Two Significant Changes to Megillah-reading by Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi: Initial Considerations [Megillah 4a]March 19, 2019
Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi, the mid-third century rabbinic leader,1 made two significant changes to the reading of the Megillah on Purim. What were these changes, why did he make them, how did they differ from tannaitic precedent, and what were their effects?
Inclusion of Women as Obligated
One change that Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi, made regarding the Megillah-reading on Purim was to include Jewesses in the obligation. While the statements in mMegillah are unclear as to whether women were obligated in Megillah-reading, it would seem from mKiddushin 1.7 that women would be exempt from the Megillah-reading, since all positive commandments that time causes men are obligated and women are exempt. The Tosefta, however, spells it out clearly (tMegillah 2.7):
נשים ועבדים וקטנים פטורין ואין מוציאין את הרבים ידי חובתן
Women, slaves, and children are exempt from Megillah-reading and they do not fulfill the masses’ obligations
Despite this precedent in an exemption for women, Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi, made a bold step in declaring (bMegillah 4a)
נשים חייבות במקרא מגילה שאף הן היו באותו הנס
Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah, since they were also in that miracle.
This inclusion is not unique to Megillah-reading. This motif of Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi seems to be a strongly-held view of his to include women in the involvement of the obligation of positive, time-bound mitzvot, as he includes women in Hanukah candle-lighting (bShabbat 23b) and the four cups at the Passover seder (bPesahim 108b-109a).2
Curiously, there is no pushback in the Talmud – neither from his colleagues nor the editors. His notion of including women in the obligation of Megillah-reading goes unchallenged. Why is this the case? To be honest, I’m fascinated by the complete acceptance in the Talmud about this new inclusion, and am openly curious as to why there was a full acceptance of this gender-inclusive innovation.
Adding a Nighttime Megillah-Reading
In the Mishnah, the time for Megillah-reading is clearly during the day (mMegillah 2.5):
כל היום כשר לקריאת המגלה
The entire day is fit for Megillah-reading
and this daytime specificity is amplified in the following teaching (mMegillah 2.6):
זה הכלל – דבר שמצותו ביום, כשר כל היום; דבר שמצותו בלילה, כשר כל הלילה
This is the general principle: if the appropriate timing for something is during the day, it is fitting to be done throughout the day; something whose timing is to be executed at nighttime, it is fitting to be done throughout the entire night.
As we see in the Tosefta, the appropriate timing is further explicated as being inappropriate to be read at night (tMegillah 2.4):
קראה בלילה לא יצא ידי חובתו
אמר רבי יוסי מעשה ברבי יוחנן בן נורי שקראה בצפורי בלילה
אמרו לו אין שעת הסכנה ראיה
If one read the Megillah at night, one has not fulfilled one’s obligation.
Rabbi Yose said: “There was an incident with Rabbi Yohanan, son of Noori, who read it in Zippori at night.”
They said to him: “A dangerous time is not proof.”
Although exceptional circumstances [here, in time of danger (perhaps persecutorial(?))] may permit nighttime Megillah-reading, the dominant thought of the tannaitic era was that Megillah reading was only to be done during the daytime.3
Despite these clear tannaitic precedents, Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi, came along and obligated an additional reading to take place at nighttime on top of the daytime reading (bMegillah 4a):
חייב אדם לקרות את המגילה בלילה ולשנותה ביום שנאמר (תהלים כב, ג) אלהי אקרא יומם ולא תענה ולילה ולא דומיה לי
A person is obligated to read the Megillah at night and to repeat it during the day, as it is said, “My God, I call by day but You do not answer; and at night, there is no quiet for me” (Psalms 22:3).
This is pretty shocking – with tannaitic precedent that Megillah-reading is to be done only during the daytime, how could he then displace its central importance by tacking on an additional reading the night before? It’s quite the surprise, but here, too, the Talmud does not record any disagreement. Moreover, there’s even a subsequent amora who quotes a contemporary of his on this newfound doubling obligation (Rabbi Helbo quotes Ulla Bira’a as articulating the same double-reading obligation, although utilizing a different verse from Psalms).
One amusing aspect of this additional nighttime reading is that he phrases it as taking place first and then having it to be repeated during the day, as opposed to stating what he means to say: tacking on additional reading in the preceding night. This particular phrasing comes off as simply repeating during the daytime. It also curiously accomplishes a destabilizing of the reading to be done during the day and now divvying up its centrality.
Did Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi, feel there was something missing at nighttime of Purim that he sought to institute this additional reading [at the outset of Purim]? One thing that emerges is that Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi “expanded the observances of Purim in a variety of ways”, perhaps on account of having a “strong affinity to Purim.”4
While not quite clear what the motivations of Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi, for his including Jewesses in the obligation of Megillah-reading or expanding the obligation of Megillah-reading to also include the night, these changes have remained with us to this day.
1. “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was the leader of the transitional generation in Lod” (Binyamin Lau, The Sages: Character, Context & Creativity, vol. 4, From the Mishna to the Talmud, trans. Ilana Kurshan (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2015), 69) and “When we examine the rabbinic corpus, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi is one of the most commonly mentioned sages of the transitional generation, both in halakhic and aggadic literature” (ibid., 70). ↩
2. Cf. my “‘שאף הן היו באותו הנס’: Rabbi Yehoshua, son of Levi’s Including of Women in a Few Holiday Practices”↩
3. Cf. Saul Lieberman, תוספתא כפשוטה: באור ארוך לתוספתא, vol. 5, סדר מועד (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 2002 (3rd printing)), 1142.↩
4. Rabbi Evan Hoffman, “Reading the Megillah at Night: A Secondary Development”, TheTorah.com (26 February 2015) [https://thetorah.com/reading-the-megillah-at-night/] (I thank Rabbi Dan Margulies for pointing me to this work, following my initial publication of this piece.)↩