One of the more interesting Halachic issues regarding Purim is the question of the propriety of a woman reading the Megillah for other women and men. This issue has been debated from the time of the earliest Rishonim until today, and the debate may have even begun during the period of the Amoraim. We will survey the major issues and concerns regarding this question.
The Mishna in ראש השנה )דף כט.( articulates the following rule: כל שאינו מחוייב בדבר אינו מוצא את הרבים ידי חובתן - whoever is not obligated to perform a particular מצוה cannot discharge other people )מוציא(of their obligation to perform a particular מצוה. Thus, a woman cannot blow Shofar on behalf of a man, since she is not obligated to blow Shofar. Moreover, the Gemara (:ברכות כ) explains that the level of obligation of the one performing the מצוה must be on the same level as the individuals he wishes to be מוציא. For example, the Gemar discusses whether a woman is obligated to recite ברכת המזון on a דאורייתא (Biblical) level or only a מדרבנן (Rabbinic) level. The Gemara explains that only if a woman is obligated on the same level as a man regarding ברכת המזון can she recite ברכת המזון on his behalf.
Accordingly, the question of whether woman can read Megillah on behalf of men is contingent on whether her level of obligation in this מצוה is on the same level as a man. The Gemara )מגילה ד.( seems to clearly indicate that woman are obligated to recite the מגילה on the same level as men. The Gemara states: אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי נשים חייבות במקרא מגילה שאף הן היו באותו הנס. "Women are obligated in the reading of the Megillah because they also were deeply involved in the miracle [of Purim]" (see Rashi and Tosafot for different explanations of the phrase אף הן היו באותו הנס).
Tosafot )ד"ה נשים חייבות( writes that it seems clear from this Gemara that a woman can be מוציא men in their obligation to recite the Megillah. In fact, many אחרונים מרחשת(, ערוך השולחן, Rav Soloveitchik) points out that the Rambam agrees with this assertion of Tosafot. The Rambam writes )הלכות מגילה א:א( הכל חייבים בקריאתה אנשים ונשים וגרים - "everyone is obligated to recite the Megillah, including men and women."
Tosafot, in מגילה, however, cite the celebrated opinion of the Baal Halachot Gedolot )בה"ג( that "a woman may recite the Megillah on behalf of other women but not on behalf of a man." Tosafot cites a תוספתא מגילה פ"ב() as a source for this ruling. The תוספתא rules that an אנדרוגינוס (someone who has both male and female features and thus his status is that of both a male and female person) cannot recite the Megillah on behalf of a man. Tosafot explains that this is because of the partial female status of the אנדרוגנוס. Accordingly if an אנדרוגינוס cannot recite the Megillah on behalf of a man, certainly a woman cannot. Tosafot explains that בה"ג would say that the Gemara in Megillah does not teach that a woman is obligated to read the מגילה, rather her obligation is only to hear the מגילה. The Rosh (מגילה א:ד) cites a passage from the Yerushalmi, מגילה ב:ד() as proof to the opinion of the בה"ג. The passage states that both רבי יהושע בן לוי and רבי יונה אבוה דרבי מנא would make sure to read the Megillah to the woman of their families, because women are obligated to hear the Megillah. It is very significant to note that both Tosafot and the Rosh agree that according to the בה"ג, a woman can read the Megillah on behalf of other women.
The Beit Yosef (סימן תרפ ד"ה ומ"ש רבינו בשם בה"ג) cites the various opinions among the ראשונים if the view of the בה"ג is considered normative. No consensus on this question emerges from the Rishonim. Some Rishonim accept the בה"ג as normative Halacha, and others do not.
Rav Akiva Eiger in his גליון הש"ס to Megilla (דף ד.) refers us to Tosafot to Sukkah 83a (ד"ה באמת אמרו) who present a different understanding of the opinion of the בה"ג. They say that the בה"ג believes that although women are obligated to read the מגילה, they cannot discharge others ("את הרבים") because זילא בהו מילתא"," it is an inappropriate activity for a woman (perhaps because it is a public activity which this Tosafot seems to believe to be unbecoming for women). The קרבן נתנאל )מגילה א:מ( asserts that according to the approach of Tosafot to סוכה לח., a woman should not read the מגילה even on behalf of a group of women, unlike the Rosh and Tosafot to Megillah. The Magen Avraham (172:2), however, believes that Tosafot's זילא בהו מילתא applies only when women read for men.
Shulchan Aruch and its Commentaries
The Shulchan Aruch )אורח חיים תרפט:ב( first presents the opinion that women can read the Megillah on behalf of men and subsequently cites the opinion of the בה"ג that women cannot read the מגילה on behalf of men. It seems clear from language of the Shulchan Aruch that women can read the Megillah on behalf of other women, according to all opinions.
The רמ"א, adding to this rule of the Shulchan Aruch, cites the מרדכי who asserts that if a woman reads the Megilla for herself, she should recite the ברכה "לשמוע מגילה" instead of the conventional ברכהof "על מקרא מגילה". This follows Tosafot in Megillah and the Rosh's presentation of the בה"ג, that women are obligated only to hear the מגילה and not to read the Megillah. It should be emphasized that the רמ"א does not preclude the reading of the Megillah by women for women listeners.
The מגן אברהם )תרפט סעיף קטן ו'( cites a Midrash which rules that a woman should not read the Megillah for herself. Rather, she should be sure to hear the reading from a man. This author and Rabbi Zvi Grumet heard from Rav Soloveitchik, an explanation of this opinion. The Rav said it was based on the aforementioned passage from the Jerusalem Talmud which cited the practice of Amoraim to read the Megillah to the women in their families. The Rav explained that the Talmud is teaching that women do not have an independent obligation to read the Megilla. Rather, it is the obligation of the man of the house to read the Megillah to all the family members of that household.
What emerges at this point is that there are two reasons to preclude women reading the Megilla for other women. First is the opinion of the Korban Natanel that women reading for women is inappropriate because it is considered זילא בהו מילתא. Second, is the Magen Avraham who adopts the approach of the Midrash, that women should not read the Megillah even for themselves. It seems clear, though, that women should not read the Megillah for men, because many ראשונים rule in accordance with the Behag. The Shulchan Aruch cites the Behag's opinion as a viable approach, and the Rema rules in accordance with the Behag (and the commentaries to the Rema voice no disagreement to his ruling).
Both the חיי אדם )קנה:יא( and the משנה ברורה )תרפט:ח( cite the Magen Avraham. However, theחיי אדם strongly questions the basis of the Magen Avraham's citation and therefore rules that if a woman has no one to read the Megillah for her, she should read it for herself. The Mishna Berura cites the decision of the חיי אדם as normative practice. Moreover, the Mishna Berura writes in סעיף קטן ז that a woman can read the Megilla for other women. In שער ציון (סעיף קטן טז), the Chofetz Chaim explains the basis for ruling like the חיי אדם. First, he notes that the primary opinion in the Shulchan Aruch follows the Rambam and the other Rishonim who rule that women can read the Megillah even for men. Second, is that even according to many interpretations of the Behag, women can read the Megillah for themselves. The Chofetz Chaim rules, however, in שער הציון (סעיף קטן טו) that a woman should not read for many women because of the Korban Netanel's interpretation of Tosafot, that this is considered inappropriate "זילא בהו מילתא". See, however, Halichot Beita p.17 who cites Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach who rules in accordance with the Magen Avraham's (172:2) interpretation of Tosafot in Sukkah, that "זילא בהו מילתא" applies only for women reading for men. The Aruch HaShulchan (תרפט:ה) also seems to disagree with the Mishnah Berurah, as he does not cite the opinion of the Korban Netanel.
It is possible to add to the Chofetz Chaim's argument against the Magen Avraham based on three outstanding authorities who discussed this issue subsequent to the publication of the Mishna Berura, the מרחשת, אבני נזר, and אור שמח. All three of these Acharonim understand the opinion of the Behag in a manner from which it would emerge that it would be appropriate for a woman to read the Megillah for other women. The מרחשת (סימן כב) and אבני נזר (אורח חיים סימן תקיא) write that the Behag rules that women cannot read the Megillah for men because the Behag believes that their levels of obligation differ. Megillah reading for men has two aspects 1)Megillah reading 2)Remembering the wicked actions of Amalek (see Ramban to the conclusion of Parshat Ki Tetze). The מרחשת and אבני נזר write that the Behag believes that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of remembering Amalek (like the opinion of the ספר החינוך which was discussed at length by Yehuda Kranzler in this year's קול תורה to פרשת בשלח). Hence, women have only one aspect in their obligation to read Megillah - the plain obligation to read the Megillah. Hence, they cannot read the מגילה on behalf of men since they are not on the same level of obligation as men regarding this Mitzvah. According to this approach, women can read the Megillah for other women.
The אור שמח (הלכות מגילה פרק א הלכה א) suggests in a somewhat similar approach to explain the Behag. He develops the idea that men are obligated to read the Megillah because of תקנות נביאים (an enactment made by prophets), whereas women are obligated only on a Rabbinic level. Again, because of disparate levels of obligation, women cannot read the Megillah on behalf of men. According to this approach, even according to the Behag, women can read the Megillah on behalf of other women.
The Aruch Hashulchan (תרפט:ה) offers another somewhat similar explanation. He concludes from his discussion of this issue "ומיהו נשים מוציאות כיון דחיובן שוה" "a women can read the Megillah on behalf of other women, since their levels of obligation are the same." We already noted that the Aruch Hashulchan (unlike the Mishna Berurah) does not cite the Korban Netanel's opinion that a woman cannot read the Megillah on behalf of a large group of women.
It is interesting to note that almost all the Rishonim and Acharonim (save for the כל בו) do not suggest that the reason for the Behag is that קול באשה ערוה, the Talmudic dictum (ברכות כד.) that a man is forbidden to hear a woman's singing voice. This seems to constitute a proof to the ruling of Rav Yecheil Yaakov Weinberg (תשובות שרידי אש ב:ח) that the prohibition of קול באשה ערוה does not apply to שירי קדש, holy songs sung in a holy context such as Zemirot at the Shabbat table.
A serious consideration regarding the issue of women reading the Megillah for other women is that a group of ten or more women do not constitute a צבור (quorum), (see Rema (תרצ:יח) and ערוך השולחן (תרצ:כה). This is very significant in light of the Rema's ruling (תרצב:א) that the beracha recited at the conclusion of Megillah reading "הרב את ריבנו," is only recited when there is a צבור reading the Megillah. In a woman's Megillah reading group, the opportunity to recite this bracha is lost. Interestingly, the Aruch Hashulchan does not cite this as a reason why women should not read the megilla on behalf of other women (for an analysis of the question whether women can be part of the group of ten to read the megilla, see this author's essay in Beit Yitzcahk [0575:103-403]).
Finally, the question of deviation from established practice must be considered. Rav Hershel Shachter (ספר נפש הרב p. 541) cites Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik's זצ"ל opposition to women reading the Megillah even for women in shul, because of concern of deviating from established synagogue protocol and practice. It is, however, possible that Rav Soloveitchik's opposition applies only to reading in a shul and not to a Megilla reading in a non-synagogue context.
In addition, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein often strongly urges that the Torah and mitzvot not be used as a "קרדום לחפור בו" "a hoe to plow with." He warns that such events such as women's Megillah reading should not be used as a means to further one's political or social agendas.
It seems clear that it is halachically inappropriate for women to read Megillah for men, as many Rishonim agree with the Behag and the Rema rules in accordance with the Behag. The issue of women reading the Megillah for other women seems to be unresolved. Those who permit such reading outside a synagogue context have a substantial halachic basis for such a ruling, and those who do not permit such a reading also have a substantial halachic basis for such a ruling. For a full discussion of this issue see Rabbi Alfred Cohen's essay on this topic that appears in the Fall 5991 issue of the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society.