Reading the Megillah at Night: A Secondary Development
The Mitzvah of Reading the Megillah
Although rabbinic literature takes for granted the obligation to read Megillat Esther on Purim, the Megillah itself does not expressly state this. The Talmud finds support for this practice in the verse: “And these days shall be remembered and observed in every generation” (Esther 9:28). The story is “remembered” by reading the Scroll of Esther; it is “observed” by feasting and rejoicing.
Daytime Reading vs. Nighttime Reading
Mishnah Megillah (2:4-5) states that the Megillah reading takes place in the daytime, preferably after sunrise, though acceptable ex post facto any time after dawn. The Talmud (b.Megillah 20a) suggests that the Mishnah’s silence about reading the Megillah at night is a direct refutation of the position of the 3rd century amora, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, who ruled that the Megillah must be read at night and repeated during the day. However, the Talmud deflects this refutation by arguing that the Mishnah is only talking about the daytime reading.
The Talmud’s response, however, does not really solve the problem. Even if this Mishnah is only addressing the daytime reading, or daytime mitzvot in general, the very next Mishnah (2:6) addresses nighttime mitzvot, and does not mention Megillah reading at all. An even bigger problem is the Tosefta, which, like the Mishnah, implies that there is only oneMegillah reading, and states explicitly that it cannot be done at night (t. Megillah 2:4). Thus, it seems that the Tannaitic literature does not know of a nighttime reading, and that Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s position is novel.
The Position of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s reasoning is discussed in the Babylonian Talmud (Megillah 4a):
R. Joshua b. Levi further said: “It is the duty of a man to read the Megillah in the evening and to repeat it (לשנותה) in the day, as it is written (Psalms 22:3), “O my God, I call out by day and You do not answer; by night and there is no respite for me.”
The students took this to mean that the [Megillah] should be read at night, and the Mishnah relating to it should be learnt in the morning. R. Jeremiah, however, said to them: “It has been explained to me by R. Hiyya b. Abba [that the word ‘repeat’ here has the same meaning] as when, for instance, men say, I will go through this section and repeat it.” (Soncino trans. with modifications)
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi bases his ruling on a reading of a verse in Psalms 22, a psalm that rabbinic homiletic tradition associates with the story of Purim. From the reaction of the students, who thought he meant to read the Megillah at night and study the mishnayot of Tractate Megillah during the day, we can see that a double reading of the Megillah, at night and in the morning, was not a well-known practice. The fact that the next generation of Amoraim (Rabbi Jeremiah and Rabbi Chelbo) clarify and confirm that the law is that there should be two readings, one at night and one during the day, may demonstrate that the custom was building up steam.
Nighttime Megillah Reading: A Later Development
The Turei Even (R. Aryeh Leib Gunzberg; 1695-1785) was the first traditional Talmudic commentator to suggest that the nighttime Megillah reading may not have been part of the original set of Purim rituals. He argues that, whereas the daytime reading is mandated by the divinely inspired authors of the Book of Esther, the nighttime reading is only of rabbinic (and therefore assumedly later) provenance (glosses on Megillah 4a).
The Minchat Bikkurim (R. Shmuel Avigdor of Karlin; 1806-1866) asserted even more openly the possibility that the nighttime reading long postdates the establishment of Purim (glosses onTosefta Megillah 2:2).
The Binyan Shlomo (R. Shlomo HaKohen of Vilna; 1828-1905) went even further, boldly stating that it was Rabbi Joshua ben Levi alone, who established the nighttime reading (#58).
Nighttime Megillah Reading: Integral to Halacha from the Beginning
The Har Tzvi (R. Zvi Pesach Frank; 1873-1960) adamantly rejected the historical claims put forth by the Binyan Shlomo:
“It is difficult to say that in the days of Mordecai and Esther, and throughout the Second Temple and Tannaitic periods, extending over 600 years, the Megillah was not read at night. Is it possible that during the glory years of Jerusalem no authority found it wise to legislate this ordinance, but that in the post-Destruction era the sages felt it necessary to do so?”
To defend its antiquity, Rabbi Frank points out that none of the medieval sages was aware of the supposed later origins of the nighttime Megillah reading (Har Zvi, Orach Chaim 2:120), and even points to some (like Ran and Ritva) who clearly believed the rule to be early.
But Rabbi Frank’s efforts to prove the antiquity of the nighttime Megillah reading are not really bolstered by showing that several Rishonim held this opinion; those Rishonim were halakhists, not historians.
Like many traditionalists, Rabbi Frank is biased against the kind of historical arguments made by the first group of scholars, since he seems predisposed to reject the notion that halakhah has evolved over time or that its layers of development can be discerned from a careful reading of rabbinic texts. He had more of a “steady state” mentality. Thus, even before examining the evidence, he characterizes certain scholarly assertions as “difficult to say”— דבר זה קשה לאומרו.
The Gradual Development of Night Time Reading in the Tannaitic Period
Although Rabbi Joshua ben Levi is the earliest explicit source for a requirement to read themegillah at night, some sources imply that the matter of nighttime reading was not a binary development, from no reading to a required reading, but that there were stages.
A. Partial Nighttime Readings
Masechet Sofrim (14:15-16), after quoting the statement of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (but in the name of Levi, his father) references that some communities had the custom of reading half of the Megillah on the first Saturday night in Adar and the second half of the Megillah on the second Saturday night in Adar. It further records that Rabbi Meir objected until they explained to him that it was done “to glorify God,” i.e., not as a fulfillment of a halachic obligation to read the Megillah.
B. The Nighttime Reading at Sepphoris (צפורי)
On one occasion, Rabbi Jochanan ben Nuri read the Megillah at night in Sepphoris. Rabbi Yossi tried to prove from that episode that the Megillah obligation can be lawfully fulfilled on the night of 14 Adar. The sages retorted that nothing may be inferred from the episode in Sepphoris because it was a time of persecution when ritual acts were conducted in any manner possible even though not in technical compliance with the law (t. Megillah 2:4). The incident in question may have occurred in 117 CE, when the tragic repercussions of the failed Diaspora Revolt were felt in Judaea under the rule of the Roman general Lusius Quietus.
C. Rabbi Hanina’s Requirement for Megillah Readers
The Jerusalem Talmud (Megillah 2:3, 73b) records a halakhic statement that is very similar to the ruling issued by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi:
‘Ula Biriya, Rabbi Lazar in the name of Rabbi Chanina: “A person who regularly (רגיל) reads the Megillah must (צריך) do so at night and again during the day.”
Two words are noticeably different in this recension: רגיל and צריך. Rabbi Chanina imposes the additional halakhic burden of a nighttime reading only upon those who are already in the habit of doing so, whereas, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi extends that obligation to everyone. Moreover, Rabbi Chanina used the word צריך, which is a much weaker term than חייב, in connoting mandatory activity.
Speculating about the Nighttime Reading’s Historical Timeline
We see that in the second century C.E. various groups read the Megillah at night, whether due to persecution or as a custom. At some point, sages, like Rabbi Chanina, endorsed this practice and told the people who were already reading the Megillah to make sure they did a nighttime reading on Purim itself. Finally, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi declared that the entire Jewish community should adopt the practice of a nighttime reading. Although there was ambiguity on the matter even after R. Chanina and R. Joshua ben Levi made their statements, a consensus was reached, during the Talmudic period, that the rule was that everyone should read the Megillah twice on Purim, once at night and once during the day.
Why Rabbi Joshua ben Levi?
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi appears frequently in Tractate Megillah. He expanded the observances of Purim in a variety of ways, including his assertion — contrary to Tannaitic law (Tosefta Megillah 2:7) — that women are obligated to read the Megillah. He required the public study of Purim-themed Torah if 14 Adar fell on the Sabbath when the Megillah could not be read. He required the repeat performance of Purim rituals in II Adar, including Megillah reading, if the year was intercalated after the ritual had already been performed in I Adar (j. Megillah 1:5). Thus, he a strong affinity to Purim.
The Development of Purim Night During the Amoraic Period
Starting in the early Amoraic period, the night of 14 Adar slowly became integrated into Purim. Before that era, it would have been unthinkable to observe the Purim feast at night. But as Jewish communities began adopting the nighttime Megillah reading, the option of feasting at night also became popular, so much so, that Rava (280-350CE) felt it necessary to rule against its legitimacy (Megillah 7b). Nevertheless, Rava’s ruling was ignored. Two generations later, a leading Babylonian Amora had no knowledge of Rava’s dictum.
Over the span of a millennium, Purim was extended to include the preceding evening by a combination of factors: rabbinic legislation, popular will, and the decisions of the halakhic codifiers. Ironically, for many American Jews, the night rituals of Purim are their primary means of observing the holiday. Attendance in the synagogue is much greater for the eveningMegillah reading than it is for the morning rendition.
The embellishment and extension of Purim should come as no surprise. The Jewish masses, often terrorized by our enemies, like the idea of celebrating victory over our would-be murderers, and doing so in carnivalesque fashion. The Talmud considers the Megillah reading to be a rare example of a “beloved mitzvah”כיון דחביבה (Megillah 21b). A holiday that was initially scorned by various Jewish factions became an important annual observance because it successfully mixes entertainment and Jewish pride.
חג פורים שמח!
How Nighttime Megillah Reading as Amoraic Solves the שהחיינו Problem
An Example of the Utility of the Historical Approach
Recognizing the nighttime Megillah reading as an Amoraic institution is the key to answering a question that vexed all of the Rishonim. Undoubtedly, one must recite the blessing of שהחיינו before the nighttime reading because it is the first time one has the opportunity to perform this mitzvah since the previous Purim. Logic would dictate that no שהחיינו is recited over the daytime reading, as the mitzvah is, at that point, no longer new. Yet the Talmud makes no such distinction between night and day with respect to the blessings recited (see Rosh, Megillah 1:6).
Sephardi authorities, like Maimonides (1138-1204), ruled that שהחיינו is not recited during the day (Hilkhot Megillah 1:3). The Ashkenazi tradition, however, is to recite the blessing in the morning as well. Noting the problem, Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir; 1085-1158) declared that no שהחיינו should be recited on the megillah reading in the morning (like the Sephardic tradition). His younger brother, Rabbenu Tam (Jacob ben Meir; 1100-1171), tried to justify the prevailing Ashkenazi practice by theorizing that the daytime reading is the primary method of aggrandizing the miracle, while the nighttime reading is of secondary significance. Thus, the daytime reading merits its ownשהחיינו (Tosafot, Megillah 4a).
Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg (1215-1293) tried to satisfy the opinion of Rabbenu Tam while not offending those who disagreed. His solution was to mutter the blessing quietly as the congregation responded “amen” to the preceding blessings (Mordecai, Megillah 781).
A Historical Answer
From an historical perspective, I believe it is clear what happened. Prior to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s enactment, שהחיינו was recited over the daytime reading, since that was the only reading. After RJBL’s enactment, it became necessary to recite שהחיינו at night, making the daytime reciting superfluous. Indeed, according to the standard rules regarding the importance of avoiding saying blessings in vain, it is reasonable to argue that it should be forbidden to recite it in the morning. Thus, in some communities, it was dropped.
In Ashkenazi lands—despite Rashbam’s attempted reform—the blessing was maintained, not for any good reason, but because it is difficult to remove words from the liturgy after they have become encrusted there. Rabbenu Tam’s theory about the relative significance of the two readings was an attempt, in hindsight, to explain something that came about by historical accident.
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February 26, 2015
April 29, 2020
Rabbi Evan Hoffman is the rabbi of Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle, NY. He previously served as Assistant Rabbi of Park East Synagogue is Manhattan. He received semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, earned an M.A. in Modern Jewish History from Revel Graduate School and did advanced graduate work in American Jewish History. Hoffman’s weekly essay series, “Thoughts on the Parashah,” is widely disseminated.
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