Hearing Megillah At War

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by R. Gil Student

I. Five Days of Megillah

Earlier this month, I was notified that the IDF Rabbinate faces a shortage of Megillah scrolls. There are a number of ways to handle this, including paying scribes to quickly write more megillos. I would like to explore here an option that should be lower on this list. Of course, safety comes first and, if militarily necessary, a soldier is exempt from hearing Megillah because lives are at stakes. However, often there is time for soldiers to fulfill this mitzvah even during war. It is worthwhile examining the different options even if they will not be used.

The first Mishnah in Megillah says that the Megillah can be read on five days. Normally it is read on the 14th of Adar. In cities that were walled in ancient times, like Jerusalem, Megillah is read on the 15th. However, the enactment of Purim allowed for villagers to hear Megillah on the market day before the holiday, which could be either the 11th, 12th or 13th of the month. Since often villagers did not have someone local who could read the Megillah for them, the Sages allowed them to hear it on a day that they would already come into the city. This applies only to Megillah. They observed all the other mitzvos on the Purim but heard Megillah on an earlier day.

Rav Elazar Rokeach (13th cen., Germany; Rokeach, no. 236) points out that the word Purim is mentioned in the book of Esther five times, serving as a hint to the five times we read the Purim Megillah. Rav Shlomo Ha-Cohen of Vilna (19th cen.; Cheishek Shlomo, Megillah 2a) points out that of those five mentions, twice Purim is spelled full (with a vav) and three times missing (without a vav). The two full times refer to the 14th and 15th, when Megillah is read together with the other mitzvos of the day. The three missing times refer to the 11th, 12th and 13th, when Megillah is read but the day is not full because the other mitzvos are observed on a different day.

II. End of the Five Days

The Gemara (Megillah 2a) says that this practice was discontinued. There are two versions of the key word explaining why it was stopped. The standard text says that everyone looks to Purim (ho’il u-mistakelin bah). Rashi (11th cen., France; ad loc., s.v. aval) explains that people look to Purim as their marker to determine when Pesach occurs, i.e. thirty days later. If people hear Megillah earlier, they might get confused about the timing of Pesach, with all its serious implications. Rav Yitzchak Alfasi (11th cen., Spain; ad loc.) explains differently that the poor look to Megillah reading to know when they should go out and collect money. Rav Yom Tov of Seville (Ritva, 14th cen., Spain; Megillah 2a, s.v. ika de-amri) provides more detail: the poor need a single day to collect money otherwise they will be unsure where to go on which day and will lose out.

Another version of the text, quoted by Rif and others, is that the Sages discontinued this practice because it is dangerous for people (ho’il u-mistakenin bah). Since it became more dangerous to practice Judaism publicly, we only celebrate Purim on one or two days rather than five. Ritva explains that if Purim lasts for five days, it becomes a louder celebration that might catch the attention of hostile governments who may legislate against the celebration of Purim altogether. Interestingly, Rav Avraham Ha-Yarchi (13th cen., Provence; Sefer Ha-Manhig, beginning of hilkhos Megillah) seems to have had a different text of the Talmud that said the practice was discontinued because of lack of danger. He says that villagers hear Megillah early because of the danger of intercity travel — we can’t ask them to travel to the city and undertake that risk so many times in a week. However, in later times when there was not as much danger, the Sages discontinued the practice of early Megillah readings.

III. A Remnant of the Five Days

Regardless of the explanation, the practice of early Megillah reading was discontinued already in the times of the Gemara. However, we see medieval scholars mention a remnant of this old practice. The Tosefta (Megillah 1:2) says that someone leaving on a caravan or a ship must read Megillah on Purim. Rav Mordechai Ben Hillel (13th cen., Germany; Mordekhai, Megillah no. 774) quotes an opinion that this only refers to someone who will have access to a Megillah scroll on Purim. If he does not, then he may read or hear Megillah on the 11th, 12th or 13th of Adar. Hagahos Ashri (Megillah 1:1) and Hagahos Maimoniyos (Hilkhos Megillah 1:9) quote those who accept this opinion in practice. Meaning, even today, someone who needs to travel on Purim should try to hear Megillah on Purim. If that is completely impossible, he should hear Megillah on an earlier day (without the blessings). Significantly, this view is accepted in Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 688:7) and Rav Moshe Isserles (16th cen., Poland; Gloss, ad loc.) adds that if necessary, you can read Megillah all the way from Rosh Chodesh Adar!

If someone traveling can hear Megillah a few days early, presumably soldiers at war can also. Even a traveler may only do this if he has no access to a Megillah on Purim. This is a sub-optimal option, low on the list of possible solutions. However, if the IDF has a severe shortage of Megillah scrolls, it can quadruple its capacity by sending scrolls and readers on the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th of Adar.

One complication is the ruling of Rav Avraham Gombiner (17th cen., Poland; Magen Avraham 688:11) that the reading must be in a group of ten people. Normally, it is best to read Megillah with a group but it is not required. Magen Avraham says that it is not required on Purim itself. However, an early reading always requires ten people. This might not always be possible for army units in the middle of war. I believe that this ruling is a minority opinion. While Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (20th cen., Russia; Mishnah Berurah 688:20) follows Magen Avraham on this, Rav Yosef Teomim (18th cen., Germany; Peri Megadim, Eshel Avraham 688:11), Rav Ephraim Zalman Margoliyos (19th cen., Ukraine; Yad Ephraim on Magen Avraham, op cit.) and Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein (19th cen., Russia; Arukh Ha-Shulchan 688:18) explicitly disagree with Magen Avraham and do not require ten people for this Megillah reading. Similarly, Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky (cont., US; Kovetz Halakhos, Purim 7:13) says that someone who has surgery scheduled for Purim and will be unable to hear Megillah should read it in the 11th, 12th or 13th even without ten people.

Israel has plenty of rabbis who know the situation well and the IDF has its own rabbinate structure that is embedded within the army. They understand the current situation and can decide the proper approach for reading Megillah in this difficult time. And, of course, preserving life takes precedence. All that notwithstanding, perhaps if there are no other options when Purim time arrives, soldiers on or near the front lines can hear Megillah a day or more earlier if they will not otherwise have access to a Megillah on Purim.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor 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 currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four 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.

2 comments

  1. Another detail is Aza is an ancient biblical walled city with a long-standing (till recently) Jewish community who would read on the 14th and 15th. Many soldiers will be in or near the ancient city (which is now a metropolis) and have to read twice.

    • Rav Ya’akov Ariel (Be-Ohalah Shel Torah, vol. 2, no. 104) was asked this question in 1990 and paskened that the soldiers in Gaza only read Megillah on the 14th of Adar.

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