains that by reading the
Megilla one fulfills two separate mitzvot: pirsumei nisa (publicizing the miracle) and hallel (see
Megilla 14a). While men and women share equally the obligation of pirsumei nisa, women are
exempt from hallel. Therefore, he concludes, women cannot discharge a man’s obligation of
Megilla reading, as she is not obligated in all its components.
Incidentally, he proposes a possible distinction in this regard between the nighttime
reading and the daytime reading (see Megilla 4a). The hallel component of Megilla likely applies only by day, and therefore theoretically, according to the Behag, a woman should be able to read for a man on Purim night, but not on Purim day. (We will return to this point a bit later.)
Similarly, R. Aryeh Leib ben Asher Ginzburg (1695-1785), in his Turei Even (Megilla 4a,
s.v. nashim), argues that while a man’s obligation in Megilla originates from divrei kaballa
(prophetic revelation), 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.
Interestingly, this theory, too, may result in a distinction between the nighttime and
daytime readings. Some Poskim view the daytime reading as the primary mitzva of mikra
Megilla, and the nighttime reading as an additional reading ordained later by Chazal. It would
thus stand to reason that men and women share the same level of obligation on Purim night,
such that a woman would be able to read the Megilla for men at night. (See R. Tzvi Pesach
Frank, Mikra’ei Kodesh – Purim, 29.) We should note, however, that the Turei Even does not
offer this suggestion himself.
R. Tzvi Pesach Frank proposes a similar theory regarding the situation when Shushan
Purim falls on Shabbat, in which case Jerusalem residents read the Megila on Friday, the 14th of Adar, by force of rabbinic enactment. Here, too, since the reading is required only
mi-derabannan, a woman might possibly be permitted to read for a man in this case.
The Final Halakha
The Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 689:2) cites both views on this issue:
All are obligated in the reading of the Megilla: men, women and freed slaves. Children,
too, are educated to read it. Both one who reads [the Megilla] and one who hears it read
by another have fulfilled their obligation – provided that one hears it from somebody who
is obligated to read it…. And there are those who maintain that women cannot assist men
in fulfilling their obligation.
As we might expect, the Shulchan Arukh’sambiguity in this regard has generated much
debate. Some Sephardic authorities (including Ben Ish Hai – Shana Rishona, Tetzaveh, 2; and
Kaf Ha-chayim, O.C. 689:14) claim that Halakha follows the second, stringent opinion recorded in the Shulchan Arukh. R. Ovadia Yosef (see Yechaveh Da’at, 3:51 and 4:34, and R. Yitzchak Yosef’s Yalkut Yosef V, pp. 287-289), however, claims that whenever the Shulchan Arukh cites a view without attribution followed by another opinion attributed to “those that maintain” (“stam ve-ahar kakh yesh omrim”), Halakha follows the first view cited. Nevertheless, R. Yosef adds, it is preferable to satisfy all views and not allow a woman to read for men, except in extenuating circumstances.
The Rema (R. Moshe Isserles, 1525-1572), who, to a large extent, represents Ashkenazic tradition and practice, appears to rule in accordance with the stringent view of the Behag:
And there are those who maintain that if a woman reads for herself, she should recite the
blessing, “…li-shmo’a [to hear] Megilla” – for she is not obligated to read it.
Accordingly, it would seem that Ashkenazim should follow this stringent position.
As for the scope of this ruling, none of the Rishonim who cite the Behag, or the Poskim
who accept his ruling, suggest a distinction in this regard between the nighttime and daytime
Megilla readings. Indeed, the theories cited above from the Marcheshet and Turei Even appear
to have been offered as theoretical interpretations of the Behag, and not as practical suggestions or rulings. Therefore, there seems to be little basis to support the practice proposed by R. Avraham Weiss (“Women and the Reading of the Megilla,” Torah u-Madda Journal, 8
(1998-1999), pp. 295-397) and R. Daniel Landes (“The Reading of the Megilla on Purim Night”) allowing a woman to publicly read the Megilla for men on Purim night. See R. Aaron Cohen’s response, “Women Reading Megilla for Men: A Rejoinder,” in The Torah U-Madda Journal, 9 (2000), pp. 248-263, as well as R. Aryeh Frimer’s critique of their approach.
Women’s Megilla Readings
Until now we have discussed the question of whether a woman may discharge the
obligation of a man. With regard to a woman reading the Megilla for other women, the Gemara
(Arakhin 3a) quite clearly implies that this would be perfectly acceptable. Indeed, the Tosefta
(Megilla 2:4), cited above, only restricts a woman from reading for a man, but not for other
R. Netanel Weil (1687-1769), however, in his Korban Netanel commentary on the Rosh
(Megilla 1:30), asserts that the Behag even restricts women from fulfilling the obligation of other women. He bases this position on the comments of Tosafot in Sukka (48a), who mention the consideration of “zila behu milta.” The Korban Netanel writes:
That which the Tosafot in Sukka 38a wrote, “Or else [women cannot recite birkat
ha-mazon for men] because it is dishonorable for the many, for it is [like] Megilla in which women are obligated [but] Halakhot Gedolot explained that women do not enable the many to fulfill their obligation in Megilla” – that is to say that a woman may not enable many women to fulfill their obligation, because it is dishonorable for them [to have the Megilla read to them by a woman]. But as far as reading for men, even without this reason they cannot do so, not even one woman for one man, because they are not
obligated [to read].
The Korban Netanel asserts that two factors limit a woman’s ability to fulfill another’s obligation. Firstly, she may not discharge a man’s obligation because her obligation is fundamentally different from his, and, secondly, Tosafot believe that due to reasons of impropriety, women may not even fulfill the obligation of other women in a public setting.
R. Yehuda Henkin notes that the Tosefot Rosh (Sukka 38a), who often restates and
clarifies the words of the Tosafot, clearly indicates that Tosafot referred to a case of women
reading for men, and not for other women. R. Henkin therefore contends that although later
halakhic works such as the Mishna Berura (689:2, and Sha’ar Ha-tziyun 15) cite the Korban
Netanel’s ruling, his interpretation should be disregarded. In any case, the Korban Netanel’s
position is certainly a minority view, for which there is little support in other sources.
Another basis for objecting to women’s reading for other women may be found in the
Magen Avraham (689:6), who cites a comment in the Midrash Ha-ne’elam (a section of the
Zohar) forbidding a woman from reading for other women, and even for herself. (Incidentally, the Chayei Adam 155:11 interprets this Midrash as allowing a woman to read for herself, but not for others.)
Ostensibly, the conventional interpretation of the Behag’s ruling would allow women to
read the Megilla for other women. Some, however, note that since it is preferable to hear the
Megilla reading in the presence of a minyan, women should preferably attend the synagogue
reading, rather than conduct a separate women’s Megilla reading. (However, as we will see, the
Rema 690:18 questions whether a group of ten women may suffice to meet this preferred
However, many women are already compelled to miss the synagogue reading due to
family responsibilities, and therefore attend later readings held without a minyan. Furthermore, some women simply find it difficult to hear from the women’s section, as the Mishna Berura (689:1) observes. Therefore, while there may be certain halachic advantages to hearing the Megilla read by a man, in some communities women hear the Megilla read by other women.
These readings have, under certain contexts, gained the approval of such figures as R. Aharon
Lichtenstein and R. Yehuda Herzl Henkin (see Benei Banim, 2:10). In fact, R. Ovadia Yosef goes so far as to encourage this practice: “…the custom of women who make a minyan (!) by
themselves for Megilla reading … should be encouraged” (Yabia Omer, O.C. 8:56:4). See R.
Aryeh Frimer’s comprehensive discussion of the various views on this subject, in his article,
“Women’s Megilla Readings”.
Which berakha should a woman recite before she reads the Megilla? As mentioned
earlier, this issue likely hinges on the question of whether or not men and women share the same obligation of Megilla reading. Those who equate women’s obligation with men’s, either
practically or only fundamentally, would certainly require women to recite the standard berakha of “al mikra Megilla.” Those who follow the Behag, by contrast, and distinguish between the obligations of men and women regarding Megilla reading, would likely require women to recite a different text.
As cited above, the Mordekhai (Megilla 779), citing the Ra’avya (Megilla 569),
understood the Behag to mean that a woman’s obligation requires “hearing,” rather than
“reading,” the Megilla, and they should therefore recite the berakha of “al mashma Megilla.” We also cited the Rema’s ruling (689:2) that women should say, “li-shmo’a Megilla.” (Curiously, the Chayei Adam records a view that women should recite, “li-shmo’a MIKRA Megilla.”)
Many Acharonim, however, dispute the Rema’s ruling, arguing that the original berakha
of “al mikra Megilla” was intended for both men and women. This is the view of the Peri
Chadash (O.C. 689:2) and Vilna Gaon (Ma’aseh Rav – Hilkhot Purim, 246). Others also add the factor that most Rishonim view a woman’s obligation as similar to a man’s, thus mandating that they recite the same berakha.
R. Frimer, in the article cited above, cites a host of modern authorities, including R.
Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Ve-aleihu Lo Yibol, I, O.C. 433), R. Yehoshua Neuwirth
(Madrikh Hilkhati Le-achayot Be-vatei Cholim, chap. 10, Purim, no. 3), R. Yechiel Michel
Tuketchinsky (Luach Eretz Yisrael, Purim), R, Chaim David Halevi (Mekor Hayim Le-benot
Yisrael, sec. 34, no. 8), and R. Moshe Harari (Mikra’ei Kodesh – Purim, 9:9), who rule in
accordance with the Rema. He then cites others, such as R. Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer O.C.
1:44 and 8:22:27), R. Moshe Sternbuch (Moadim U-zmanim, 2:171 and Teshuvot Ve-hanhagot
3:228), who rule in accordance with the Peri Chadash and Vilna Gaon.
This question applies equally to a man who has already heard the Megilla and now reads
for women who have yet to fulfill their mitzva. The Acharonim also discuss whether it is
preferable for the listeners in this case to recite their own berakha, or for the reader to recite the berakha. Many (including Magen Avraham 585:3 and Chayei Adam 141:7) rule that the
listener(s) should recite the blessing, although they acknowledge that common practice dictates
Counting Women toward a Minyan for Megilla Reading
A final issue relevant to this discussion is whether women may be counted toward a
“quorum” for mikra Megilla. The concept of a required quorum for Megilla reading initially arises in the context of one who reads the Megilla before Purim (on the 11th, 12th or 13th of Adar). The Gemara (Megilla 2a) allows reading on these days under certain, extenuating circumstances, but this reading must be done in the presence of a minyan. Apparently, one who reads on a day other than Purim must create his own environment of pirsumei nisa by reading the Megilla publicly. On Purim itself, however, one may, strictly speaking, read the Megilla privately.
Nevertheless, the Shulchan Arukh (690:18) writes that one should endeavor even on Purim day
to read the Megilla in the presence of a quorum of ten men. If this is not possible, the Shulchan
Arukh adds, then one may read the Megilla alone. The Acharonim explain that a public Megilla
reading amplifies the pirsumei nisa, and fulfills the dictum of “be-rov am hadrat melekh” (public performance of mitzvot brings honor to the Almighty).
The question then arises as to whether this requirement of, or preference for, a “quorum”
refers to the halakhic “minyan,” which is generally defined as ten adult males, or even to ten
women or men and women. The Rema, in discussing the preference to read with a quorum,
writes, “One may question whether women combine to form [a quorum of] ten.” He thus leaves
this issue as an open question. Many Acharonim claim that the Rema’s uncertainty relates only
to the question of whether women can be counted together with men to form a minyan for Megilla reading. A group of ten women, however, certainly constitutes a “minyan” for this purpose. (See Piskei Teshuvot 690:11, and R. Aryeh Frimer’s comprehensive treatment of this question).
An interesting ramification of this question relates to the situation when the 15th of Adar
falls on Shabbat. In such a case, Jerusalem residents read the Megilla on Friday (the 14th of
Adar), insert al ha-nissim in their prayers on Shabbat, and hold the festive Purim meal on
Sunday. (This situation is called “Purim meshulash,” or “the triple Purim,” as the Purim
observance is spread over three days.) The Acharonim discuss the question of whether the
Jerusalemites’ reading on Friday should be considered a “keri’a bi-zmana” (reading on Purim day itself), in which case they may read even without a quorum, or if this reading constitutes a
reading “she-lo bi-zmana” (at a time other than Purim), such that a quorum is required. The
Mishna Berura (590:61) and Peri Chadash (18) rule that in such a case one must, indeed, hear
the Megilla in the presence of a minyan, while others (see Chazon Ish 155:2, Ir Ha-kodesh
Ve-ha’mikdash 26:2, Mikra’ei Kodesh – Purim 50, Yabia Omer 6:46) disagree. According to the
first view, we might require all women, even those who cannot attend the earlier reading due to
family responsibilities, to hear the Megilla with a minyan.
It appears that the common custom in Jerusalem is not to require a minyan for Megilla
reading in Jerusalem on the Friday of a Purim meshulash. Interestingly, however, when R.
Aharon Lichtenstein originally sanctioned the “women’s Megilla reading” in Jerusalem’s
Midreshet Lindenbaum (which has since been adopted by numerous seminaries and
communities), he also ruled that on the Friday of a Purim meshulash they should not hold such a reading, so that the women could read with a quorum. This ruling is based upon two
stringencies: firstly, that the Jerusalemites’ reading on Friday of a Purim meshulash constitutes a keri’a she-lo bi-zmena, and secondly, that women do not count toward a quorum for a keri’a
she-lo bi-zmana. As noted, however, it seems to be customary among Jerusalem residents to
permit private readings for women, especially when more than ten women are present.