A question that is often of great practical relevance on Purim is the obligation of women in reading the Megillah. While women are obligated in hearing the Megillah, the scope of their obligation is a matter of some halachic debate. The topic is discussed by halachic authorities throughout generations, and has reached a heightened level of intensity today.
What is the optimal way for a woman to hear the reading of the Megillah? Can and should a woman read the Megillah for herself? Can a group of women make up their own “minyan” for reading the Megillah? Is there a difference between a man’s and a woman’s obligation in the Megillah, and how does this affect the berachah recited over the reading?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Women’s Obligation to Read the Megillah
The most commonly cited primary source for women’s obligation in reading the Megillah is a teaching of the Gemara in Megillah (4a): “R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, women are obligated in reading the Megillah, because they too were part of the same miracle.” Although women are generally exempt from positive time-bound commandments (with some exceptions), they are obligated in reading the Megillah (despite its being a positive, time-bound rabbinic commandment).
The reasoning given by the Gemara, namely that “they too were part of the same miracle”—a statement that occurs regarding the status of women for several festival-related obligations—is interpreted in different ways by early authorities.
The Rashbam (cited by Tosafos, ibid.) understands it to mean that the main part of the miracle came about through a woman: on Purim due to Esther, on Pesach due to the righteous women of the generation, and on Chanukah due to Yehudis. Tosafos, however, reject this interpretation, and explain rather that even women were part of the miracle, in that they, too, were saved from threat and from oppression in the respective miracles of Purim, Pesach and Chanukah. For this reason, women, too, are duty-bound to celebrate the redemption.
The simple reading of the Gemara indicates that the obligation of women in reading the Megillah is equal to that of men. This understanding is reinforced by the Gemara in Erchin (3a), which reflects on the wording of a Mishnah in Megillah (19b).
The Mishnah reads: “All are fit to read the Megillah, except for the deaf, the mentally deficient and a minor.” The Gemara asks what the word “all” means to emphasize and include, and responds that it means to include women, continuing to cite the above-mentioned teaching of R. Yeshoshua b. Levi. Women’s including in the word “all” seems to indicate that their status is like that of men.
An Equal Obligation
The equal status of women to men in their Megillah obligation is noted by Rashi (Erchin 3a), who explains that women “are obligated in Megillah and qualified to read it, and fulfill the obligation for men”. The ruling that women can read the Megillah on behalf of men indicates that their obligation is equal; were women’s obligation less than that of men, women would not be qualified to read the Megillah on men’s behalf.
A number of early authorities agree that women can dispense men’s obligation in reading the Megillah, demonstrating that their obligation is on equal footing. These include the Riaz (cited by the Shiltei haGiborim), the Ritva, Meiri and Nimukei Yosef (in their commentaries to Megillah 4a), the Or Zarua (2:368), and others.
The Rambam, too, rules that “Everyone is obligated in this reading: men, women, converts, and freed slaves” (Megillah 1:1). While not explicit, the implication of the unqualified ruling appears to be that all the listed categories have the same obligation in reading the Megillah, and each can read on behalf of the other.
An Unequal Obligation: Reading and Hearing
Matters, however, are made complicated by another primary source, the Tosefta (Megillah 2:4), which differentiates between men and women concerning Megillah. The Tosefta writes that “All are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, Kohanim, Leviim, Yisraelim […] women and slaves and minors are exempt, and [therefore] cannot fulfill the obligation of others.”
The Tosefta seems to contradict the ruling of the Gemara (based on R. Yehoshua b. Levi) head on. According to some of the authorities mentioned above, the Tosefta indeed represents an alternative position on the obligation of women, and it is deferred in the face of the Talmudic ruling. Thus, the Meiri (Megillah 4a) writes that “we should not push away the explicit Talmud, which is in our possession, because of a baraisa. […] Rather, we should rely on the known rule that one who is obligated in a mitzvah may fulfill others’ obligation.”
Yet, some authorities reconcile the two sources, based on a ruling given by the Baal Halachos Gedolos, who makes a distinction between reading and hearing the Megillah: “Women, slaves and minors are exempt from reading the megillah but are obligated to hear it. Why is this so? Because they were all endangered by [the decree] to destroy, kill and wipe out; since they were all endangered, they are all obligated to hear it” (Halachos Gedolos, Venice Edition, p. 80).
Citing from the Halachos Gedolos, Tosafos (Erchin 3a; Megillah 4b), Tosafos thus reconcile the two sources. When R. Yehoshua ben Levi states that “women are obligated in the reading of the megillah,” this should be understood as an obligation to hear the reading of the Megillah. The Tosefta, however, which states that women are exempt, refers not to hearing but to actually reading the Megillah. Although the Gemara in Erchin notes that women can read the Megillah, this refers only to a woman reading the Megillah for herself; she cannot do so on behalf of men. The reason is because men have an obligation to read Megillah but woman only have an obligation to hear it.
This opinion is also noted by the Raavia (Chap. 569), the Mordechai (Megillah 4a, no. 778), and other prominent authorities (Sefer HaItur; Sefer HaEshkol; Rabbeinu Yerucham; and others). Some of these authorities mention that the Baal Halachos Gedolos had an alternative version of the Gemara in Megillah, which read that women are obligated to hear the Megillah, rather than to read it.
A Dishonorable Practice
Some authorities understand that the reason women cannot discharge men of their obligation of Megillah is because this is unseemly, dishonorable or immodest. These authorities maintain that in principle there is no difference in the obligation of men and women, but that nonetheless, it is forbidden for a woman to read the Megillah on behalf of a man.
Thus, Sefer Mitzvos Gadol (Hilchos Megillah) writes that reading the Megillah is similar to the reading of the Torah, for which a woman cannot read for a man. While in theory a woman can be called up and read from the Torah (see Megillah 23a), it remains forbidden in practice. Some authorities note the issue of immodesty in hearing a woman read the Megillah, arguing that this will infringe the prohibition of kol be’isha erva (Kol Bo, Chap. 45; Orchos Chaim, Megillah 2).
The Tosafos HaRosh (Sukkah 38a) gives a different reason why women cannot discharge the obligation of men. He cites the Halachos Gedolos in comparing reading the Megillah to Birkas Hamazon: “[women cannot say Birkas Hamazon for men] because it is dishonorable for the many, like Megillah in which Halachos Gedolos explained that though women are obligated, they do not discharge the obligation of the many.”
It is notable that the Korban Nesanel understood the Tosafos in Sukkah to mean that woman cannot discharge the obligation even of other women, for this, too, is dishonorable—a ruling cited by the Mishnah Berurah (689, Shaar Hatzion 15). The Tosafos HaRosh (unprinted at their time) indicates that this is not the correct understanding, and that the Tosafos refers to discharging the obligation of men alone. This is also the interpretation given by the Aruch Hashulchan (271:5).
Which Berachos to Make?
Where a woman reads for herself or for other women, or where a man who has already discharged his obligation reads on behalf of women, which blessing should be recited?
The Shulchan Aruch (689:1-2) rules: “All are obligated in its reading: men, and women, and converts, and freed slaves. […] There are those that say that women do not fulfill the obligation on behalf of men.” The Rema adds: “There are those that say that if a woman reads for herself she recites the blessing of ‘to hear megillah,’ since she is not obligated to read.”
Thus, the simple ruling of the Shulchan Aruch is thus that women can discharge a man’s obligation. Although he mentions the opinion that women cannot do so, Rav Ovadya Yosef (Shut Yehaveh Da’as 3:51) has written that the simple, first ruling is the principal halacha, so that in principle a woman can read the Megillah and even fulfill a man’s obligation (even in the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch, this approach is not unanimous).
In Ashkenazi custom, however, the Rema’s endorsement of the latter opinion decrees that the principal halacha is that women cannot dispense men’s obligation. Moreover, the Rema understands this, following Tosafos, based on a basic distinction between men and women: men are obligated in reading, and women in reading.
For this reason, the Rema notes that some say a woman prefaces her reading with a blessing al shmias Megillah, rather than al mikra Megillah. The Magen Avraham (692:5) writes (citing Bach) that this is the case even when a man (who has already heard the Megillah) reads on behalf of women and this is the ruling of the Mishna Berura (689, 8; see also Shut Teshuvos Vehanhagos, Vol. 1, no. 403).
The Final Beracha
The blessing that follows the reading of the Megillah at night (“harav et riveinu”) is a function of the pirsumei nisa, the publicizing of the miracle. For this reason, it is not recited by an individual reading alone, but only in a public setting of ten or more.
The Rema (Orach Chaim 690:18) states that we are “doubtful if women can be counted among the ten”—for purposes of reading the Megillah, it is possible that women do not join men in constituting a quorum. It is possible that this is only true for a mixture of men and women, due to modesty considerations, and that when a minyan of women gather to hear the Megillah, the requisite pirsumei nisa is achieved and the final blessing should be recited (see Mikraei Kodesh, Purim 35).
However the Halichos Bas Yisroail (22, 14) states that the custom is that the final blessing is not recited in women’s readings of the Megillah even if ten women are present.