The Obligation of Women in Megilla Reading
"They too were in the miracle"
A fundamental principle concerning obligation in mitzvot states: "Regarding all time-bound positive commandments, men are obligated and women are exempt" (Mishna, Kiddushin 1:7). Reading the megilla is a time-bound positive commandment, as the obligation to fulfill it is limited to the day of Purim. This rule notwithstanding, the Gemara establishes that women are obligated in this mitzva (Megilla 4a):
“And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in megilla reading, as they too were in the miracle.”
The Mishna in Megilla (2:4) states: "All are fit to read the megilla, with the exception of a deaf-mute, an imbecile, and a minor." The Gemara concludes from this Mishna that over and beyond their obligation to hear the megilla reading, women are also fit to read it, and thereby they fulfill their obligation (Arakhin 2b-3a):
"All are fit to read the megilla" – What does this come to add? It comes to add women, and as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated in megilla reading, as they too were in the miracle.
Indeed, women participated in the miracle in a twofold manner. Haman's decree and the threat of annihilation hovered above all the Jews, "from young to old, children and women," and therefore women, too, are obligated to express gratitude for their rescue. Beyond that, the megilla is named after Queen Esther, and she was undoubtedly a full partner in the miracle of Purim.
At the same time, there are some time-bound positive commandments in which women are not obligated, even though these commandments are connected to miracles in which women had a part. For example, women are not obligated in the mitzva of sukka, despite the fact that they too left Egypt and dwelt together with the men in the sukkot of the clouds of glory in the wilderness. Rav Moshe Soloveitchik explained that women are obligated in the mitzva of megilla reading, because the purpose of the miracle is pirsumei nisa, "publicizing the miracle" in which they had a part. For the same reason women are obligated to light Chanuka candles (Shabbat 23a) and to drink four cups of wine at the Pesach seder (Pesachim 108b).
To read or to hear?
In contrast to the position of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, the Tosefta in Megilla (2:7) establishes that women are exempt from the mitzva of megilla reading.
All are obligated in megilla reading: Priests, Levites, Israelites, proselytes, emancipated slaves, unfit priests, descendants of the Givonites, mamzers… All are obligated and all are fit to read on behalf of the congregation…
Women, slaves and minors are exempt and are not fit to read on behalf of the congregation.
It may be argued that we are dealing here with a halakhic controversy, and that the law was decided in favor of the view of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that women are in fact obligated in megilla reading, because they too were partners in the miracle. Thus writes the Ritva (Megilla 4a):
As for what is taught in the Tosefta: "Women, slaves, and minors are exempt from megilla reading" – this is a faulty version and it lacks logic, for they too were in the miracle.
The Yerushalmi (Megilla 2:5), on the other hand, proposes a different solution. It would appear from the Yerushalmi that women too are obligated in megilla reading, as they too were under the threat of annihilation. However, the megilla should be read to them by a man:
Bar Kapara said: The megilla must be read to women and to minors, as they too were in danger [of being destroyed]. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi acted in that manner; he gathered his daughters and the other members of his household, and read the megilla to them.
According to the Yerushalmi, it may be suggested that women are indeed exempt from reading the megilla, but they are obligated to hear it being read. The Tosefta relates to the reading of the megilla, and therefore it establishes that women are exempt; whereas Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi relates to the hearing of the megilla, and therefore he rules that they too are obligated. This is the explicit ruling of the Halakhot Gedolot (no. 19):
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Women are obligate to hear the megilla, as they too were in the miracle…
Women, slaves and minors are exempt from megilla reading, but they are obligated to hear it. Why so? Because they were all in danger of being destroyed, killed and annihilated. Since they were all in danger, they are all obligated to hear the megilla.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would bring all the members of his household and read the book of Esther to them. Rabbi Yona the father of Rabbi Muna would have in mind to read it before the women in his house, for they were all in danger, and all are obligated to hear the megilla, including women, slaves and minors.
In contrast, Rashi clearly rules that women are obligated in megilla reading, and that they can also read the megilla for men and discharge their obligation for them (Arakhin 3a, s.v. le-atuyei):
“To include women” – that they are obligated in megilla reading and that they are fit to read it and to read it for men and discharge their obligation for them.
Can women read the megilla on behalf of men and discharge their obligation for them?
How could the Halakhot Gedolot rule that women are obligated only to hear the megilla? Surely the Gemara in Arakhin explicitly lists women among those who are "fit to read the megilla"!
It is possible that the Halakhot Gedolot maintains that the various sources are in disagreement, and he decided in accordance with the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi, that women are obligated only to hear the megilla. The Tosafot (Arakhin 3a, s.v. le-atuyei), however, write that there is no disagreement, and that a woman can read the megilla only on behalf of other women, but not for men:
Therefore we must explain that a woman can only discharge the obligation of women, but not of men. And when it says: "All are obligated in megilla reading" – to include women, [it means] that they can discharge the obligation of other women.
If a woman cannot read the megilla for a man, it would appear that this attests to gap between the level of a woman's obligation in the mitzva of megilla and the level of a man's obligation in it. The general rule is: "Whoever is not obligated in a matter cannot act on behalf of the congregation" (Mishna, Rosh ha-Shana 3:8). A man can read the megilla and discharge the obligation of another man who is listening to his reading, since the two of them are obligated in the same mitzva, and the rule is that "hearing is like speaking." Women, however, are not obligated like men to read the megilla; rather, they are obligated to hear it being read, and therefore they cannot discharge the obligation of men with their reading.
However, a woman can read the megilla and thereby discharge her own obligation, for it stands to reason that Chazal did not obligate a woman to discharge her obligation exclusively with the reading of a man. And since she can discharge her own obligation, other women can also fulfill their obligation with her reading, since they are all obligated in the same mitzva – hearing the reading of the megilla.
Two aspects of the mitzva of megilla
We have thus concluded that according to the Halakhot Gedolot, women are obligated to hear the megilla, whereas men are obligated to read it. What brought Chazal to make this distinction between the respective obligations of men and women regarding this mitzva? Surely in the case of other time-bound positive commandments, regarding which women are obligated because they too were in the miracle, e.g., lighting Chanuka candles and drinking four cups of wine at the Pesach seder, the obligation of women is identical to the obligation of men!
The Acharonim discussed this question at length and advanced various answers. Common to all of them is the idea that there are two aspects to the mitzva of megilla reading. Women are obligated in only one of them, because they too were in the miracle, but they are exempt from the second one, which is directed exclusively at men. Rav Avrohom Bornsztain, the Sochotchover Rebbe, suggested that the mitzva of megilla consists of two obligations: Publicizing the miracle and remembering the wiping out of Amalek (Responsa Avnei Nezer, no. 511). Women are obligated to publicize the miracle, as they too were in the miracle, and similar to other mitzvot the purpose of which is publicizing the miracle. On the other hand, women are exempt from remembering the wiping out of Amalek, as the Sefer ha-Chinukh writes (mitzva 603): "This mitzva applies in all places and at all times to men, for it is incumbent on them to wage war and take revenge against the enemy, and not upon women." The Sochotchover explains that the obligation to publicize the miracle can be fulfilled through hearing the megilla, and therefore women are obligated to hear it. Remembering the wiping out of Amalek, however, must be done with the mouth, and therefore men are obligated to read it.
In Responsa Marcheshet (no. 22), Rav Chanoch Henoch Eiges, a rav in pre-Holocaust Vilna, suggested another way to understand the difference between men and women regarding the mitzva of megilla. The Gemara in Megilla (14a) explains that we do not recite Hallel on Purim because "reading it is like [reciting] Hallel." Since women are exempt from reciting Hallel, they are not obligated in this aspect of the mitzva of megilla, and they are obligated exclusively in publicizing the miracle. Therefore, women cannot read the megilla on behalf of men, because they are not obligated in the Hallel aspect of the reading.
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, in the name of his father, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik, suggested another explanation of the nature of a woman's obligation in the mitzva of megilla. According to him, the mitzva of megilla is comprised of two different obligations: an individual obligation to read the megilla, and a general obligation to publicize the miracle. Women are obligated in the second aspect, publicizing the miracle. But they are not individually bound by an obligation to read the megilla. For this reason they cannot the discharge the obligation of men with their reading.
Perhaps he means to say that there is a general obligation to publicize miracles. The time to fulfill it is on Chanuka (with the lighting of candles), on Purim (with the reading of the megilla), and on Pesach (with the drinking of the four cups). Women are obligated in this mitzva, and thus their obligation is to hear the megilla. Alongside this mitzva, men alone are obligated in the mitzva of reading the megilla as an obligation of the day of Purim, similar to what the Rambam writes: "Moshe instituted [the practice that] on each festival, the Jews should read [a passage] appropriate to it" (Hilkhot Tefilla 13:8). The book of Esther is part of Holy Scripture, and with its reading we fulfill the obligation to read on Purim a passage appropriate to it. Thus, if a woman reads the megilla on behalf of men, she does not discharge their obligation to read a Scriptural passage appropriate to the day.
There is a common denominator to all of the explanations brought above: All pertain more to the reading that takes place during the day than to the reading that takes place at night. In Responsa Marcheshet it is explicitly noted that the mitzva to remember the wiping out of Amalek is fulfilled with the day-time reading and not at night; the mitzva of Hallel also applies only during the day; and so too the reading of a passage appropriate to the day is fulfilled on all the other special days during the day. According to these explanations, then, a woman cannot read the megilla for a man on the day of Purim, but she can discharge his obligation regarding the night-time reading.
Another explanation of the difference between a man's obligation regarding the mitzva of megilla and a woman's obligation is brought by the Turei Even (Megilla 4a). According to him, a man's obligation to read the megilla was told to Mordechai and Esther by way of the holy spirit, and thus it has a standing akin to a Torah obligation. In contrast, a woman's obligation is only a rabbinic enactment, because they too were in the miracle. Since women thus have a lower level of obligation, they cannot discharge the obligation of men with their reading. The Turei Even explicitly writes that the night-time reading of the megilla is not part of the essential law, and that it too is only a rabbinic enactment. Therefore, according to him, a woman can read the megilla for a man on the night of Purim.
The dignity of the congregation
As we noted above, the Ritva maintains that, fundamentally, the level of a woman's obligation in the mitzva of megilla is identical to that of a man, and therefore a woman can discharge a man's obligation with her reading. Before concluding, however, the Ritva adds a reservation:
Since we rule in accordance with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi that [women] are obligated, they can even discharge the obligation of others, only that this does not accord with the dignity of the congregation.
According to the Ritva, even though fundamentally a woman can read the megilla and discharge the obligation of men with her reading, it is not fitting to do so, since this "does not accord with the dignity of the congregation." In his wake, the Mishna Berura rules (689:7):
It is not like lighting Chanuka candles, for megilla reading is different, for it is like public Torah reading, from which a woman is disqualified because of the dignity of the congregation. And therefore she cannot read the megilla even for an individual [man], because Chazal did not distinguish.
The halakha in practice
As for the Halakha, the Shulchan Arukh and the Rema rule that a woman should not read the megilla to discharge the obligation of men with her reading (Orach Chayyim 689: 1-2):
All are obligated to read the megilla: men, women, proselytes, and emancipated slaves. And we train minors to read it.
Both one who reads the megilla and one who hears it from the reader discharges his obligation, provided that he heard it being read by someone who is obligated to read it. Therefore, if the reader was a deaf-mute, or a minor, or an imbecile, the person who heard it from him has not fulfilled his obligation. Some authorities say that women cannot discharge the obligation of men.
Rema: Some say that if a woman reads the megilla for herself, she recites the blessing: "… to hear the megilla" [and not “to read the megilla”], as she is not obligated in its reading.
According to the Rema, the foundation of a man's obligation is different than that of a woman, and therefore a woman cannot discharge the obligation of a man regarding the megilla. From the Shulchan Arukh, it would appear that fundamentally women can indeed read the megilla on behalf of men, but it is not fitting to do so – apparently because of the dignity of the congregation. Thus, according to the Shulchan Arukh, if there is no man available who knows how to read the megilla, a woman can read it for the entire congregation.
As for women who gather for a communal megilla reading, according to the vast majority of Posekim, a woman can read the megilla and discharge the obligation of the other women with her reading. A Sefardi woman who reads the megilla should recite the same blessing that is recited by a man: al mikra megilla, "on reading the megilla," whereas an Ashkenazi woman should ideally recite the blessing that accords with the Rema's ruling: al mishma megilla, "on hearing the megilla."
Ideally, the megilla should be read in a minyan, i.e., in a quorum of ten, as the Shulchan Arukh rules (Orach Chayyim 690:18): "One must search for ten people; if it is impossible to read with ten, one can read it in private." So too the blessing, Ha-rav et riveinu, which is recited after the megilla reading, is recited only in a minyan. The Posekim disagree as to whether woman count toward this minyan. The Ritva writes that even women are counted toward this minyan. The Rema, however, writes that the matter is in doubt. When a woman reads the megilla for other women, one can certainly rely on the Ritva's view, and regard a reading for ten women as a reading in a minyan – both regarding the preference to read the megilla in a minyan, and regarding the blessing, Ha-rav et riveinu.
The megilla attests to the fact that Esther and Mordechai together enacted Purim for future generations. Nevertheless this enactment is named exclusively after Esther: "And the commandment of Esther confirmed these matters of Purim; and it was written in the book" (Esther 9:32). By virtue of Esther's risking her life in order to save the Jewish people, Esther merited that the promulgation of Purim be attributed to her. And by virtue of her courage and righteousness, Esther merited also to obligate the women of all future generations in the reading of the megilla that is named after her, as they too were in the miracle.
(Translated by David Strauss)
 However, regarding the sukkot of the clouds of glory women were partners in the miracle in a passive manner, whereas regarding the miracle of Purim they played an active role in the miracle.
 The Tosafot had a reading of the Tosefta that does not relate to women. But even according to their reading, it can be inferred that women are exempt from megilla reading (see Tosafot, Megilla 4a, s.v. nashim). The reading of the Tosefta available to the Rosh is the same as the reading before us (see Rosh, Megilla, chap. 1, no. 4).
 The Magen Avraham (689:6) brings in the name of Midrash ha-Ne'elam Ruth, that a woman should not read the megilla for herself, but rather she should hear it from a man. But the Halakha is that a woman can discharge her obligation with her own reading. This is similar to the case of shofar: According to the Rambam, the mitzva of shofar involves hearing the blast (Hilkhot Shofar 1:1), but nevertheless a man who blows the shofar fulfills his own obligations and discharges the obligation of others.
 The Sha'ar ha-Tziyun (689, 15) cites a stringent ruling, according to which a woman cannot read the megilla for a group of women, because of their dignity. But the simple understanding is that the problem of dignity does not apply at all to a woman who is reading the megilla for other women.
 The Posekim write that reading the megilla not at its time can be done only in the context of a minyan (see Megilla 5a; Mishna Berura 690:61). When the fifteenth of Adar falls on a Shabbat, and the megilla is read even in cities that were surrounded by a wall on Friday, the fourteenth of Adar, some say that this is also reading the megilla not at its time. Nevertheless, even in such years, a woman can read for a group of ten women, for we can combine the views that say that such a reading is reading the megilla at its time, with the views that say that women are counted toward this minyan.