Night and Day — Reading Megillah in Uncertain TImes

Tonight, millions of Jewish people across the globe will gather, in costume and good spirits to hear the reading of the Megillah. And then, in smaller groups, with much less fanfare, we will read it again tomorrow.

Most of us (myself included) might have intuited from our experience of the two readings that the night reading is more important than the day.

The Talmud, quoting Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi seems to imply just that: “Megillat Esther must be read at night and repeated during the day.” (Megillah 4a)

But wait! Tosafot, commenting on Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi’s statement in the Talmud, offer a somewhat surprising and vociferous argument that the primary reading is not the one at night, but the one that follows in the day. Other Rishonim (Rosh and the Ran) agree.

Why then, does Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi emphasize the night time reading so much? If one looks at the mishnayot in Megillah (Mishna is before the Talmud), there is a listing of mitzvot that are done at night and a listing of mitzvot that are done by day. The mitzvah of megillah is listed as a “daytime” mitzvah and not included in the list of nighttime mitzvot! Some scholars have suggested that from the time of the Mishnah, or even perhaps from the time of Esther until Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi’s time, (several hundred years), the megillah was not read at night at all!

Why then would Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi insist that we read at night?

Here’s a thought: Night, in the rabbinic mind, tends to represent uncertainty and fear. Day represents clarity and safety.

Reading the megillah is a celebratory act. It’s much easier to celebrate and be joyous in the day – when things are clear, the sun is shining, and everything feels safe. Celebrating at night, (not our “night” of electricity, street lights, and cell phones, but actual dark, scary night) is not so simple. But we have to find a way to do just that.

It feels like our world is teetering towards the night – uncertainty, fear, darkness loom… at the very least it ain’t all sunshine.

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi challenges us to read the megillah just then. To find the joy, the clarity, to find the hidden God in the darkness. God’s name isn’t mentioned one time in the megillah, but that doesn’t mean God isn’t there. It’s the very opposite. The Godliness is everywhere. We just have to let it in.

About the Author
Rabbi Ari Hart is the spiritual leader of Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, a modern orthodox synagogue in Skokie, Illinois.