Foreign Language Megillah

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In theory, the megillah can be read for the congregation in any language so that even those who do not understand Hebrew can follow. The Mishnah (Megillah 17a) states that everyone fulfills their obligation by hearing the megillah in Hebrew but someone who understands a different language can fulfill his obligation in that language. This seems to open the door to translated megillos, written by traditional scribes on parchment.

Later halakhic authorities add some complications to this possibility. Can someone who understands both Hebrew and another language fulfill his obligation in that other language? Ramban (Megillah 17a sv. ha) says no based on an explicit statement in the Talmud Yerushalmi. However, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Megillah 2:4) says yes, seemingly contrary to the Yerushalmi. In what script should the megillah be written, Hebrew letters or those of the foreign language? Rashbatz (Responsa, vol. 1 no. 8) says Hebrew but Rashba (Megillah 17a sv. ad, as explained by Chazon Yechezkel, Megillah 2:3) says the foreign language. The Rema (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 690:9) follows the Rashba while the Vilna Gaon (ad loc., sv. aval ein) and others (Gilyon R. Akiva Eiger, ad loc.; Chavos Yair, no. 109) follow the Rashbatz.

The Rivash emigrated from Spain to Algeria following the massacres of 1391. In Algeria, he quickly became a leading rabbi and confronted a decades-old practice of reading to women from a Spanish megillah, written in Spanish letters. Disapproving of this practice, he asked his mentor in Spain, the Ran, whether he should put a stop to it (Responsa Rivash, no. 388). The Ran’s response is fascinating (Responsa Rivash, no. 390).

Agreeing with the Rivash, the Ran addressed two main difficulties: 1) the Spanish translation of האחשתרנים בני הרמכים (Esther 8:10), which he questioned (on that translation, see this fascinating Hebrew article by Prof. Berel Septimus – link – PDF), 2) the person who reads the megillah out loud for the women generally understands Hebrew. Since, because he understands Hebrew, he cannot fulfill the mitzvah in Spanish, his reading cannot facilitate others to fulfill the mitzvah.

In general, the Ran states that women can definitely fulfill the mitzvah by hearing a Hebrew reading, whereas the Spanish reading is questionable. Even though the Rambam permits the existent practice of reading from a Spanish translation and the Ran could find a way to interpret the troublesome Yerushalmi to justify it, he rules that we should follow the path of certainty — reading the Hebrew megillah — rather than the questionable path. This stringent ruling somewhat decreases the pirsumei nisa (publicization of the miracle). Yet despite his ability to justify it and the Maimonidean source, he felt we must overturn the current practice and revert to the stricter Hebrew reading.

Interestingly, R. Yosef Kafach (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Megillah 2:4) records a Yemenite practice to read for women from R. Sa’adia’s Arabic translation of the megillah. He even includes a picture of such an Arabic megillah written in Hebrew letters. He states that he asked his grandfather, a leading Yemenite rabbi, why they accepted this questionable practice which contradicts the Talmud Yerushalmi. His grandfather defended the practice as the the Rambam’s view, which the Ran explained can be consistent with the Yerushalmi. See below for the Yemenite megillah in Arabic with Hebrew letters.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

12 comments

  1. “Interestingly, R. Yosef Kafach (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Megillah 2:4) records a Yemenite practice to read for women from R. Sa’adia’s Arabic translation of the megillah. He even includes a picture of such an Arabic megillah written in Hebrew letters. He states that he asked his grandfather, a leading Yemenite rabbi, why they accepted this questionable practice which contradicts the Talmud Yerushalmi”
    Did R Kapach recordthis custom in his Halichot Teman or only in his explanation of the Rambams MT?
    BTW his grandfather was probably the leader of Yeminite counterreformation against Kabbalist practices and back to accepting pure Halacha based on the Rambam.

  2. Notice the alef-lamed ligatures in the Judeo-Arabic text, e.g., in the last word on the first line. Not kosher in a Hebrew-language megilla, I assume.

  3. How does the reader of a translation cantilate the reading?

  4. “Arabic in Hebrew letters” is technically not Arabic but Judeo-Arabic, akin to, say, Ladino or Yiddish. This is the language that Saadiah Gaon, the Rambam, Yehuda HaLevi, Bahya ibn Paquda, etc. wrote in, and the language of the megillah pictured.

  5. Nachum, are you absolutely sure that the language used by Rasag, Rambam, etc. was really the same? And that it was indeed identical with vernacular Judeo-Arabic? I would presume the Rishonim would write in an Arabic closer to Classical Arabic, albeit with variations between Baghdadi and Andalusian dialects, for example. I’m far from sure that modern Judeo-Arabic vernaculars from Morocco, Iraq and Yemen are identical or even that their speakers could understand one another, for example.

  6. Chanokh: Of course not. *Arabic* is very different all over the Arabic-speaking world.

  7. What I meant was: does the language of Rasag, to take the earliest example, qualify as Judeo-Arabic or would it be undistinguishable from Classical Arabic were it to be written in Arabic script?

  8. Nice find.

    I don’t understand the hava amina that a foreign-language megillah ought to be written according to the laws of safrut though.

  9. gil, thanks for posting the picture of that fascinating megillah!
    a well known halacha, but i never imagined it being done in practice.

  10. “Interestingly, R. Yosef Kafach (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Megillah 2:4) records a Yemenite practice to read for women from R. Sa’adia’s Arabic translation of the megillah”
    A tangental aside R Kapach not only translated the Rambam but also R Saadia Gaon. Of course much of Brisker Torah is based on a translation of the Perush Hamishnayos-not too many RY know Arabic and have ever read anything of the Rambam exceptfor the Yad in its original language. So why can’t other chidushei Troah be based on translation if we accept it for translations of the Rambam.

  11. There might be a spillover here from the fact that Yemenites, alone, still read the targum aloud when reading the Torah and Neviim.

  12. Question was NOT from Algeria!! it was from Saragossa Spain!
    He left Spain 1391, Ran died 1380

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