Ask the Rabbi: May women chant Megilat Esther?

Major scholars have permitted women’s megila readings because they are in consonance with the vast majority of sources.

By SHLOMO BRODY
March 8, 2012 15:37
4 minute read.
PHYLLIS HOFMAN WALDMANN reads from megila

PHYLLIS HOFMAN WALDMANN reads from megila 390. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Communal debates regarding a woman chanting Megilat Esther on behalf of other women can sometimes become divisive. This is regrettable, since Purim is a holiday in which Jewish unity was central to our ultimate salvation (Esther 4:16). This column intends to facilitate more informed dialogue, while encouraging each community to account for its unique sensitivities in implementing its own position.

While women are generally exempt from performing many time-bound commandments, the Talmud asserts that women were included in the commandment to read the megila because “they, too, were a part of the miracle” (Megila 4a). Also applied to mitzvot on Passover and Hanukka, this rationale might point to their shared endangerment, or the fact that women (in this case, Esther) were active in our salvation (Tosafot). As such, everyone agrees that at the very least, women must hear a megila reading (Yerushalmi Megila 2:4).

The Talmud, furthermore, explicitly notes that as opposed to the mentally incompetent or children, women may read the megila (Archin 2b). As such, a number of medieval commentators, including Rashi (Megila 4a) and Maimonides (MT Megila 1:1), assert that women can read the megila for others, including men. This stems from the larger principle that people who are equally obligated in a mitzva may perform the ritual on behalf of others (Me’iri Megila 4a).

As Prof. Aryeh Frimer has documented, a few medieval texts dispute this ruling for ancillary reasons. Some contend that while women might have the same obligation, men cannot listen to their chanting of the megila because of the prohibition of listening to a woman’s singing voice, known as “kol isha” (Kol Bo 45). Indeed, some contemporary decisors cite kol isha as a reason women cannot chant from the Torah (Nishmat Avraham YD 195).

A number of scholars, however, respond that the Talmud never cited kol isha as a reason to exclude women from chanting from the Torah, thereby explaining why other medieval scholars omitted it from the megila discussion (Shevet Halevi 3:14). They contend that chanting for the sake of a mitzva is not prohibited behavior because it will not lead to inappropriate sexual behavior (Seridei Eish 1:77).

A THIRD medieval opinion suggests that women are prohibited from chanting the megila for the same reason that the Talmud excludes them from public Torah reading (Megila 23a): It represents an affront to kavod hatzibur, the dignity of the congregation (MB 689:7), or more broadly, zilu behu milta, an act of impropriety (Tosafot Succa 38a).

This latter opinion stems, in part, from an attempt to interpret an alternative talmudic text, the Tosefta (Megila 2:7), which seemingly negates any obligation women have to read the megila. To reconcile these talmudic sources, the medieval Tosafists cited a fourth opinion: Women are obligated to hear the megila reading, but not to read it.

As such, they cannot chant the megila on behalf of men, and when they read for themselves, they should recite a slightly different blessing (Tosafot Megila 4a).

While this opinion was dismissed by many medieval scholars who believed that the Tosefta text was either corrupted (Rashba Megila 4a) or rejected (Or Zarua 2:368), Rabbi Moshe Isserles (OC 689:2) cites it approvingly.

Rabbi Yosef Karo, meanwhile, cites both opinions.

While some Sephardi scholars believe that the Halacha follows the stringent school (Kaf Hahayim 689:14), Rabbi Ovadia Yosef contends that in principle the law follows the lenient opinion, and he therefore ruled that in circumstances where no man knows how to chant the megila properly (sha’at hadehak), a knowledgeable woman may read on behalf of all (Yehaveh Da’at 3:51).

IN ANY case, the dispute heretofore has focused on women reading for men, with all of the above-cited medieval sources indicating that women can read for women. In recent centuries, several arguments have been leveled against this position.

One 18th-century figure interpreted the Tosafists as asserting that women cannot read for each other because it represents a breach of propriety (Korban Netanel Megila 1:30). While Rabbi Yehuda Henkin has contended that parallel medieval texts (Tosafat Harosh Succa) prove that this is an incorrect interpretation (Bnei Banim 2:10), this opinion is cited approvingly by Rabbi Yisrael Kagan, who further notes kabbalistic sources against public readings (Sha’ar Haziyun 689:15). Others, like former Israeli chief rabbi Avraham Shapira, have noted that women’s megila readings go against traditional practice.

However, major scholars, including Henkin, Yosef (Yabia Omer OC 8:56), and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein have permitted women’s megila readings because they are in consonance with the vast majority of sources. They have further noted that especially in women’s seminaries, or communities that in any case hold additional readings for mothers of young children, there is no reason women cannot read for themselves, provided they are trained to chant the megila properly.

The writer, online editor of Tradition and its blog, Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.

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