Reading the Megilla Before Sundown
Translated and adapted by Rav Eliezer Kwass
QUESTION FROM A SOLDIER:
It is very likely that, as soldiers, we will not have the opportunity to read the megilla after nightfall; sometimes our maneuvers or patrols are scheduled for night-time, leaving us unable to read the megilla at its normal time, after "tzeit ha-kokhavim" (when three medium-sized stars are visible in the night sky). Can we read it earlier, as long as it is done after "pelag ha-mincha" (an hour and a quarter before sunset)? If so, can it be read at that time with its berakhot?
I remember that we spoke about it last year in the yeshiva. Last year, though, Purim fell right after Shabbat and it was problematic to read the megilla on Shabbat. It seemed obvious to me that in a normal year it should be permissible, until I saw that the Chayei Adam, quoting the Peri Chadash and the Gra, says that one who reads before nightfall does not fulfill his obligation and must read the megilla again. What should we do?
The answer to our question is dependent on several issues:
1. Does night begin at "pelag ha-mincha" (one-and-a-quarter hours before sunset) or only at "tzeit ha-kokhavim" (when three medium size stars are visible in the sky)?
2. Even if night can be seen as beginning at pelag ha-mincha in some areas of Halakha, would this be true for the megilla reading?
3. Even if night begins at tzeit ha-kokhavim, could the megilla still be read as early as pelag ha-mincha?
1. NIGHT: PELAG HA-MINCHA OR TZEIT HA-KOKHAVIM?
The Talmud (Berakhot 26 and 27) understands that the dispute of Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages regarding the time period of the afternoon service (until pelag ha-mincha or until dark) also applies to when the evening service can begin. The gemara rules that one can choose to follow either the Sages or Rabbi Yehuda ("De-avad ke-mar avad, u-de'avad ke-mar avad"). Night-time prayer can, at least according to Rabbi Yehuda, begin at pelag ha-mincha.
The Tosafot on the first page of Berakhot, trying to justify the Ashkenazic custom of reciting the Shema before tzeit ha-kokhavim, apply Rabbi Yehuda's position to Shema. The night-time Keriat Shema can also begin at pelag ha-mincha. If both the night-time Keriat Shema and Ma'ariv can begin at pelag ha-mincha, might not the same apply to the megilla reading?
2. MEGILLA BEFORE TZEIT HA-KOKHAVIM:
The Terumat Ha-deshen (109) asks if one can read the megilla before dark if, after fasting all of Ta'anit Esther, he felt he could not hold out until the end of the megilla reading without eating. Applying the Tosafists' position about Shema to the megilla reading, he rules that reading early is preferable to eating before reading. Because he assumes that the time span for saying the night-time Shema is determined by when night begins (and not the more local criterion of "when people go to sleep" - "u-veshokhbekha"), he can apply this definition of night to the megilla reading. In other words, if pelag ha-mincha can mark the commencement of night for Shema, it can do so for megilla as well.
Rav Yosef Karo quotes the Terumat Ha-deshen in his Beit Yosef and rules like him in the Shulchan Arukh (OC 692:4):
"If, due to extenuating circumstances, one cannot go to the synagogue [to join the congregation's reading] and in order to hear megilla would have to wait until after the congregation has finished, but finds it difficult to fast that long, he may hear megilla reading while it is yet daytime, after pelag ha-mincha."
The Gra comments:
" ... Because from pelag ha-mincha and on is considered night even for Keriat Shema, as Rabbeinu Tam wrote in Berakhot (2a). He rules likewise (OC 84) with regard to kiddush and havdala. This applies only to one who always follows Rabbi Yehuda's position [that night begins after pelag]. But see the Peri Chadash who argues and rejects [the Shulchan Arukh's] position."
According to the Peri Chadash, even though the night-time Keriat Shema can be said as early as pelag ha-mincha, night still begins at tzeit ha-kokhavim in areas of Halakha where "night" is explicitly mentioned. Keriat Shema is unique because the Torah refers to its time range simply as "when you lie down" ("u-veshokhbekha"). One of the sources for the night-time reading of the megilla is the verse "I am not silent at night" ("ve-laila ve-lo dumia li", Tehillim 22:3), so the megilla, to be read at "night," should be read only after tzeit ha-kokhavim, when night proper begins.
3. READING MEGILLA BEFORE NIGHT
The Ma'amar Mordekhai, in an attempt to defend the Terumat Ha-deshen's position against the Peri Chadash, suggests that reading before nightfall of the fourteenth of Adar is permitted based on another principle. Similar to villagers, who, because of their special situation, can read on the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth of Adar (Purim is on the fourteenth), even a city dweller can, in time of need, read after pelag ha-mincha on the thirteenth. He notes that the Meiri (also quoted by the Birkei Yosef) writes explicitly that the great commentators relied on this to permit reading late in the afternoon of the thirteenth for sick people and pregnant women.
Based on this, though, we should only have permitted reading early without saying the berakhot. This case is similar to the situation (Shulchan Arukh OC 688) of those embarking on a journey before Purim, who are allowed to read on the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth like the villagers, but may not say the berakhot over the megilla (see Bi'ur Halakha s.v. She-yikra'ena). The Bi'ur Halakha (OC 692:4 s.v. Miplag) records the debate over early megilla reading and quotes the Ra'avad (quoted by the Orchot Chayim cited in the Beit Yosef OC 687) who permits reading early for the sake of sick people. After recording the opinions of the Peri Chadash and those he opposes, he concludes that, "It is possible that in time of great need even the whole congregation can read before it is actually night." This sounds as if he permits reading megilla in public with its berakhot. Afterwards I came across the comments of the Netziv in his Ha'amek She'eila on the She'iltot (Vayakhel 67:13) who at great length supports the position of the Terumat Ha-deshen. He proves that the megilla can be read from pelag ha-mincha and one need not wait until tzeit ha-kokhavim.
One issue still stands in the way of putting the Terumat Ha-deshen's position into practice. The Gra (reinforced by the Bi'ur Halakha) qualifies the Terumat Ha-deshen's position and states that only those who normally follow Rabbi Yehuda's position (that night begins at pelag ha-mincha) and who always pray Mincha before that time, can follow it and read megilla from pelag ha-mincha and on. Otherwise the person's practice is inconsistent ("tarti de-satri"). It is therefore questionable whether we, who do not always make sure to pray Mincha before pelag ha-mincha, can rely on this leniency.
One can speak of several levels of consistency, though. We might require that a person consistently follow Rabbi Yehuda throughout his whole life. However, we might only require that on the same day one does not pray both a late Mincha and an early Ma'ariv. In a discussion of early Ma'ariv on Shabbat evening, the Mishna Berura (OC 267:2) rules leniently, only requiring that on that particular day a person not act inconsistently. We could therefore permit soldiers to read megilla early, even if they do not always pray Mincha before pelag ha-mincha. This is certainly a classic "time of great need" ("she'at ha-dechak") for soldiers who will be occupied with security matters during the night hours.
If there is no possibility of reading the megilla at night, it can be read along with its berakhot as early as pelag ha-mincha. One should make sure on that day to pray Mincha earlier than pelag ha-mincha to avoid inconsistency. (Remember the berakha "Ha-rav et riveinu" ["Who fights our battles"] after the megreading can only be said when there is a minyan.)
(Adapted from Daf Kesher #172, Adar II 5749, vol. 2, pp. 222-223.)