Megillas Esther and the Hard of Hearing

Question #1: Congregation Shomei’a Kol

gragger“Our long-standing baal keri’ah for the Megillah has unfortunately become very hard-of-hearing, yet he still insists on reading the Megillah. Do we fulfill the mitzvah if he cannot hear his own reading?”

Question #2: Mrs. Senior Citizen

“At my age, I no longer hear every word of the Megillah. What should I do?”

Answer:

How clearly must one hear the Megillah to fulfill the mitzvah? Do I fulfill the mitzvah if the reader is hard of hearing? These are the first questions we will discuss. As we will see, answering them impacts on the laws of several other mitzvos.

We will start our discussion with the Mishnah (Megillah 19b), which states: Everyone is kosher to read the Megillah, except for someone who is deaf, deranged, or a minor. This seems to provide Congregation Shomei’a Kol with an answer: A deaf person may not read the Megillah.

However, further examination makes this less obvious. The Gemara, expounding upon this Mishnah, discusses a dispute (Mishnah, Berachos 15a) concerning a person who read Shema so softly that he could not hear himself. Has he fulfilled the mitzvah? The Gemara equates the law of one who reads Shema softly to the issue of listening to the Megillah read by a deaf person.

Tanna’ic opinion

The Gemara concludes with four opinions:

  1. Must hear

Rabbi Yosi contends that fulfilling the mitzvos of Shema, Birchas Hamazon, berachos, or the Megillah requires that one hear one’s voice. (As we will see shortly, this understanding of Rabbi Yosi is not universal.) One who recited any of these so softly that he did not hear himself has not performed the mitzvah. Consequently, someone whose hearing is impaired to the extent that he cannot hear himself is absolved from observing these mitzvos, since there is no way for him to perform them. Furthermore, due to the halachic principle that only one commanded to perform a particular mitzvah may be motzi (discharge) others from their responsibility, he cannot read these mitzvos for anyone else. Thus, according to Rabbi Yosi, such a person may also not recite Kiddush or be the sheliach tzibur for others.

  1. Rav Yosef’s understanding of Rabbi Yosi

The Gemara mentions an alternative interpretation of Rabbi Yosi’s position, that only Shema requires one to hear his own words, since there the Torah states Shema Yisrael.  According to this opinion, even a completely deaf person is commanded to read the Megillah and recite all berachos, and someone who recites the Megillah and berachos very softly has fulfilled the mitzvah.

  1. The better to hear you, my dear

The tanna Rabbi Yehudah agrees that one is required to recite Shema, Birchas Hamazon, berachos and the Megillah loudly enough to hear them, yet he maintains that saying them in a softer voice fulfills the mitzvah bedei’evid, after the fact. One who cannot hear is still required to observe all of these mitzvos, including Shema. The Gemara concludes that, according to Rabbi Yehudah, although it is preferable that a deaf person not be motzi others, if he did so, they have fulfilled the obligation.

  1. No need to hear

The most lenient position is that of Rabbi Meir. He maintains that there is nothing wrong, even lechatchilah, with reciting any of these passages so softly that one cannot hear what he said, and he fulfills the mitzvah. A deaf person is obligated in all of these mitzvos and can be motzi others.

The halacha

The Gemara (Berachos) concludes that the halacha follows Rabbi Yehudah.  Preferably, one should read loudly enough to hear, but if one read softly, one fulfilled the mitzvah. This conclusion implies that a deaf person is obligated in all of these mitzvos and that he may be motzi others, at least after the fact.

At this point of our discussion, it would seem that Congregation Shomei’a Kol should determine whether the baal keri’ah can still hear himself speak. If he can, he may read the Megillah for the tzibur. If he cannot hear himself speak, he should not lechatchilah be the reader, but those who hear him have performed the mitzvah bedi’eved. This is indeed the halachic conclusion of several authorities (Bach; Magen Avraham; Gra).

However, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chayim 689) notes a problem: According to his interpretation of the Rif and the Rosh, and the standard text of the Rambam, all three of these major halachic authorities rule that someone who is deaf cannot be motzi others in reading the Megillah, for all three cite the Mishnah we mentioned earlier: Everyone is kosher for reading the Megillah, except for someone who is deaf, deranged, or a minor. This conflicts with the Gemara ruling that reading without hearing fulfills the mitzvah. This conundrum is even more challenging in light of the Beis Yosef’s policy to generally rule according to these three authorities.

(The Beis Yosef notes that there are alternative readings of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah on this topic. According to some of the readings, the question we just raised will not be difficult according to the Rambam, but only according to the Rif and the Rosh.)

Position of the Bach

For reasons beyond the scope of this article, the Bach disputes the Beis Yosef’s analysis of the Rif’s position on this matter. However, he agrees with the Beis Yosef’s understanding that the Rosh held that a deaf person cannot be motzi others in reading the Megillah. Thus, he is also faced with the Beis Yosef‘s conundrum that this ruling contradicts the conclusion of the Gemara. How one resolves this contradiction will affect several halachic issues, and will impact the questions mentioned in the beginning of our article.

I am aware of two approaches presented by the early poskim to resolve the problem. The Beis Yosef himself suggests that, because reading Megillah is a mitzvah that requires pirsumei nisa, publicizing the miracle, this quality is lacking when the Megillah is read by a deaf person. Therefore, hearing the Megillah read by a deaf person does not fulfill the mitzvah.

Incapable of hearing himself

Other authorities explain the ruling of the Rosh by drawing a distinction between a deaf person and someone who spoke very softly. They explain that someone who is absolutely deaf cannot fulfill the mitzvos of Shema, Birchas Hamazon, berachos or hearing the Megillah (Bach; Taz). But someone who read them softly fulfills the mitzvah, provided that he is capable of hearing these words were he to recite them louder.

Based on these answers, the Shulchan Aruch and the Taz conclude that someone who heard the Megillah from a deaf person did not fulfill his mitzvah. Other authorities disagree, concluding that those who heard the Megillah from a deaf person have fulfilled their obligation (Bach; Magen Avraham; Gra).

Let us now examine one of our opening questions: “Our long-standing baal keri’ah for the Megillah has, unfortunately, become very hard-of-hearing, yet he still insists on reading the Megillah. Do we fulfill the mitzvah when he reads it?”

As long as he can still hear what he reads, he can be motzi people in Megillah reading. If his hearing is so impaired that he cannot hear himself, the Shulchan Aruch rules that those who hear his Megillah reading have not fulfilled the mitzvah. Although there are authorities who are more lenient bedei’evid, they agree that lechatchilah he should not read the Megillah for others.

Must a deaf person read the Megillah?

Is a deaf person obligated to read the Megillah? (Obviously, he is incapable of hearing it from others.) Most authorities conclude that he must read the Megillah, unlike the conclusion of the Shulchan Aruch. The Mishnah Berurah notes that several rishonim rule that a deaf person is required to read the Megillah, and that this approach should be treated as the primary halachic opinion.

With this background, we can now discuss another of our opening questions:

Mrs. Senior Citizen

“At my age, I no longer hear every word of the Megillah. What should I do?”

We should note that women are obligated to hear Megillah to the same degree that men are. Many elderly people share the problem raised by Mrs. Citizen. Technically, they must hear every word of the Megillah read by someone else, or they must read it themselves. Another option is to read along with someone who knows how to read it correctly. If this person whose hearing is impaired is following this last option, he or she must be careful to read from a kosher Megillah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 490:4, 7). However, reading from a kosher Megillah is a daunting task for people who never learned to read the Megillah in their youth.

What to do?

Here is a lucrative, and very useful, suggestion for sofrim. Halacha prohibits adding anything unnecessary to a sefer Torah. But a Megillah is kosher, even if it contains vowel signs (nikud) and/or taamei hamikra (often called trop) to instruct how to chant it correctly. (One fulfills the mitzvah even if one cannot read the taamei hamikra at all, as long as one is able to read the words.)

One should note, however, that some early authorities maintain that one should not place nikud in a Megillah, although they agree that a Megillah with added nikud is still kosher (Levush, Orach Chayim 691:5). Other authorities rule that if there is no proficient Megillah reader available, one may add nikud to a Megillah and use it for public reading (Elyah Rabbah 691:6, quoting Be’er Sheva). Thus, we have a halachic basis for this niche market.

Suggestion for an enterprising sofer

Here is a suggestion that should be acceptable according to all opinions – to prepare transparencies with nikud and trop to place directly over the Megillah. Thus, nothing has been written into the Megillah itself, accomodating the Levush’s position, yet anyone able to read Hebrew can read the Megillah with the transparency on it, enabling the hard-of-hearing to fulfill the mitzvah. If a sofer prepares standard-sized megillos, he can mass-produce the corresponding transparencies. People would be forced to purchase his megillos, since other megillos would be out of sync with his transparencies.

Conclusive hearing

In conclusion, most authorities require even completely deaf people to read the Megillah (see Biur Halacha 689:2 s.v. Cheiresh). Since they cannot hear it from someone else, they must obviously read it themselves from a kosher Megillah. We suggested that people who find this difficult can overcome the challenge by having nikud and trop written in a kosher Megillah or by using a transparency that includes them.