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The Vilna Gaon -
Lesson 28

Reciting a Blessing over the Five Megillot (II)

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We saw in the previous shiur that the Vilna Gaon requires that the reading of each of the Megillot be preceded by the recitation of a blessing, just as a blessing is recited before reading the Book of Esther. We also noted the clear development from his initial position on this matter until he reached his final determination. In his commentary to the Shulchan Arukh the Gra defended the ancient custom, according to which each individual would recite a blessing and read the Megilla for himself; whereas in Ma’aseh Rav, we learn that the prayer leader reads from a Megilla written on parchment, that prior to his reading, he also recites the "Shehecheyanu" blessing, that he reads the Megilla with the cantillation notes, and that the entire congregation listens to his reading. As we shall see, these two versions of the practice regarding the blessing reflect two different halakhic understandings of the reading of the Megillot.




The Blessing recited over the torah – Is it a Blessing recited over a mitzva?




Let us first consider the ancient Ashkenazi custom: What is its halakhic foundation? A casual remark of Rabbeinu Simcha of Speyer, an important halakhic authority at the beginning of the 13th century, is instructive. His words are cited by his student Rabbi Isaac of Vienna, in his book, Or Zaru'a. The topic under discussion is whether a blessing should be recited over the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh, despite the fact that the recitation of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh is only a customary practice, and not a full-fledged halakhic obligation.




Despite the absence of an obligation, Rabbeinu Simcha rules that a blessing should be recited. He explains his ruling as follows:




He is no worse that one who engages in Torah study, for even over the books of RuthEikha and Shir ha-Shirim, according to tractate Soferim, one recites the blessing: "Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us about reading the Megilla."[1] (Or Zaru'a II, 455)




The blessing recited over Hallel and the Megillot is compared here to the blessing recited over the Torah. Rabbeinu Simcha presents a twofold argument:




1)     The blessing recited over Hallel on Rosh Chodesh and the blessing recited over the five Megillot is a variation of the well-known blessing recited over the Torah. The blessing that is recited over the Torah has a fixed formula that is recited daily by each individual. Here, apparently, it assumes a special form in accordance with the occasion and the particular biblical passage being read.




2)     A person can recite the blessing over the Torah even when he does not fulfill any obligation.




The idea behind these two arguments is the same; the well-known formulation of this idea is brought by the son of Rav Chayyim of Brisk in the name of his father. Rav Chayyim said that the blessing which the Sages ordained should be recited over Torah study does not relate to the mitzva of Torah study: "The blessing is not recited over the fulfillment of the mitzva of Torah study; rather, it is a law unto itself, that Torah requires a blessing."[2] In other words, the encounter with the Torah as a phenomenon (or as Rav Chayyim puts it later, "a cheftzaof Torah") is cause for a blessing. Rav Chayyim noted a practical implication that follows from this understanding: Women too recite the blessing over the Torah, even though they are not obligated in the mitzva of Torah study; for even in the absence of an obligation, that Torah that they study is still Torah.[3]




This idea sheds light in other contexts as well. If the blessing is over Torah as a phenomenon, and not merely over its study, this phenomenon can have other expressions, which do not necessarily involve study, and it is possible that these too require a separate blessing. This should come as no surprise, for the verses command us not only to study Torah, but also to "speak" of it, to put it at all times on our hearts, in short, to be connected to it. I wish to illustrate this principle with a familiar passage from the prayer book.




Both in the morning and in the evening the reading of Shema is preceded by a blessing which opens with the word "ahava," love. An examination of the blessing's content reveals that the Torah is a central theme in this blessing. The blessing recited in the evening is almost entirely comprised of praises bestowed on the Torah, and about half of the blessing recited in the morning is devoted to the aspiration to study and practice Torah. The Rishonim take this so far as to say that under certain conditions, one can fulfill his obligation to recite the blessing over the Torah with these blessings. But we must ask: When one follows the standard order of the prayers, one reaches this blessing after having already recited the blessing over the Torah. Why then should we return to this matter? Why specifically here, before reciting the Shema, the essence of which is the acceptance of the kingdom of heaven?




It may reasonably be argued that while in fact we have already recited a general blessing over the Torah, here the Torah appears before us in a new context, in an existential sense, rather than as a subject of study. When we recite the Shema each day, we do not have any new cognitive experiences, nor are we are involved in a primarily intellectual activity. The Torah serves here, as it does in other places, as a focal point for expressing commitment and solidarity, as an expression of the experience of accepting God's kingdom. It is over this new phenomenon of the Torah that we once again recite the blessing over the Torah. Moreover, in accordance with the special circumstances of its recitation, the formulation of the blessing is also new. This formulation reflects the experience of love that is associated with the acceptance of God's kingdom and finds expression in the verses of the Shema themselves.[4]




The Blessing over the Megilla is like the Blessing over the Torah




Let us summarize our conclusions thus far. The blessing over the Torah is not a blessing recited over a mitzva in the ordinary sense of the term. It is an expression of praise for the phenomenon of Torah itself. We noted two ramifications of this idea: First, the blessing over the Torah can be recited over an encounter with the Torah that is detached from any obligation. Second, special encounters with the Torah in themselves, bearing existential or experiential import, are liable to merit a separate blessing over the Torah, formulated in a unique form. We can now return to the position of Rabbeinu Simcha of Speyer.




According to Rabbeinu Simcha, the combination of these two ramifications explains the blessing recited over Hallel as well as the blessing recited over the Megillot. In both cases, a person "occupies himself with Torah" though not with the cognitive mitzva of Torah study. The verses of Tehilim can indeed serve as study material, but here in the context of Hallel they serve as a liturgical-experiential text. Similarly, the Megillot that are read at their appointed times serve a liturgical role connected to the specific occasion. This is most striking with regard to the book of Eikha, which serves as a communal lament; and similarly Shir ha-Shirim on Pesach is meant to arouse a spiritual-esthetic experience of dialogue with the Creator. So too Kohelet and Ruth serve, each on its fixed occasion, as a focal point for identifying with ideas relating to the day. Rabbeinu Simcha maintains that Torah is meant not only to be studied, but also to serve various activities connected to the service of God. A special encounter with Torah, different in a significant way from its usual role as a source of knowledge, may justify the recitation of a separate blessing over the Torah.[5] The blessing, "to read the Hallel," or "about reading the Megilla," is a blessing recited over some special encounter with Torah. The recitation of this blessing is possible despite the fact that there is no halakhic obligation to recite the Hallel or read the Megilla. Like the ordinary blessing over the Torah, this blessing is recited over the reading itself, and not over the fulfillment of some obligation.[6]




The Book of Esther as a model for the reading of the other Megillot




As mentioned above, the traditional understanding views the reading of the other Megillot as a customary practice, and not a duty; and in order to justify the blessing, it identifies the reading of the Megillot as a type of occupation with Torah. The Gra agrees that a blessing should be recited, but his later practice indicates that he rejected both of these positions. The reading of the Megillot is neither merely a customary practice, nor is it defined as occupation with Torah. Let us first understand the Gra's rejection of the principle of "customary practice." To further this end, let us examine another passage in tractate Soferim:




There are those who read the book of Eikha at night, while others push it off until the morning after reading from the Torah. For following the reading from the Torah, a person stands up, his head covered in ashes, and his clothing hanging down, and he reads while weeping and wailing. If he himself knows how to translate it, it is well, and if not, he gives it to someone else who knows how to translate it well. And he translates it, so that the rest of the people, the women, and the children can understand it, for women are obligated to hear the reading of the book as are men, and all the more so males….


One who reads [Eikha] on Tish'a Be-Av recites the blessing: Blessed… the true judge (dayan ha-emet). There are those who rest the Torah on the ground… and say: The crown of our heads has fallen. And they rend [their garments] and lament like a person whose deceased relative lies before him. And there are some who change their places, and some who go down from their benches, and they all roll in ashes. And they do not greet each other all night and all day, until the people finish their lamentations. During the time of the lamentations, one is forbidden to talk or go outside, so that he not be distracted from his mourning, and all the more so must he not talk with a gentile. (Tractate Soferim, chap. 18).




A description is give here of the synagogue ritual on Tisha Be-Av. It is a public event, and the book of Eikha is read by one person on behalf of the entire congregation, including women and children. The "Dayan ha-Emet" blessing which is ordinarily recited by mourners is also added.




The Ramban in his book, Torat ha-Adam, cites this passage, and notes:




And similarly it was the customary practice that one person would read the book of Eikha and everybody would listen, as they said regard to the book of EstherAnd when he reads it, he recites the "Al mikra Megilla" blessing. This is also mentioned there in chap. 14. And here they said that he recites the "Dayan ha-emet" blessing. It turns out then that he recites two blessings. (Torat ha-Adamaveilut yeshana)




The Ramban was not familiar with the Ashkenazi practice with regard to the reading of the Megillot; his sole concern here is interpreting the words of tractate Soferim. He connects the passage before us with the other halakha recorded in tractate Soferim, namely, that the "Al mikra Megilla" blessing is recited over all the Megillot. In the case of Eikha,the "Dayan ha-emet" blessing is also recited, and so there are two blessings. What is important for our purposes is that the Ramban draws a connection between this reading and the reading of the book of Esther.The Ramban seems to understand that according to tractate Soferim the nature of the reading of all of the Megillot is essentially the same, in that all of the Megillot require a blessing, and all are read by one person for the entire congregation.[7] This understanding is very different from the Ashkenazi understanding cited above in the name of Rabbeinu Simcha, that the reading of the other Megillot is fundamentally different from the reading of the book of EstherThe reading of Estheris a halakhic obligation, whereas the other Megillot are read only by virtue of customary practice.




Indeed, a precise reading of tractate Soferim indicates that, as opposed to the view of Rabbeinu Simcha, it does not view the reading of Eikha merely as a customary practice. It is clearly stated here that the Megilla should be translated for the sake of women, since they too "are obligated to hear the reading of the book as are men." It may also be inferred from here that the Megilla must be read from a parchment scroll written in proper manner. If we accept the Ramban's persuasive assumption, that Eikha is not fundamentally different from the other Megillot, it turns out that the other Megillot must also be read from a parchment scroll.




Indeed, we have an explicit report, which indicates that in the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, reading the Megillot is obligatory, and not merely the customary practice, as was maintained by Rabbeinu Simcha (and apparently the rest of the Ashkenazi authorities as well). This report was recorded by Rabbi Yissachar Ber, Vilna's "elder authority," who was responsible for putting together the book, Ma'aseh Rav, and bringing it to print. In his notes to the book, called Pe'ulat Sachir," he cites an objection raised by one of the Rabbis against the Gra regarding the reading of the Megilla.




As is well-known, the Halakha states that when Purim falls out on Shabbat, the Megilla is not read on that day. According to the Gemara (Megilla 4b), this ruling is based on a concern that a person might come to carry his Megilla in the public domain in order to bring it to a Torah Sage so that he may teach him how to read it. Based on this, the following objection was raised against the Gra: "If reading these [other] Megillot is so obligatory, why is it permissible to read them on Shabbat? Why don't we apply to them the decree issued by Rabba that perhaps a person will come to carry [the Megilla] four cubits in the public domain…."




The scholar who raised this objection wanted to defend the traditional understanding that we are dealing here with but a customary practice. According to this conception, there is no problem with reading the Megillot on Shabbat, as there is no concern that people will come to violate Shabbat in order to learn how to do something that is not obligatory. But according to the Gra that we are dealing here with an obligation equal to that regarding the book of Esther, why is it permitted to read those other Megilloton Shabbat?




The Pe'ulat Sachir reports that the Gra correctly answered that the concern about desecrating the Shabbat applies only to an obligation that is cast on the individual, as is the case with the book of Esther (see note 7). But it does not apply to the other Megillot, "for in the absence of a quorum of ten men, there is no obligation whatsoever on the individual [to read the Megilla], and in the case of a matter that is cast solely on the community, there is no concern that someone will come to carry something [in the public domain]," for we are not concerned that the entire congregation will come to such an error. This discussion proves that the Gra understood the reading of the other Megillot as a binding obligation falling upon the community, and not merely as a customary practice.




If so, the Gra preserved the ancient practice of reciting a blessing over the reading of the Megillot, but veered from the traditional understanding that the reading of these Megillot is merely customary practice. He adopted the interpretation of the Ramban, according to which the reading of the other Megillot is similar to the reading of the book of Esther. Like the book of Esther, the other Megillot are read because of a binding rabbinic enactment. The specifics of the enactment – the community reading, reading the Megilla with its cantillation notes, and reading it from a parchment scroll – accord with other public readings (e.g., the reading of the Torah), which are based on obligatory halakhot. According to this, the blessing should be understood as an ordinary blessing recited over a mitzva, no different than other blessings recited over rabbinic mitzvot, e.g., lighting Chanuka candles.




The comparison to the book of Estherprovides us with a key to understanding the Gra's unique position that the "Shehecheyanu" blessing is recited over the reading of the other Megillot as well.[8] It is not the Gra's way to invent new halakhot that have no anchor in the sources. Insofar as is known, the "Shehecheyanu" blessing is mentioned in one place in our context, namely, in a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Megilla 21a) which teaches that this blessing is recited over the book of EstherOnce again the Gra follows in the footsteps of the Ramban's understanding of the tractate Soferim passage, and thus compares the other Megillot to the book of Esther. This being the case, the "Shehecheyanu" blessing is obligatoryas well.




Finally, it should be noted that this principle is also the basis for rejecting the idea that reading the Megillot is a form of occupation with Torah, and therefore a blessing over the Torah must be recited over them. This rejection is supported by the Gemara's ruling[9] that Torah study is set aside by the reading of the book of EstherThe Gemara sees this as an exceedingly novel teaching; were the reading of Estherdefined as occupation with Torah, to the point that the blessing recited over it is the blessing over the Torah,   there would be no setting aside of Torah study. We would be dealing with two forms of the same thing, and it would be difficult to understand why the Gemara thinks that the Megilla is read at the cost of Torah study. We must, therefore, understand that Megilla reading is a separate rabbinic commandment, that was designed to publicize the miracle of Purim, and it should not be categorized as a fulfillment of occupation with Torah. If we see the book of Esther as a prototype for the rest of the Megillot, as stated above, a similar situation should apply to them. Their reading should not be viewed as occupation with Torah, and thus there is no way to explain the blessing recited over them, other than by assuming that the Sages required that they be read by way of a separate enactment.




In conclusion, the Gra adapted the ancient Ashkenazi practice to recite a blessing over all the Megillot, in a way that more closely accords with the primary source for the entire matter in tractate Soferim. He sees the reading as the product of a binding enactment, which is fundamentally the same as the obligation to read the book of EstherThis status accounts for the recitation of the "Shehecheyanu" blessing over the other Megillot and certain additional details.








It is worth noting that this case illustrates once again a certain pattern that we identified in our examination of the issue of the piyyutim: The Gra constructs his halakhic position based primarily on a source outside the Talmud. With regard to piyyutim, his position focused on the Tosefta and the Yerushalmi; in our case, tractate Soferim becomes the primary source. In both cases, however, the Gra makes sure to support his position with the more standard sources. As for the blessing over the Megillot, the halakhot governing the reading of the book of Estherserve as a model for the Gra's understanding of the reading of the rest of the Megillot (for the obligation to recite the "Shehecheyanu" blessing is based on the passage in the Babylonian Talmud dealing with the book of Esther).




Has the Gra's position been accepted by the public at large? We must be precise in our answer. On the one hand, only in a few communities is it the customary practice to read the Megillot from parchment scrolls and to recite blessings over them. It would appear that the later authorities, e.g., the Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav and the Arukh ha-Shulchan, agree that blessings should not be recited, as we are dealing with a customary practice that has no source in the Babylonian Talmud. The Mishna Berura, as well, does not accept the Gra's position; he is only prepared to free the community from the obligation to object to those who follow it. Nevertheless, it would seem that the Gra's view has been very influential.




First of all, it should be noted that the earlier halakhic understanding, has completely disappeared from the halakhic discourse. The position that maintained that indeed we are dealing with a customary practice, but nevertheless a blessing should be recited in the wake of what is stated in tractate Soferim, has been completely rejected. It would seem that the Gra significantly contributed to this development, for while he too supported the recitation of a blessing, his later position was that this is only possible on the assumption that we are dealing with an obligatory enactment. The halakhic authorities parallel to the Gra refused to base a new halakhic obligation on a marginal source like tractate Soferim. But it was precisely the Gra's dependence on this novel position that indirectly helped his opponents ban the blessing in actual practice.




            Second, not only was the earlier halakhic understanding rejected, but the entire form of the reading underwent a changed. All of the minhagim books that preceded the Gra report that the entire congregation would read the Megillot at the same time.[10] If anybody is familiar with such a practice today, I would be pleased to hear about it. It seems to me that in all synagogues today it is the accepted practice that one person reads the Megilla for the entire congregation in a dignified manner and with the proper cantillation notes, and the congregation listens in silence, as with the reading of the Torah. This was the Gra's practice, and Ma'aseh Rav implies that he introduced the practice against the general custom. It is difficult to deny that the new approach emanating from the school of the Vilna Gaon was in great measure responsible for this upgrade in the reading of the Megillot.




(Translated by David Strauss)



[1] A simailar statement is found in R. Tzidkiya ha-Rofe's Shibbolet ha-Leket, 174.

[2] This citation is taken from Chiddushei Maran Riz HaleviHilkhot Berakhot.

[3] This explanation is not necessary according to the view of Rabbeinu Tam, who maintains that a woman is permitted to recited a blessing over a mitzva from which she is exempt, but Rav Chayyim offers it in explanation of the ruling of the Shulchan Arukh that a woman recites a blessing over the Torah, despite the fact that she may not recite a blessing over a mitzva from which she is exempt, e.g., lulav or sukka. 

[4] In this spirit, we can point to formulas that are similar to the blessing recited over the Torah that are pronounced in the context of special encounters with the Torah of the type under discussion. The content of the blessing, "Barukh Elokeinu she-baranu li-khevodo," recited in U-va le-tziyyon, is effectively a repetition of the blessing over the Torah, and it apparently refers to the Kedusha recited immediately before it (Kedusha de-sidra). At the Pesach seder, we say: "Barukh she-natan Torah le-amo Yisrael, barukh Hu," as an introduction to the "Four sons" passage, apparently in the wake of the unique educational experience.

[5] It would appear that this is connected to the dispute among the Posekim whether the recitation of Selichot, which include verses that are recited in a supplicatory manner, requires the blessing over the Torah. The question arose regarding Selichot because they are recited before dawn, usually before Birkot ha-Shachar which include the blessing recited over the Torah. Those who are stringent rely on Rabbeinu Simcha that the recitation of Selichot involves an encounter with the Torah. It is possible that, according to those who disagree, we are forced to reject the theory presented here, and say that the blessing over the Torah is recited only over Torah study.

[6] See Chiddushei Maran Riz Halevi (cited above), who connects the principle proposed by Rav Chayyim to the opinion of Rabbeinu Simcha.

[7] Despite everything that has been said, the book of Esther is still unique, for according to the Halakha, there is also an obligation falling on each and every individual to read it. Nevertheless, ideally it must be read with a quorum, and this communal obligation has halakhic expressions, but this is not the forum in which to expand upon them.  

[8] It should be noted that there is certainly no place for the "Shehecheyanu" blessing over the book of Eikha that is read on Tisha Be-Av, and even the Gra does not mention such a blessing. According to his position, it would be reasonable that "Dayan ha-emet" should substitute for "Shehecheyanu," but there is no explicit mention of this either.  

[9] See Rambam, Hilkhot Megilla 1:1, based on Megilla 3a-b. 

[10] But as we mentioned in the previous shiur, this practice was observed with respect to Shir ha-ShirimRuth, and Kohelet, but not with respect to Eikha. The Rishonim mention that Eikha was always read communally, with the entire congregation listening to the reading of one person. The Levush (Orach Chayyim, 559, 1) notes this distinction between Eikha and the other Megillot, but does not explain it. In light of what we have seen, it would seem that this exception stems from the description of the reading of Eikha in tractate Soferim. Whereas the Ramban saw this account as applying to all the Megillot, the Ashkenazi authorities limited it to Eikha.


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