Thursday, March 17, 2011

Is it permissible to interrupt the reading of the Megillah with explanations and other thematic expansions on the story?

Question:  Is it permissible to interrupt the reading of the Megillah with explanations and other thematic expansions on the story?

I should note off the bat that the most logical solution for a crowd that would require English explanations is to have a Megillah written in English that is read in English.  For various reasons, probably both good and bad, even many non-knowledgeable people prefer a mystical experience in an exotic language they barely or don’t understand to a more transparent ritual in the vernacular.  There are halakhic issues as well, though in my view, a Megillah written in the vernacular except for those words like האחשתרנים בני הרמכים and other phrases whose meaning remains uncertain even in the JPS translation could be read by someone who does not understand Hebrew to fulfill the obligations of others and not run afoul of Beit Yosef’s discussion of this in 690:10-11.  I would rely on that view in a situation like this, despite the feelings of some Aharonim to the contrary (see MB there) given the importance of connecting an entire community that otherwise might get nothing out of the experience.  But since there isn’t such a Megillah and people probably wouldn’t want this anyway, let’s go back to the original question.

A much more thorough treatment of הפסק in general is needed, but I hope this can be a basic frame to think about this issue.

The overarching question here is obviously about preserving the integrity of certain ritual units and has at least two dimensions: 1) Maintaining continuity between recitation of the berakhah and performance of the associated act; 2) Maintaining the unified integrity of the act itself.

With respect to the first question, it seems fairly universally assumed that there should not be a break between a berakhah and the act with which it is associated.  [Some interpretations ground this in Shmuel’s statement on Pesahim 7b and parallels that one must make berakhot prior to performing mitzvot.  The exact meaning of this statement is not entirely clear, however, particularly with respect to where the legal emphasis is.  See also parallel at Yerushalmi Berakhot 9:3, 14a for different attributions.]  A number of discussions address what to do if there is nonetheless some sort of interruption.

On Berakhot 40a, a series of Amoraim debate what sorts of interruptions between המוציא and eating the bread can be tolerated such that one need not repeat the berakhah.  The final word is had by R. Sheshet, who says that directing others to eat, asking for salt or some other condiment or even ordering someone to prepare food for the animals do not constitute serious enough interruptions to warrant repeating the berakhah.  [Halakhot Gedolot points out that all of this is only בדיעבד; ideally a person should not interrupt at all.  Indeed, this is supported by Tosafot’s feeling on 39b that even the silent cutting of bread is something we try to avoid as much as possible between the berakhah and the act of eating.]

A similar discussion with respect to a ברכת המצוה is reported on Menahot 36a, where R. Hisda rules that if one speaks between putting on the תפילה של יד and the תפילה של ראש, one must make the berakhah over the של יד again.  [There is then an intervening discussion leading to the famous Rashi/R. Tam dispute about whether one or two berakhot are assumed here.]  It is possible that any speaking would invalidate the berakhah and that mitzvot must be even more tightly connected to their berakhot, but Rashi, wanting to harmonize this text with the previous passage, assumes that the speech here is unconnected to the mitzvah at hand and thus wipes out the berakhah.  The considerations, however, are the same as we saw above.  [Tosafot assume the legal parallelism as well.]

This would then mean that one should always avoid any kind of interruption—even a significant silent delay—between making a berakhah and beginning the associated act, though there is room to be lenient with certain kinds of interruptions that are sufficiently connected to the act at hand such that the integrity of the berakhah-act unit is preserved.

The second concern is a bit different and concerns the integrity of the act itself.    Let’s begin with the general question of interrupting the Megillah.  The major Tannaitic paradigm for thinking about interrupting lengthy mitzvot is Mishnah Berakhot 2:1, which engages situations of intitiating conversation or responding during Keriat Shema.  The normative view follows R. Yehudah (though see Massekhet Soferim 20:7 for an apparent holding like R. Meir) who says that normally one can only interrupt Shema and its blessings in order to initiate conversation מפני היראה and to respond מפני הכבוד (a lower standard).  At certain major break points, however, one can initiate conversation מפני הכבוד and respond to anyone at all.  It must be emphasized that these interruptions are assumed to have nothing to do with the reading of Shema.  One could imagine something that was somehow related—such as saying berakhot over tefillin just dscovered and donned during the Shema—might be treated more leniently.  [See Tosafot on 14b.]

On 14a, R. Hiyya says about Hallel and Megillah that פוסק ואין בכך כלום.  This would seem to be an application of the Mishnah’s regulations on Shema to these rituals, dispelling the possible notion that they might need even more integrity in order to be effective heralds of their associated miracles.  Nonetheless, the מפני הכבוד/מפני היראה considerations would apply.  But R. Hiyya’s strident language might also suggest a more radical view that there simply is no issue of הפסק in the middle of the megillah at all, or at certain dividing points.  [See R. Yonah there on this last point.]  Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:1, 4b possibly suggests that Hallel and the Megillah, because they are consecutive texts (unlike Shema) would be treated under the more stringent rubric of באמצע, such that one would always need a standard of מפני היראה to initiate and מפני הכבוד to respond.  But Rabbah on Bavli Berakhot 14a explicilty refers to the “chapter breaks” (not clear what these are historically before Christian chapter numbers) in Hallel as well and gives these significance.  It seems pretty clear that Rabbah is expounding on the guidelines laid out by R. Hiyya, and even if not, his ruling is followed by Rif and almost everyone else.  One could, however, read R. Hiyya as more lenient and rule like him, or suggest—but without very good conceptual basis—that we are more lenient with Megillah than with Hallel. [The story regarding Ravina at the end of the sugya is actually difficult with either reading.]

The more radical reading seems to be adopted by Ittur Aseret Hadibrot Megillah, p. 114a, where he suggests that given that the last berakhah following the reading is not truly obligatory, the Megillah reading is not sandwiched between ritual requirements such that we have to worry about breaking an uninterrupted flow from the first berakhah to the last berakhah,  He therefore concludes that there is no issue at all with speaking during the megillah reading (provided one hears all the words).  Tur rejects this, saying that communities that do say the berakhah at the end must treat it like a single unit that ought not to be interrupted.  Many other rishonim follow this approach as well, (see R. Yonah, Rosh Megillah 2:2 and Hullin 6:6 and Riaz) and Shiltei Gibborim also seems to reject the Ittur’s approach.

The Ittur’s position is thus largely rejected, even though it is possible to ground it in a tenable reading of Berakhot 14a.  It is therefore really only useful as a סניף להקל within a larger argument.  So let’s return to the specific parameters of this question, which involves not just any interruption, but something topical intended to enhance the reading of the Megillah.  Mishnah Megillah 2:2 reads: היה...דורשה...אם כיון לבו יצא ואם לאו לא יצא, indicating that oral interruptions within the Megillah do not necessarily void the reading.  The main question for interpreting this Mishnah, however, is whether it assumes that it is permitted לכתחילה to interrupt with a דרשה assuming that there is proper intent during the reading of the actual Megillah text, or whether this is only tolerated בדיעבד.  [Let me just note right here that if we are truly dealing with an audience that will simply be unable to connect with the Megillah reading unless there is some explanatory and expository material interspersed, then we can certainly consider that to be a בדיעבד case.  Given that this seems to be the basis for the question, the Mishnah closes the case.  Note the comment in Noda Biyehudah I:41 to this effect regarding בדיקת חמץ: since it is impossible for a person to sit in one place the entire time from בדיקת חמץ until שעת הביעור, the rules of בדיעבד apply and we allow someone to travel even great distances during that period even though we would normally forbid this לכתחילה during performance of a mitzvah.  The same can be applied to people who simply cannot follow a reading that long in Hebrew.  Nonetheless, the other sources I will cite help define parameters for thinking about this issue more broadly.]

Yerushalmi Megillah 2:2, 73a weighs in on this question with the following line: ודורשה ובלבד שלא יפליג עצמו לעניינות אחרים.  The language of שלא יפליג, as opposed to והוא שלא הפליג suggests an assumption that it is permitted לכתחילה to engage in these sorts of homiletical insertions, with the important proviso that they remain relevant and not lead one astray into other topics.  Rashba Megillah 18b entertains the possibility that the Yerushalmi is only speaking בדיעבד, but seems to come down on the side of this being a לכתחילה instruction.  In any event, he clearly holds that topical interruptions are permissible לכתחילה and Ritva there is emphatic about this holding.  Rosh Megillah 2:1 also initially entertains the notion that derashot are only permitted בדיעבד, but cites the Yerushalmi as unequivocally being לכתחילה and he and Rashba have a text that applies this ruling to a public reading of the Megillah as well.  Tur 690 uses language that evokes the Yerushalmi suggesting that he also holds this way.  [See Noda Biyehudah’s different reading of Rosh here in Teshuvot I:41, which I disagree with, and even he seems to back off of it.  Note also that he likely did not see the Rashba and Ritva I just cited.  See there generally for more on our topic.]  SA 690:13 is clearly permissive: וכן אם היה דורשה, שקורא פסוק במגילה שלימה ודורשו, אם כיון לבו לצאת י"ח, יצא; ולא יפסיק בה בענינים אחרים, כשדורשה, שאסור להפסיק בה בענינים אחרים.  The clear implication is that it is permitted to interrupt the reading with relevant material.  MB there defines this as anything that is מעניינו של יום.  Note that all of these authorities agree that, provided there was proper intent for the actual reading of the Megillah, even non-topical interruptions do not void the reading בדיעבד.  [If any given interruption is as long as it would take to read the entire Megillah, one would begin to get some dissenting views, like Yereim, but even then, all of the authorities just mentioned think the reading is valid בדיעבד.  See Rosh Hullin 6:6 for confirmation that this is his view as well.  For more on the Rashba’s general analysis of הפסק, which is very helpful for thinking about these issues in general, see his Teshuvot I:244.]

My own bottom line feeling is that one should avoid all interruptions between the berakhah and the beginning of the reading and then urge those responsible to be sure than all other interruptions are truly topical and don’t lead people to thinking about unrelated topics.  But anything that will help people focus on the reading and get more out of it is permissible לכתחילה.  One should also know that if for some reason there are completely irrelevant interruptions, the reading is still valid בדיעבד.

There is one other concern I have, which pertains to all forms of davening geared towards beginners.  I think it is very important to avoid making decisions that inexorably lock people into the role of novice in Jewish life.  Arguably, you don’t ever want to run a shul where a more knowledgeable person will walk in and feel estranged from a service she feels is simply not geared towards her.  That is the great virtue of having a learner’s service where these more creative things are done, such that people can eventually “graduate” to a more intense version of the ritual that presumes more facility and knowledge.  But even in a community where everyone is a learner and the main service has to be in a more introductory mode, I would urge you and others to think about a multi-year plan for getting to a point where there is a reading that is not geared towards beginners as part of a larger vision of getting the community to that more advanced stage.  Otherwise, people who actually advance will feel that they have graduated the shul and the community, which will be a loss for everyone.

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