Rav Yosef: Women Can Read Esther
Rav Yosef: Women Can Read Esther

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has caused a stir by repeating his ruling that women may, under certain circumstances, read the Book of Esther aloud, even for men, in fulfillment of the upcoming Purim holiday obligation.

Rabbi Yosef noted that women may enable men to fulfill their obligation in this way only in a case where there are no men who can read the Book of Esther with the proper notes and pronunciation.

One of the commandments of the Purim holiday is to read aloud the complete Book of Esther from a scroll, without the help of punctuation or pronunciation symbols. It is read both evening and morning, and preferably with the proper musical intonations on each word. The reading is generally a festive one, with frequent noisy interruptions to "wipe out" the evil Haman's name - while at the same time, the congregation must make sure to hear every word. 

The issue of women reading for men has been a controversial issue in recent years. Rabbi Yosef's more lenient approach, presented at his weekly class in Jerusalem on Saturday night, surprised many of his listeners and followers. In truth, however, his position is a long-held one, presented in several of his Halakhic [Jewish legal] works. In one of them, he even added, “And this is not, perish the thought, a Reform innovation, as this is the law."

Rabbi Yosef served as the Rishon LeTzion, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, between the years 1973 and 1983. 

The Ashkenazi practice on Purim is also to allow women to read the Megillah for men only if no knowledgeable man is available, but she should not recite the blessings; if a man who can read it aloud later appears on the scene, he should read it for them again.

No Singing Problem

Rabbi Yosef said that one reason to be stringent might be the ban on men hearing a woman singing – but he said this is not a concern: “The most proper way is for a man to read, but there is a custom to have the woman read if, for instance, there is a small town with not many people and there is no one who knows how to read properly, but there is a woman who, thank G-d, knows how to read, she should read with the notes and they will all thus fulfill their obligation.”

The rabbi, aged 89, said that those who hear the scroll via a microphone or radio do not fulfill their obligation, because they are not hearing a human voice, but rather a technological reproduction thereof.

Women Reading for Women

Many rabbis endorse the widespread practice of having a “second” reading of the Book of Esther for women, following the main public reading in the synagogue on Purim night and morning, in which a woman reads aloud for other women.