Question: When the Megillah is read in public on Purim, it is customary for the congregation to recite aloud four verses of redemption (2:5, 8:15, 8:16, 10:3), which are then repeated by the reader. What are the sources for this custom? May we institute a new custom of reciting aloud four additional verses of redemption related to Esther?
I) The Primary Sources
The custom of reciting certain verses of redemption aloud during the Megillah reading is first mentioned in three medieval sources, which were then quoted or paraphrased by many other sources:
1. Rav Sa’adia Ga’on ( Babylon , 882-942) in his Siddur
In his Siddur , Rav Sa’adia Gaon states that:
In the Torah, there are ten verses that the congregation reads aloud, they and their Aramaic translation… And in the Prophets three… and in the writings two: “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (8:16); “For Mordechai the Jew ranked next to King Ahashverosh… and interceded for the welfare of his kindred” (10:3, the last verse in the Megillah). (Siddur Rav Sa’adia Ga’on , Jerusalem, 1940, p. 369)
This passage was quoted in Teshuvot Hage’onim (ed. Harkavy, No. 208, pp. 97 and 310); Sefer Ha’eshkol (Provence, 12 th century, ed. Albeck, Vol. 1, p. 172; ed. Auerbach, Vol. 2, p. 65); and in Sefer Abudraham (Spain, 14 th century, ed. Jerusalem, p. 207). Sefer Ha’eshkol ed. Auerbach says that “some add Esther 2:5 and 8:15 which are verses of redemption”. This is clearly a later addition influenced by source No. 3 below (See B. M. Lewin, Otzar Hage’onim to Megillah , Jerusalem , 1933, p. 32, who should have stressed this point. Indeed, many scholars doubt the validity and accuracy of the Auerbach edition of Sefer Ha’eshkol – see Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. 2, col. 147 and the Introduction to the Albeck edition of Sefer Ha’eshkol, p. III). Sefer Abudraham adds regarding the two verses quoted by Rav Sa’adia: “And this is the custom in most places in Spain”.
2. Rav Sa’adia Ga’on in a Responsum
In a responsum quoted in one version of Seder Rav Amram Gaon (Babylon, d. 875), Rav Sa’adia Gaon states that three verses are recited aloud: 8:15, 8:16 and 10:3 and he explains in great detail just how the reader and the congregation carry out this responsive reading (Seder Rav Amram Hashalem , Vol. 2, p. 178 = Seder Rav Amram Gaon, ed. Goldschmidt, pp. 101-102). It is clear from the difference in style and substance that Rav Sa’adia could not have stated these two different customs. It can be assumed that the second custom was stated by one of the Geonim and that the attribution is incorrect, as frequently occurs in geonic responsa (See Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture, New Haven and London , 1998, pp. 197-201).
3. Rav Kalonymus the Elder (Speyer , 12 th century) or Rashi (France, 1040-1104) (See Teshuvot Rashi , ed. Elfenbein, New York , 1943, No. 130, pp. 157-158. His list of sources is very helpful, but it is difficult to understand which version of the teshuvah he actually copied).
This brief ruling is quoted by many medieval poskim (authorities). Ma’aseh Hageonim (ed. Epstein, p. 46) and Sefer Hapardess (ed. Ehrenreich, p. 254) attribute it to Rabbi Kalonymus. Mahzor Vitry (p. 210); Siddur Rashi (pp. 167-168); and Shiboley Haleket (p. 157) = Tanya Rabbati (p. 84) attribute it to Rashi. It is later quoted as the “custom of France and Provence” by Sefer Hamanhig (Toledo, 1204, ed. Rafael, Vol. 1, p. 243) which is later quoted by Sefer Abudraham. It is also quoted without attribution by Haggahot Maimoniot (Germany, ca. 1290) to Maimonides, Hilkhot Megillah, Chapter 1, end of paragraph 7 and again at the end of Chapter 2, from whence it is quoted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Cracow, 1525-1572) in his Darkey Moshe to Tur Orah Hayyim 690 and in his glosses to Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 690:17 (and cf. 690:4). It is also quoted without attribution by Orhot Hayyim (Provence, 14 th century, Vol. 1, Laws of Purim, paragraph 30).
This is the Rabbi Kalonymus version of the custom:
What the congregation is accustomed to recite in unison “A Jewish man” (Esther 2:5), “And Mordechai went out” (Esther 8:15), “For Mordechai the Jew” (Esther 10:3) during the recitation of the Megillah, it is not a requirement nor a custom but it is a rejoicing of the children (i.e., it is intended to make the children rejoice).
II) The Flexibility of the Verses Recited Aloud
As can be seen from the sources above, the list of verses recited aloud is not fixed; it even varies from version to version of the same source. This is hinted at in Sefer Ha’ittur (Provence, 12 th century, Vol. 2, p. 224) which states that the congregation says aloud “some verses”. The confusion is especially obvious in Sefer Hamanhig. Manuscript A in the Refael edition states that there are three verses and then proceeds to list four ; the other manuscripts do not mention the number three; while Sefer Abudraham which quotes Sefer Hamanhig explicitly mentions the number four ! Indeed, Orhot Hayyim mentions the custom of reciting four verses aloud and adds: “And there are places where they do not say “A Jewish man” (2:5) and they say other verses and everything follows the custom”.
The Source 2:4 / 2:5/ 6:1/ 7:9/ 7:10/ 8:15/ 8:16/ 9:32/ 10:3
Rav Sa’adia’s Siddur – – – – – – x – x
Custom in Spain (Abudraham) – – – – – – x – x
Rav Sa’adia’s Responsum – – – – – x x – x
Kalonymus – Ma’aseh Hageonim – x – – – x – – x
Kalonymus – Sefer Hapardess – x – – – x – – x
Rashi in Mahzor Vitry – x – – – x – – x
Rashi in Siddur Rashi – x – – – x x – x
Rashi in Shiboley Haleket – x – – x – x – x
Rashi in Tanya Rabbati – x – – x – x – x
Sefer Hamanhig – x – – – x x – x
Sefer Abudraham – x – – – x x – x
Orhot Hayyim – x – – – x x – x
Haggahot Maimoniot – x – – – x x – x
Iraq (This section of this chart is based on the following sources: Asher Wassertil, editor, Yalkut Minhagim , third expanded edition, Jerusalem, 1996, pp. 174, 254, 325, 352, 381, 487, 526; Rabbi Shemtob Gaguine, Keter Shem Tov , Vols. I-II, Kaidan, 1934, pp. 540-541; Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Mekor Hayyim Hashalem, Vol. 4, no date, pp. 354-355; Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sefer Yalkut Yoseph, Vol. 5, Jerusalem, 1988, p. 299). – x x – – x x – –
Gruzia (Georgia) – x – – – x x x 10:1-3
Sefaradim in Jerusalem – x x – – – x – x
Kurdistan x x x – – 8: 14-16 x 10:1-3
Libya – x x x – x x – x
Cochin 2:3-5, 22-23 5:14-6:1 8: 14-16 9:31 – 10:3
Djerba – x x x – x x 9:6-10 10:1-3
(Israel, Syria, Turkey, Egypt)
III) Explanations for the Custom
Both versions of Rav Sa’adia Gaon offer no reason for this custom. The other early sources quoted, offer a number of different reasons:
1. Rabbi Kalonymus = Rashi: To cause the children to rejoice.
2. Shiboley Haleket = Tanya Rabbati adds an additional sentence to Rashi’s words, which may be part of the original teaching:
… but it is a rejoicing of the children and noises before them so that they should rejoice, and also when they see a change in behavior like this, they ask: “What is this?” and, as a result, you come to tell the miracles of the Creator so that they will hear and learn to fear Him all the days [of their lives].
This explanation is reminiscent of the requirement “to teach your child” (Exodus 13:8) on Pesah, but there is no such requirement on Purim. In any case, it really comes to explain the custom of blotting our Haman’s name which was mentioned earlier in Rashi’s teaching.
3. Sefer Abudraham quotes the author of Mishmeret Hamo’adot who gives three reasons for reciting verses aloud:
a) to wake a person up, that he should not fall asleep;
b) “we recite these verses because they are written regarding Mordechai and in his honor because the miracle was through him”;
c) “and even the last verse [of the Book of Esther] must waken us to have kavanah [=intent] for the last blessing and in honor of Mordechai”.
The explanation regarding staying awake is once again borrowed from Pesah (Pesahim 109a), but makes no sense in the context of a very noisy Megillah reading.
4. Orhot Hayyim says that we read aloud four verses of Geulah (redemption) in order to do pirsum haness – to publicize the miracle.
Thus, we remain with two convincing explanations of the early versions of this custom:
a) Verses 2:15, 8:15 and 10:3 – the three verses in the Rabbi Kalonymus version – honor Mordechai because the miracle was achieved through him.
b) Verse 7:10 in the Shiboley Haleket = Tanya Rabbati version and 8:16, which appears in most of the early sources, are verses of redemption which talk about the hanging of Haman and about the rejoicing of the Jews.
IV) The Role of Esther in the Purim Story
Needless to say, Mordechai did not act alone. The Megillah itself repeatedly stresses the pivotal role of Esther. See, for example, verses 2:4, 7, 10, 15-17, 22; 4:15-17; 5:1-8; 7:1-8; 8:3-6; 9:12-13, 29-32.
Indeed, the Sages repeatedly stressed the pivotal role of Esther: She was one of seven prophetesses of the Jewish people (Megillah 14a). She “wore” the holy spirit (ibid. , 14b). She ate only kosher food in the king’s house (Yalkut Esther , parag. 1053). She prayed to God before going to see Ahashverosh (Esther Rabbah 8:7). When Mordechai told her that her three-day fast falls on Pesah, she replied: Wise one of Israel , if the Jewish people is destroyed, who will observe Pesah!? (ibid., 8:6). Esther gave light to the Jewish people like the light of dawn ( Midrash Shohar Tov 22:3,6). “Esther is the end of all miracles” (Yoma 29a).
V) Reciting Verses Aloud in Honor of Esther
In light of the above, it is perfectly permissible to recite aloud four verses of redemption related to Esther:
a) Reciting verses aloud is a custom, not a Talmudic law.
b) The list of verses was in constant flux from the 10 th to the 20 th centuries.
c) Orhot Hayyim stressed in the early 14 th century that they recite different verses in different places “and everything follows the custom”.
d) The original verses were selected to honor Mordechai for his pivotal role in the miracle of Purim and to stress the redemption of the Jewish people. Esther played an equally pivotal role as emphasized by the Book of Esther and by the Sages; it is certainly appropriate to honor her in a similar fashion.
e) Finally, the Jews of Georgia, Kurdistan and Cochin recited verse 9:32 aloud in honor of Esther, and the Jews of Kurdistan and Cochin added verse 2:4 as well. It should be added that there is also an Ashkenazic custom of reciting verses 2:4 and 2:17 with a special tune, so someone realized their importance hundreds of years ago.
Therefore, I would suggest the following four verses:
1. Esther 2:4 “And let the maiden who pleases Your Majesty be queen instead of Vashti. The proposal pleased the king and he acted upon it”.
2. Esther 2:7 “He was foster father for Hadassah – that is, Esther – his uncle’s daughter, for she had neither father nor mother. The maiden was shapely and beautiful; and when her father and mother died, Mordecai adopted her as his own daughter”.
3. Esther 2:17 “The king loved Esther more than all the other women, and she won his grace and favor more than all the virgins. So he set a royal diadem on her head and made her queen instead of Vashti”.
4. Esther 9:32 “And Esther’s ordinance validating these observances of Purim was recorded in a scroll”.
In light of the countless rocket attacks on innocent civilians in Sderot and Ashkelon since June 2007 and of the horrific murder of eight children at the Mercaz Harav Yeshivah a week ago, we are reminded that we are still far from Geulah (Redemption). As we recite the four traditional verses of Geulah connected to Mordechai or four additional verses connected to Esther, we hope and pray to God for the realization of one of the verses of redemption (Esther 8:16): “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” – so may it be with us!
Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin atmailto:email@example.com. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute.
Arty Credit: Aert de Gelder, Esther et Mordecai Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
Date : 1685
David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.