I. A Woman Reading for Men
The Mishna in Megilla discusses the issue of who is fit to read the megilla: “All are fit to read the megilla, except for a deaf-mute, an imbecile and a minor. Rabbi Yehuda declares a minor qualified” (Megilla 19b). The Gemara in Arakhin concludes from here that women are fit to read the megilla:
“All are fit to read the megilla.” What does this come to include? It comes to include women, in accordance with the view of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi. For Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: “Women are obligated to read the megilla because they too had a part in that miracle.” (Arakhin 2b-3a)
Rashi explains that women are fit to read the megilla and even to fulfill the mitzva that is incumbent upon men (Arakhin 3a). The Tosefta, however, seems to contradict what is stated in the Mishna and in the Gemara:
All are obligated to read the megilla: Priests, Levites and Israelites, converts and emancipated slaves… they are all obligated, and they can fulfill the obligation on behalf of the congregation… Women, slaves and minors are exempt, and they cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of the congregation. (Tosefta Megilla 2:7)
The Mishna teaches us that everyone is fit to read the megilla, and the Gemara explains that this comes to include women. The Tosefta, on the other hand, states that women are exempt from reading the megilla, and therefore they cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of the congregation. The Rashba (Megilla 4a) suggests that the Tosefta disagrees with our Mishna and Gemara, and that the halakha is not in accordance with the Tosefta.
The author of the Halakhot Gedolot (Bahag) disagreed, explaining that the words of the Gemara can be reconciled with the position of the Tosefta (Halakhot Gedolot no. 19). According to his reading, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is not saying that women are obligated in megilla reading, but rather that they obligated to hear the megilla. If this is the case, there is no contradiction between the two sources: Women are obligated to hear the megilla, but they are not obligated to read it. As for the Gemara in Arakhin, which derives from the words of the Mishna that even women are fit to read the megilla, the Tosafot (Arakhin 3a) provides a possible defense for the position of the Bahag.They explain that, according to the Bahag, the Gemara means to say that women are fit to read the megilla for other women, but they cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of men, for the nature of their respective obligations is different.
The conclusion according to the Bahag is that there are two types of obligation with respect to the megilla. The obligation of men is to read the megilla, and those who hear it fulfill their obligation based on the principle of “shomei’a ke-oneh,” that is that one who hears the megilla being read is considered as if he himself had read it. The obligation of women, on the other hand, is merely to hear the megilla. It is clear then that a man cannot fulfill his obligation to read the megilla through a woman’s reading; since she herself is not obligated to read it, her reading does not constitute a fulfillment of the mitzvato read the megilla. A woman can, however, read on behalf of another woman, as all the women present are equally obligated to hear the megilla read.
The Ra’avya claims that the Bahag’s distinction must find expression in the wording of the blessing accompanying the reading (Ra’avya, II, Megilla, no. 569). According to him, women – who are obligated to hear the megilla, but not to read it – must recite the blessing, “on hearing the megilla” (al mishma megilla) rather than “on reading the megilla” (al mikra megilla).
The Avnei Nezer (Orach Chayyim, no. 511) explains the words of the Bahag in light of two different aspects in the mitzvaof megilla reading. Heargues that men are obligated in megilla reading for two reasons: to publicize the miracle and to remember Amalek. The obligation to publicize the miracle creates a duty to hear the megilla, and it applies to women as well, as they too had a part in the miracle. The obligation to remember Amalek creates an obligation to read the megilla; it does not apply to women, either because they are not included in the obligation to remember Amalek or because this obligation is not connected to the miracle.
The Marcheshet (no. 22) proposes the same distinction, but adds that, in his opinion, reading the megilla at night does not involve a fulfillment of the obligation to remember Amalek, but only the obligation to publicize the miracle (even for men). According to this, women can fulfill the obligation on behalf of men at night, even according to the Bahag, and it is only during the day that they cannot do so.
Rabbi Soloveitchik suggests a different distinction, in the name of his father: Women are obligated in the mitzvabecause they too had a part in the miracle. This is a general obligation that obligates them to publicize the miracle, but they are not bound by a personal obligation to read the megilla (Harerei Kedem I, no. 174).
The Turei Even (Megilla 4a) proposes a third distinction between men and women. He does not accept the distinction between the mitzva to read the megilla and the mitzva to hear it. According to him, there is another difference between men and women: A man’s obligation to read the megilla is not an ordinary rabbinic obligation, but rather an obligation derived by way of ruach ha-kodesh (the holy spirit). As a result, the obligation takes on the same dimensions as a Torah law. But a woman’s obligation, based on the fact that they too had a part in the miracle, is merely a rabbinic obligation. Rav Zvi Pesach Frank notes that according to this understanding as well, women can read on behalf of men at night, since this reading is only mandated by rabbinic law even for men (Mikra’ei Kodesh, Purim, no. 29, p. 133).
The Marcheshet (no. 22) proposes yet another distinction. According to him, it is possible to say that megilla reading involves a twofold fulfillment: publicizing the miracle and reciting Hallel. Women are exempt from the mitzva of reciting Hallel, and therefore they cannot fulfill that aspect of the obligation on behalf of men. When they read the megilla, they fulfill only the aspect of publicizing the miracle. He too notes that it is only during the day that megilla reading involves the fulfillment of reciting Hallel, and therefore at night women can indeed perform the obligation on behalf of men.
The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 689, no. 5) rules that women cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of men for a different reason, one that is not connected to the distinction made by the Bahag. The Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag)writes that women cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of men, because reading the megilla is similar to reading the Torah. The Magen Avraham explains the meaning of the Semag’s statement: Just as women cannot be called to the Torah “out of respect for the congregation” (Megilla 23a), so too a woman cannot read the megilla on behalf of a man for similar reasons. This is also implied in the words of several Rishonim.
Yet it is possible to distinguish between the two issues. Regarding Torah reading, a woman is not counted for the required quorum of ten, and therefore the dignity of the congregation is impaired when they cannot find a man to read from within the quorum. But as for megilla reading, it would seem that fundamentally a woman is counted to the required quorum of ten, as she too is obligated in the mitzva. Hence, there is reason to claim that a woman does not impair the dignity of the congregation by reading the megilla. But the Magen Avraham is stringent in this matter and takes it one step further, ruling that a woman cannot even read the megilla for a single man, outside the context of the congregation, for once the Rabbis barred a woman from reading for men, they made no distinctions, instituting a blanket prohibition (lo pelug).
The Kolbo adds another halakhic reason why women cannot read the megilla on behalf of men:
The author of the Aseret Ha-diberot writes that women cannot read the megilla on behalf of men. The reason is that a woman’s voice is erva. Even though women recite the blessings when they light Chanuka candles, it is not the same, for the men need not be there at the time of the lighting. (Sefer Kolbo, no. 45)
According to the Kolbo, the problem is that a woman’s voice is considered erva,and should not be exposed in public. In this context, the fact that we are dealing with megilla reading can be treated as a reason to rule leniently or as a reason to rule stringently. On the one hand, the woman is reading from holy Scripture and not simply singing a song. It may be argued that such reading does not lead to levity, but rather to solemnity. On the other hand, the men are listening to holy Scripture and therefore must maintain a higher standard of modesty.
In any event, the Kolbo rules stringently. This ruling seems to run contrary to the Gemara (Megilla 23a), which implies that fundamentally a woman can be called up to read from the Torah in the presence of a quorum of men, and that it is only out of respect for the congregation that we do not allow them to do so. Rav Ovadya Yosef concludes from this that “in a place where the Shekhina rests, the Sages were not concerned about licentious thoughts” (Responsa Yechaveh Da’at, IV, no. 15; see also III, no. 51). According to this, there is no concern about a woman’s voice with respect to Torah reading, and it is only for other reasons that women are barred from reading from the Torah.
In practice, the Shulchan Arukh (689:1) rules that all are obligated in megilla reading: “men, women, converts, etc.” But he adds: “Some say that women cannot fulfill the obligation on behalf of men.” The later posekim disagree on the final ruling of the Shulchan Arukh. The Rema relates to this question only indirectly, regarding the formula of the blessing that women recite: “Some say that if a woman reads for herself, she recites the blessing ‘to hear the megilla,’ as she is not obligated to read it” (689:2). The formula of this blessing follows, of course, from the understanding of the Bahag; it stands to reason then that anyone who rules that women recite “to hear the megilla,” would also rule that they cannot read the megilla on behalf of men.
The Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 692, no. 11) also rules that women should use the formula, “to hear the megilla.” The Chayyei Adam writes that a woman who reads should say: “to hear the reading of the megilla” (155, 11). The Peri Chadash rules that she should recite the formula used by men, “on reading the megilla,” as do the Vilna Gaon (Ma’aseh Rav, no. 246) and Rav Ovadya Yosef (Yabi’a Omer, I, Orach Chayyim, no. 44). In practice, Ashkenazi women recite “to hear the megilla,” while Sephardi women recite “on reading the megilla.”
A woman who says “to hear the megilla” accepts the ruling that the obligation of women with respect to megilla reading is different from that of men, and thus she cannot perform the obligation on behalf of a man. It seems to me that this is the common practice; a woman does not read the megilla on behalf of men, irrespective of which formula she is accustomed to recite.
II. A Woman Reading for Women
Our conclusion thus far is that there is disagreement as to whether or not a woman can read the megilla on behalf of men. It would seem obvious, however, that from a halakhic perspective a woman can read the megilla for another woman. Indeed, this is precisely the ruling of the Mishna Berura (Orach Chayyim 689, no. 7). Despite this, some posekim discourage women from reading the megilla,even for other women, for various reasons.
The Magen Avraham (Orach Chayyim 689, no. 6) writes that, based on kabbalistic reasons, women should not read the megilla themselves, but rather should hear it from men. The Chayyei Adam (155, 11) says that it is possible to understand from the wording of these kabbalistic texts that a woman should not read the megilla for another woman, but she may read it for herself.
The Korban Netanel (Megilla, chap. 1, letter mem), citing the Tosafot (Sukka 38a),writes that it is not fitting for a woman to read the megilla on behalf of a large number of women. But the wording of the Tosafot implies otherwise. The Tosafot write that a woman cannot join a zimmun of men, as this is not respectable behavior. The Tosafot illustrate this with the ruling of the Bahag, which, as they understand it, implies that a woman cannot read the megilla for men for this reason. The Tosafot speak specifically about the case of a woman reading on behalf of men, so it is very difficult to understand how the Korban Netanel understood the Tosafot as referring to a woman reading on behalf of women. As a result, it would seem that this presents no problem whatsoever.
III. Is A Women’s MegillaReading Considered a Public Reading
The Gemara (Megilla 5a) discusses the question whether a quorum of ten is required for megilla reading. In practice, it is preferable to read the megilla in the presence of a quorum of ten, but it is possible to read it without such a quorum (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim 690:18). The question arises whether ten women are considered a quorum for this purpose. The Ran argues that women count toward the quorum of ten for megilla reading (Ran, Megilla 6b in Alfasi). Unlike Torah reading, megilla reading does not fall under the category of “matters of sanctity,” and the need for the presence of ten people during the reading is only in order to publicize the miracle. The position of the Ran is therefore very reasonable: Even women are counted toward the quorum of ten. Even those who disagree do not point to a fundamental problem with the Ran’s reasoning, but merely argue that for reasons of modesty, men and women should not join together for a quorum. The Ran argues that if women can read for men, and there is no issue of immodesty, it is obvious that they can count toward the quorum.
In practice, the Rema is uncertain how to rule (Orach Chayyim 690:18). It should be noted that this uncertainty relates exclusively to issue of women joining with men to form a quorum of ten. There seems to be no doubt that women can form their own quorum of ten for reading the megilla, and the Tzitz Eliezer confirms this explicitly in his responsa(XIII, no. 73).
This question has a practical halakhic ramification. The Rema (Orach Chayyim 692:1) writes that the blessing recited after the megilla reading – “Ha-rav et riveinu” – is recited only in the presence of a congregation of ten. Since even ten women are considered a congregation for the purpose of megilla reading, when ten women assemble to read the megilla, they too can recite the Ha-rav et riveinu blessing following the reading (Yalkut Yosef, Mo’adim, p. 286).
(Translated by David Strauss)
 See Yechaveh Da’at, III, no. 51, who cites a dispute as to whether Purim has the standing of “a matter of [prophetic] tradition” or if it is a regular rabbinic law.
 We will elaborate on this matter below.
 The reference is to the Sefer Ha-ittur. However, our version of the Ittur says otherwise; see Ittur, Aseret Ha-diberot, Hilkhot Megilla, p. 113b.
 It is generally accepted that if an unqualified ruling is followed by a ruling introduced by “some say,” the law is decided in accordance with the unqualified ruling. However, here the Shulchan Arukh does not state explicitly in the unqualified ruling that women can fulfill the obligation on behalf of men; this is merely inferred from his words.
 In 2009, Rav Ovadya was quoted in the media as ruling that in pressing circumstances, where no man is capable of reading the megilla, a woman can read on behalf of the entire congregation.
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This article was reposted with permission from the VBM—The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash of Yeshivat Har Etzion. It is part of a series “Women and Mitzvot“.