If it snows on Purim, then what?

If it snows on Purim, then what?

What crazy weather this is in New Jersey. It will be raining for tonight’s reading of the Megillah, but tomorrow morning may see us (or at least some of us) buried in several inches of snow with more falling.

Just in case it does snow on Purim morning (or even if the temperature drops and it snows by this evening), the big question is, “What happens if I can’t get to shul to hear the Megillah? May I listen to it on a recording and fulfill the mitzvah? May I listen to it over the Internet?”Even the simplest answer to these questions is not that simple.

Rabbis, me included, want to promote large crowds for the reading of the Scroll of Esther. The reason is that the larger the crowd, the greater the “publicizing” of the miracle that was wrought “in those days in this time,” and “publicizing a miracle” is also a mitzvah. There even are rulings that suggest that if we live in an area where there is a synagogue with fewer worshippers and one where there are many, we should go to the larger synagogue, because the larger the crowd, the greater the “publicizing.”

In order to get as large a crowd as possible, we rabbis tell people that it is a mitzvah on Purim to hear the Megillah being read. Actually, the mitzvah is for each person to read the Megillah for himself or herself. Ideally then, as the scroll unfolds (literally, because unlike the Torah, the Scroll of Esther needs to be folded like a letter as it is being read), each person should silently read along with whomever it is doing the public reading.

Ideally, but not necessarily; this is where hearing it read in public comes in. If, before the blessings are made, a person says to himself or herself that listening to the Megillah being read will be how he or she will fulfill the mitzvah of reading it, that is sufficient. This is based on the principle of “Shomaya k’oneh”; if you listen to something, Kiddush say, with the proper intent, it is sufficient. (There is more about this further on.)

In practical terms, this means that if we cannot get to shul on Purim, we can stay home and read the Megillah on our own. If it snows, that is what we should do.

It is not that simple, however, as already noted. First, to truly fulfill the mitzvah means reading it from a kosher scroll, not from a book, and to read it with the proper cantillation. If a person can do that, then he or she makes the proper blessings and reads the Megillah.

Only if one does not own a kosher copy of Esther can one read it from a book-even in English, by the way. So Rambam rules, in Hilchot Megillah va-Chanukah, 2.4: “If, however, it was written in Aramaic or in another language of non-Jewish origin, one who listens to this reading fulfills his obligation only when he understands that language and only when the Megillah is written in that language.”

However, if read without a kosher scroll, or in English or some other language, no blessings are made. (This begs the question of whether, even with the proper intention, one hears the Megillah read properly in Hebrew, but does not understand a word being read, whether this counts as fulfilling the mitzvah. That is a whole different column, however.)

Again, then, in practical terms, we can stay home and read the Megillah on our own if we cannot get to shul.

What if we do not have a copy of the Megillah, kosher or otherwise, or if we would prefer hearing it read properly? May we listen to it on a recording and fulfill the mitzvah? May we listen to a YouTube reading or a reading on some other Internet site?

Forget the recording or the YouTube versions, at least as far as the mitzvah is concerned. The Megillah must be listened to live, and these are recordings only. We can listen to them, or watch them in the case of YouTube versions, but we cannot fulfill the mitzvah.

That brings us to live webcasts of the Megillah being read. This would seem to be a no-brainer. It is being read live, and we are listening to it being read live, so that takes care of that.

Only, there is a huge debate over what “live” means. There are even rulings that prohibit the use of microphones in the synagogue for the reading of the Megillah because what comes out of the speakers is not actually “live.”

Early in the last century, as the telephone and radio were in their infancies, Rabbi Yisrael Avraham Abba Krieger ruled that one could fulfill the mitzvah by listening over the telephone or the radio. (Krieger preceded Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik as the leading Orthodox rabbi in Boston.) This only applies to those mitzvot in which hearing is a substitute for doing it ourselves, such as hearing the Megillah being read, or Kiddush or Havdalah being recited. If the mitzvah is to actually hear something, such as the shofar being sounded, it can only be fulfilled, Rabbi Krieger ruled, when we are in the same room as the sound.

That is why this is not a simple question to answer. It also is why rulings from earlier times may not be valid in our time. A fair question here would be whether, given what we know today about how sound is produced versus what was known 100 years ago, would Rabbi Krieger have ruled the way he did?

The problem has its origin in a Mishnah. According to it, “if one [directs the sound of the shofar] into a pit, or a cistern [which is a pit the walls of which are reinforced in some way], or a barrel, he performs his duty [to hear] only if he can actually hear the sound of the shofar, but if what he hears is an echo [or he hears both the original sound and the echo] he has not fulfilled [the mitzvah of hearing the shofar]. And it is so, as well, that if one passes behind a synagogue, or lives beside one, and he heard the sound of the shofar or of the Megillah being read, and he listens with the intention [of fulfilling the specific mitzvah] he has fulfilled it, but not so [if he hears without the proper intention],” the key being the intention to listen. (See Babylonian Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 27b and the discussion that begins towards the end of 28a.]

Obviously, according to this Mishnah, it does not matter whether one is physically present in the place where the Megillah is being read, or the shofar is being sounded, as long as the person actually hears it, and has the intention of listening in order to fulfill the mitzvah.

An echo, however, is not the sound itself, but a representation of the sound. So, the Mishnah teaches, if what one hears is the echo, meaning a representation of the sound but not the actual sound, the mitzvah is not fulfilled.

That brings us to amplification systems. We are sitting in a room and a person is at a podium speaking to us through a microphone. We hear his voice through the speaker system to which the microphone is attached, but what we do not hear is his actual voice, merely a reproduction of that voice. The same holds true for listening over the radio (especially with the seven-second delay usually built into broadcasts to avoid profanity filling the airwaves), and on webcasts. The sound is being artificially reproduced; it is not the sound itself.

When it comes to hearing the Megillah, or Kiddush, or Havdalah, rabbinic opinion is all over the map, although there is almost universal agreement regarding the shofar (but it is not unanimous, by any means). As noted, the commandment is to actually hear the shofar, so listening to it being sounded through some artificial means is not regarded as sufficient by most authorities.

When it comes to the reading of the Megillah, however, the issue is not what we are hearing, but why we are listening.

This brings is back to “Shomaya k’oneh.” If the commandment is to hear something, we actually have to hear it. If, on the other hand, the commandment is to actually do something-making Kiddush, reading the Megillah, etc.-and we choose to do so through listening to someone else doing it for us, that is where opinions differ.

Interestingly, one of those who seemingly comes down on the side of allowing amplification in such instances is the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who sees a difference between an echo and amplified sound. (See Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim 2:108.) An echo is a weak sound, he notes, whereas amplification is meant to make the sound stronger.

True, he does not favor the use of amplification for this purpose, for other reasons. True, also, he was responding to the use of a microphone in a room where the listeners are located, not to the sound of a webcast. While he may not have been so lenient in such case, however, the principle seems valid for both.

Let us now try to answer our questions:

Q. If we cannot get to shul on Purim, what should we do?

A. Before Purim, buy a copy of the Megillah, if you do not already own one, and read it for yourself and for anyone else in your home. If you are capable of reading Hebrew perfectly without vocalizations, do your reading using an actual scroll, and make the b’rachot before and after. If you are not able to do so, read the Megillah in the language you are most comfortable, but without blessings.

Q. Will listening to a recording fulfill the mitzvah?

A. Absolutely not. On the other hand, if someone has a good recording of the reading, or there is a particular fun version on YouTube (some public readers tend to “act out” the text as they are reading), we should first read the Megillah for ourselves and then listen or watch the recorded version for the pleasure of it. And, since YouTube and some other sites record the number of “hits” their offerings receive, doing so is another way of publicizing the mitzvah.

Q. May we listen to the Megillah over the Internet?

A. If it is a prerecorded reading, then the previous answer applies. If it is a “live” recording, and listening is preferred to reading, then the lenient opinions are that this is permissible.

If we are listening in shul or at home, however, before the reading begins we must remember to say to ourselves that we are listening in order to fulfill the mitzvah by hearing someone else do it for us. Listening without that intention does not qualify as fulfilling the mitzvah of Megillah.

See how simple it is? Have a nice, warm, carefree Purim.