A Look Back and A Look Ahead at Megillah Reading. Who? How? And Why?
Many Talmudic debates result in practical Halacha, and guidance for everyday living for observant Jews. Society has evolved from generation to generation, but every few decades our brilliant Poskim find ways to make living a life of Halacha and observance that much more accessible. Often times when debating a specific topic, we get caught in the crosswinds of Hashkafa, and how it relates to our particular circles, neighborhoods, or institutions. I find these debates particularly challenging in a school environment, where Hashkafa is hard to enforce, we cater to a range of families/communities, and our role as educators can be unclear.
With Purim just behind us, we have almost a full year to think about and plan for what Purim can and should mean for our students and school communities.
So many commentators write about why the Megillah was named only after Esther and not Megillat Mordechai V’Esther? Our sages teach us that “he wrote the Megillah” but only once Esther sends it out publicly, do the people accept and spread the story. Initially, the Jews were afraid to circulate the story because of how the nations of the world would react. It was due to the courage of Esther, who shared that the story was already recorded in the books of Media and Persia, that the people had no need to fear further consequences. Esther’s voice is what led to the Megillah being heard then and read today within our communities.
I think about this every year as we prepare for Purim.
The Talmud records in two places a woman’s role in reading the Megillah. In Masechet Arachin (2b – 3a) “All are fit to read the Megillah, to include what? To include women” and it references what was also written in Masechet Megillah (4a) “R’ Yehoshua ben Levi said women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, for they too were involved in that miracle”. This sets off a debate amongst many Poskim, the answer to which is largely dependent on your minhagim and community.
In his works Chazon Ovadia Purim (נט), R’ Ovadia Yosef writes:
ויישוב קטן שאין שם איש שיודע לקרוא את המגילה כהלכה, ויש שם אשה שיודעת לקרות המגילה, יכולים להתאסף באחד הבתים והאשה תעמוד בצד בצניעות, ותקרא להם בטעמיה.
A small community that does not have a man who is able to read the Megillah properly (Halachically) and there is a woman who knows how to read the Megillah properly, they may gather in one of the homes and the woman will stand on one side modestly, and she may read the Megillah (with cantillation).
R’ Ovadia is not the first to generate this ruling, but he is the most contemporary. Rashi, Rif, Rambam, and Ritva are some who also agree that a woman may fulfill this obligation, all while following the well-known principle that whoever is obligated to do a mitzvah can fulfill the obligation of all those who are obligated to do that mitzvah (based on Mishna Rosh Hashana 3:8).
Every year when we celebrate Purim, we give credit to one of the main heroes of the story, but yet we are not willing to get behind some serious Poskim, and make it mainstream to have women lead the reading of public readings of the Megillah. I think this message can be harmful for the growth of the young women in our schools. I think it would bring more meaning to many young girls to know that the mitzvah of reading the Megillah can be fulfilled by a woman.
I recall hearing a shiur by R’ Ovadia’s son, R’ Yitzchak Yosef, who said that his father’s “wish was to edit many parts of his works (which were printed 30 plus years ago) and add to them more modern rulings.” He said that his father in his last few years acknowledged that this generation needs “many more leniencies”, and that following “stringent halachic views” is causing many people to be minimally involved with Judaism.
If we do not accept the rulings where our Rabbis allowed leniencies, we will be forced to deal with the future ramifications of stronger leniencies. Rabbinic legislation allows and encourages tremendous flexibility when we are בשעת הדחק. I would like to argue that we move forward in a dignified way relying on multiple Poskim or we will inevitably get there in a pressing way.