This paper outlines the theoretical possibilities for women to serve as scribes (sofrot) as presented in the classical talmudic and post-talmudic literature. Particular attention is paid to the literature addressing the validity of women to scribe Megillat Esther. It concludes that the majority of authorities and the weight of halakhic reasoning point towards considering women eligible to write Megillot Esther.
Ross Singer is currently a Jerusalem Fellow, and formerly Rabbi of Shaarey Tefilah Synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia. His essay, “Halakhic Values: Pesaq or Persuasion?” appeared in the Tevet 5763 edition of The Edah Journal.
In the preface to his book, Women, Jewish Law and Modernity (Hoboken NJ: Ktav, 1997), Dr. Joel Wolowelsky charts a new course for exploring the inclusion of women in religious ritual and practice. He states:
- “Given the overall friction between ideology and halakhah, Orthodox leaders have been suspicious of arguable constructive suggestions for increased women’s participation in religious activities on the grounds that accepting them could legitimize feminism in the eyes of the halakhic community.
- It is now time to move past this fear of feminism. We are fast approaching a post-feminist age in which accepting specific proposals originally promoted by feminists no longer carries the implication that we accept feminist ideology as a whole…. It is time for a lekhatehilah encouragement of increased women’s involvement in a wide spectrum of religious activities.” (pp. x-xii)
Wolowelsky welcomes his readers to “suggest additional areas to explore,” with the proviso that these “should be explored in classical terms, with reference to classic texts and recognized authorities” (p. xii). In the spirit of this approach, the following essay will explore the issue of women writing Megillot Esther for ritual use on Purim.
At the outset it is important to clarify this inquiry’s relationship to practical ruling, pesaq halakhah. R. Yehuda Henkin notes: Three factors enter into a halachic decision. The first is the optimal, or “pure” Halacha determined from the sources alone. The second is the metsi’ut, “reality,” the situation on the ground. To bridge any gap between the two comes the third element, hora’ah, literally “ruling.”1
This study attempts neither to analyze current communal considerations (metzi’ut) nor to serve as a legal decision, hora’ah. Rather it is meant to serve only as a theoretical exploration of the “pure halakhah,” as defined by R. Henkin.
II. The Talmud: Women are Disqualified from Writing Tefillin.
The key text from which to begin this discussion is a beraita that appears in tractate Gittin 45b: “R. Hamnuna2 son of Rava from Pashronia taught: a sefer Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot written by an informer, an idolater, a slave, a woman, a minor, a Samaritan or an apostate are invalid, as it says ‘you shall bind them [tefillin]…you shall write them [mezuzot]’. Those who fall within [the commandment to] ‘bind them’ are those who fall within [the class eligible to] ‘write them.'”
This passage serves as the source for the unequivocal halakhah that women are ineligible to write tefillin. This position is unchallenged in the classical rabbinic literature.
III. The Rishonim and Ahronim on Women Writing Sifrei Torah
While the disqualification of women from tefillin goes uncontested, their fitness to write Torah scrolls is the subject of debate. A close examination of Rav Hamnuna’s beraita shows some ambiguity. The beraita does not make any distinction between tefillin and mezuzah on the one hand and sifrei Torah on the other. Yet, the verses on which the principle “those who fall within [the commandment to] ‘bind them’ are those who fall within [the class eligible to] ‘write them,'” refer to tefillin and mezuzah but not to Torah scrolls. The Ran3 noticed this inconsistency and addressed it. He writes that while the matter of sefer Torah does not appear in the relevant biblical passage, it may be inferred; he reasons that since a sefer Torah is of greater sanctity, the restrictions applying to tefillin and mezuzah certainly apply to it.
While Ran explicitly disqualifies women as writers of Torah scrolls, the Tur4 omits women from his list of those so disqualified. This is particularly striking, given that he includes women in his list of those who are ineligible to write tefillin.5 The Derishah6 notes this discrepancy and states that he found that Rif and Rosh7 also omitted the beraita quoted by Rav Hamnuna. The Derishah concludes that these rishonim must have felt that women are eligible to write Torah scrolls.
The Ma’aseh Rokeah suggested that the Derishah may have reasoned that since “sefer Torah” does not appear in the biblical passage R. Hamnuna cites, he did not intend to disqualify women from writing sifrei Torah. The other categories listed in the passage are disqualified from writing Torah scrolls because of their problematic religious positions, but the exclusion of women arises only out of their exemption from the mitsvah of tefillin. This exclusion applies only to the writing of tefillin and mezuzot because they appear in the biblical passage on which Rav Hamnuna’s position is built; it does not apply to Torah scrolls because the mitsvah to write a scroll does not appear in the same passage. Although he suggests the possibility of this reasoning, the Ma’aseh Rokeah ultimately rejects it, along with the Derishah‘s position.8
While the material on women’s eligibility to write Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot (referred to collectively by the acronym “stam“) is fairly straightforward, the question of women writing a ritually-usable scroll of the Book of Esther (Megillat Ester, referred to here for convenience simply as “a Megillah”) is directly addressed neither in the Talmudic literature nor by the rishonim. This lacuna cannot be explained by suggesting that these early sources could not imagine women writing sacred texts, for as we have seen, the Talmud and many rishonim address this matter explicitly. Indeed, as we will see later (section IX), the silence of the rishonim with regard to women’s eligibility to write a Megillah, contrasted with their explicit disqualification from writing stam, may lead one to conclude that the rishonim held that women are, indeed, eligible. The conclusion is strengthened by the fact that Rambam and Shulhan Arukh omit women from their lists of categories of individuals who are disqualified from writing a Megillah.
In any event, the silence of the rishonim on this issue did not continue for long into the period of the ahronim. Despite the lack of source material directly addressing this issue, they found ample tangential material on which to base arguments both for and against. It is to these discussions that the bulk of this study will be dedicated.
Before proceeding to the material found in the ahronim, it is worth noting that the disagreement between the Ran and the Tur, as understood by the Derishah, has implications for the question of women writing a Megillah. According to the Derishah‘s understanding, women’s exclusion is limited to tefillin and mezuzah, and they would therefore be considered eligible to write Torah scrolls and, a fortiori, a Megillah, which is of a lesser status and which they are obligated to hear read. But the Derishah‘s position is that of an individual only (da’at yahid), and is not normative;9 it would be exceedingly difficult to rely on it. Any practical discussion of women’s eligibility to write a Megillah needs to begin from the premise that a woman is not eligible to write a Torah scroll and then consider whether there is a reasonable basis for distinguishing a Megillah and concluding that the disqualification does not extend to it.
IV. The Dispute between Rabbeinu Tam and the Maggid Mishneh
As mentioned, the applicability to a Megillah of the disqualification noted in Rav Hamnuna’s beraita is not explicitly addressed in the classical rabbinic literature or in the rishonim. The Rishonim, however, do raise a pertinent related issue. One of the requirements for a Torah scroll is that its parchment have been dressed or worked for the specific purpose of being used in a Torah scroll (li–shemah).10 The rishonim differ as to whether that requirement extends as well to a Megillah. Rabbeinu Tam11 takes the view that the requirement applies. He reasons that since the Megillah is called a sefer (in rabbinic Hebrew, a scroll),12 all the laws of a sefer Torah apply to it except those that the tradition explicitly informs us are different. We are nowhere told that the parchment for a Megillah need not be worked li–shemah, and the requirement accordingly applies. It is fair to infer that Rabbeinu Tam would take an analogous position regarding a woman writing a Megillah: since the classical Rabbinic literature never explicitly states the contrary, a Megillah is treated like a Torah scroll in this regard as well, and a woman is disqualified from writing it. On the other hand, Rambam (Hilkhot Megillah 2:9) writes that one need not dress the parchment for a Megillah li-shemah. Commenting on this passage, the Maggid Mishneh13 writes that,
- “This is obvious, for dressing was not mentioned with regard to it, and it (a Megillah) is like a sefer Torah only with regard to those things in which it (the Megillah) was compared to it (the sefer Torah).”
The Maggid Mishneh thus takes a position diametrically opposed to Rabbeinu Tam’s, suggesting that a Megillah is treated like a sefer Torah only where the rabbis expressly say it should be. The Maggid Mishneh‘s logic would lead one to conclude that women are eligible to write a Megillah because the rabbis never explicitly said they were not. The Sedei Hemed14 cites the Radbaz as understanding of Rambam in the same way.
The Ma’aseh Rokeah Rules the Halakhah Follows Rabbeinu Tam
The next question, of course, is whether the halakhah follows the Maggid Mishneh or Rabbeinu Tam, and we find a diversity of views. The Ma’aseh Rokeah, for one, rules in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam and that the disqualification of women scribes extends not only to Torah scrolls but to scrolls of the Book of Esther as well. He argues his case at length, offering numerous proofs.
The Ma’aseh Rokeah cites the Bah, who notes an exception to Rabbeinu Tam’s position that a Megillah must be written subject to all the rules of a sefer Torah. While Torah scrolls are rolled from both ends of the parchment and therefore can be rolled to the middle of the book, scrolls of Esther have only one roller and therefore must always be rolled to the beginning. The Bah accounts for the difference by noting that only regularly-read Torah scrolls need two rollers; those that are read infrequently may have only one roller. Megillot Esther are similarly read infrequently — only once a year — and accordingly require only one roller. The Ma’aseh Rokeah infers that the Bah goes so far out of his way to find a precedent for single-roller scrolls of Esther because he agrees with Rabbeinu Tam that all the halakhot of a Torah scroll apply to a Megillah as well.
The Ma’aseh Rokeah further claims that R. Joseph Karo, the author of the Beit Yosef and the authoritative Shulhan Arukh, also rules in accord with Rabbeinu Tam. He notes that the Beit Yosef 15 cites the dispute between Rashba and Raviyah over including the blessings over the Megillah reading at the beginning of a Megillah scroll. Rashba permits their inclusion, but Raviyah forbids it, arguing that since a Megillah is compared to a sefer Torah, all the laws of a sefer Torah apply to it. The Beit Yosef rules that one may rely on Rashba only post-facto (be-di-‘avad), i.e., the blessings should not be included in the first instance, but their inclusion, though improper, does not invalidate the scroll. The Ma’aseh Rokeah suggests this shows that the Beit Yosef sides with Rabbeinu Tam, but this seems to be an overstatement, since the Beit Yosef presumably would disqualify even post-facto a Torah scroll with the blessings included, showing he draws a distinction between a Torah scroll and a Megillah. Furthermore, in his Shulhan Arukh, R. Karo formulates his ruling as follows: “if one wrote on its first column blessings or liturgical poems, it is not invalidated thereby.”16
The Ma’aseh Rokeah points as well to the Beit Yosef17 on the issue of writing tefillin with the left hand. The Beit Yosef cites the view of the Sefer ha-Terumah that tefillin must be written with the right hand. That view is based in part on the halakhah that a right-handed person who writes on Shabbat with the left hand has not transgressed the prohibition of writing mi–de–oraiyeta (as a matter of Torah, as distinct from rabbinic, law). According to this view, it follows that a sefer Torah must be written with the right hand; for were it otherwise, a valid Torah scroll could be written on the Sabbath without thereby violating the Sabbath—a patently unreasonable result. The Sefer ha–Terumah explicitly extends the requirement of writing with the right hand to Megillat Esther, and the Beit Yosef never challenges this position; and, he concludes his comments by citing the view of the Semaq that tefillin written with the left hand are invalid even post-facto.
While the Ma’aseh Rokeah, cites the Sefer ha–Terumah‘s ruling in support of his claim that the halakhot of a Megillah are identical to those of a Torah scroll, one might argue instead that the ruling rests on a different rationale: writing is by definition done with the right hand, and writing with the left hand is not really writing. Since both Megillah and Torah scroll must be written, the laws of writing apply to both, and require use of the right hand. (The flaw in that argument is that no one would claim that a woman is exempt from the prohibition against writing on Shabbat, and just as a woman’s writing counts as a violation of the Sabbath, it ought to be valid for writing a Megillah.) Furthermore, the Matteh Yehudah18 counters the Ma’aseh Rokeah‘s argument by suggesting that the Beit Yosef did not, in fact, acquiesce in the extension of the right-hand requirement to the Megillah. His silence on the matter simply reflects the fact that the subject at issue in the passage cited was tefillin, not Megillah. In fact, the Mateh Yehudah continues, when the Beit Yosef discusses the laws of Megillah, he does not mention writing with the left hand as a disqualifying flaw.
Before turning to the arguments of those who rule that the halakhah is contrary to Rabbeinu Tam, it is important to note a comment of the Teshuvah mei–Ahavah.21 He argues that Rabbeinu Tam’s ruling may apply only to the process of the writing and not to the requirements of the person who writes. In other words, Rabbeinu Tam’s position would require that the preparation of the parchment, the forms of the letters, and other such matters conform to the requirements for writing a valid sefer Torah, but would not so limit the eligibility of a person to write the scroll. Indeed, all the rishonim who agree with Rabbeinu Tam and therefore require that a Megillah be written in accordance with the laws of a Torah scroll direct their attention not to the writer but only to the writing itself (such matters as the shapes of the letters, the exclusion of cantilation marks and vocalization points, the prohibition against including blessings and other matters extraneous to the text itself). Moreover, Ramban and Ran,22 when articulating the principle that the halakhot of Torah scrolls pertain to a Megillah, say that this principle does not apply to matters that are “outside of the body” of the Megillah. The Ma’aseh Rokeah, for his part, argues that the person who writes a Megillah certainly counts as a matter pertaining to “the body of the Megillah,” but that is not necessarily so. The examples of “the body of the Megillah” cited by Ran — parchment, ink, and scoring — are physical aspects of a Megillah and are thus consistent with the meaning of the word “body” (gufa); one could easily argue that the writer of a Megillah is something different entirely. If so, according to Ramban and Ran, the requirements pertaining to the person who writes a sefer Torah need not pertain to the person who writes a Megillah. On this understanding, it is possible that even according to Rabbeinu Tam women may be considered eligible.
VI. The Hida Follows the Maggid Mishneh
Despite the Ma’aseh Rokeah‘s lengthy discourse, it is not at all clear that the halakhah follows Rabbeinu Tam. The Hida, in his Birkei Yosef,23 refers to the Maggid Mishneh‘s position as one that would indeed allow women to write a Megillah. He observes that the Shulhan Arukh24 cites both Rabbeinu Tam’s position on working the parchment li–shemah and Rambam’s, but he mentions Rambam’s first, without comment, and then refers to Rabbeinu Tam’s position as an alternate view held by some. This, the Birkei Yosef states, implies that the Shulhan Arukh is deciding in favor of Rambam.
Accordingly, the Birkei Yosef concludes, on the basis
of the Maggid Mishneh‘s understanding of Rambam, that the Shulhan Arukh rules that women are eligible to write a Megillah. He bolsters that conclusion by noting that the Peri Hadash25 validates post-facto a Megillah written with the left hand, though a sefer Torah written that way is invalid even after-the-fact.26
In his Shi’urei Berakhah, the Hida offers another proof that women are eligible to write the Megillah. The gemara27 states that it is forbidden to read the Megillah in public (for ritual purposes on Purim) from a scroll that contains other sacred writings. From this it is inferred that in private, one may read the Megillah from such a scroll. Since women are eligible to write sacred writings other than Torah scrolls, as deduced in Tosafot, one must conclude that women are eligible to write a Megillah. Were that not case, the gemara could not have allowed one to read privately from such a scroll, for it might have been written by a woman.
VII. Women’s Obligation to Read/Hear the Megillah Validates Their Writing It
The Peri Megadim28 likewise takes the view that Rav Hamnuna’s beraita cannot be read to disqualify women from writing a Megillah. The beraita excludes women from acting as scribes because they are not obligated by the commandment to don tefillin. But women are subject to commandment of Megillah reading (at least to the extent of hearing it read29), and the Peri Megadim reasons they accordingly are eligible to write a Megillah. This approach is echoed by the Sedei Hemed,30 who cites the statement in Masekhet Soferim31 that all who are eligible to fulfill the community’s obligation to read a sacred text are eligible to write that text. Since women are bound by the mitsvah of Megillah, they ought to be eligible to write a Megillah.
However the matter is not so simple. The author of Sefer Halakhot Gadol32 (Bahag) maintains that women are obligated only to hear a Megillah read, but they are not eligible to read a Megillah for men. According to the Bahag, the rule enunciated in Masekhet Soferim would not validate the writing of a Megillah by a woman. Indeed, the Ma’aseh Rokeah33 invalidates a Megillah written by a woman on the basis of his very reasoning. Nevertheless, the Sedei Hemed34 finds a different basis for validating a Megillah written by a woman. The Mishnah in Gittin 22b states that a woman is eligible to write a get (bill of divorce). The Sedei Hemed, quoting a statement by Rabbi Eliyahu Tzvi, attributes that result to the fact that the laws of divorce are applicable to women. Similarly, he reasons, the fact that women are obligated to hear the Megillah makes them eligible to write it.
The Avnei Nezer35 raises a serious objection to this approach. The Peri Megadim‘s logic suggests that women are eligible to write any sacred texts with respect to which they have halakhic obligations. But women are obligated by the mitsvah of mezuzah,36 yet the beraita disqualifies them from writing mezuzot! The Keset ha–Sofer37 resolves the difficulty, explaining that the disqualification extends to mezuzot because they are referred to in the Torah in close proximity to tefillin, but Megillah, of course, is not mentioned there.
VIII. The Megillah Itself Suggests that Women are Eligible to Write It
Megillat Esther 9:29 states:
- “Then Esther the queen, the daughter of Avihayil, and Mordekhai the Jew, wrote with all emphasis to confirm this second letter of Purim.”
The Targum renders this verse as “Esther the daughter of Avihayil and Mordekhai the Jew wrote all this Megillah.” Rabbi David Oppenheim38 infers from the Targum’s suggestion that Esther herself wrote the Megillah that women must be eligible to serve as Megillah scribes; after all, a woman wrote the very first one! R. Oppenheim notes that the gemara (Megillah 19a) derives from this verse the halakhic requirement that a Megillah be written in ink on parchment:
- “From where do we know that the Megillah requires parchment and ink? For it says [in Esther 9:29] ‘Esther the queen wrote,’ and it is written [in another context, Jeremiah 36:18] ‘and I write on the scroll [parchment] and with ink.'”
Using the rabbinic hermeneutical rule of gezerah shavah, the gemara deduces that the scroll of Esther must be on parchment and ink. R. Oppenheim reasons that the gemara‘s use of the verse as the basis for the halakhic details of parchment and ink opens the way for our use of the verse to learn that women are eligible to write a Megillah from the fact that it says “Esther wrote.”
But while R. Oppenheim uses Esther 9:29 as a proof that women are eligible to write a Megillah, R. Meir Pearles reads that verse as supporting his position to the contrary. In his book, Megillat Sefer,39 R. Pearles argues that a Megillah is subject to all the strictures of a sefer Torah. In taking this position, he alludes to Megillah 16b, where Rabbi Tanhum (some say Rabbi Asi) states that the phrase “words of peace and truth” (Esther 9:30) teach that before a Megillah is written, the parchment, like that of a Torah scroll (“the truth of Torah”) must be scored with lines (shirtut). R. Pearles goes on to argue that just as a Megillah requires shirtut, it requires conformance to all laws of a Torah scroll. To strengthen his position, he notes that Esther 9:29 explicitly mentions that Mordekhai also wrote a Megillah; he suggests that had Mordekhai not assisted Esther, then the Megillah that they wrote would not have been valid. Based upon this reading, he suggests that a Megillah written by a woman is not invalid if she had the assistance of a man. He finds further support for this approach in the halakhot pertaining to sewing the parchments of the Megillah together. While the sefer Torah must be sewn together exclusively with animal tendons, a Megillah is valid if three of its sections are sewn together with tendons and the rest with linen.40 R. Pearles understands this halakhah to imply that a Megillah must be written in general conformance to the laws applicable to the writing of a Sefer Torah, but that those laws need not be adhered to as strictly in the case of a Megillah. A Megillah needs to be sewn with tendons, but not entirely so; so too a Megillah needs to be written by a man, but not in its entirety. Esther’s contribution mentioned in 9:29 did not invalidate the Megillah.
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg41 finds R. Pearles’ arguments unconvincing, criticizing the Megillat Sefer‘s wavering between the view that the laws of a Torah scroll apply to a Megillah and the view that they apply in general but not entirely. R. Waldenberg argues that either a Megillah is subject to the same requirements as a Sefer Torah or it is not. If it is not, then we must allow for the possibility that women are eligible to write it. R. Waldenberg finds R. Pearles’ reading of Esther 9:29 excessively casuistic.
IX. The Codes Do Not Mention the Disqualification of Women.
As noted above, the Avnei Nezer initially objected to the Peri Megadim‘s claim that women are eligible to write scrolls of Esther. However, he later had second thoughts about his position,42 based on the fact that Rambam did not include women in his list of those disqualified from writing a Megillah.43 The Shulhan Arukh similarly makes no mention of women being so disqualified. These omissions lead other ahronim as well to conclude that women are not disqualified from writing a Megillah.44
The Matteh Yehudah suggests an explanation for the codes’ omission of women from the lists of those disqualified. Noting that the codes regard an idolater and a heretic (apiqorus) as disqualified, incorporating those provisions or R. Hamnuna’s beraita, he posits two separate grounds for disqualifying a person from writing Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot. The first is that a person is not within the class of those commanded to observe the mitsvah of tefillin (or simply fails to fulfill the commandment). The second is that a person may not write the scroll li–shemah. With respect to Megillah, however, only the second ground applies. On this analysis, the exemption of women from the mitzvah of tefillin does not disqualify them from writing a Megillah, but they are eligible to do so on if they are be capable of writing li–shemah. Strikingly, the Ma’aseh Rokeah denies that women are capable of writing li–shemah; the Matteh Yehudah disagrees, maintaining they are. The Matteh Yehudah‘s position is supported by the fact the in principle, women are qualified to prepare tsitsit,45 which must be done li-shemah.46 Based on his analysis, the Matteh Yehudah concludes that women are indeed eligible to serve as Megillah scribes.
A number of ahronim write that women are disqualified from writing the Megillah. These include the Ma’aseh Rokeah, R. Me’ir Pearles, R.Akiva Eiger,47 R Yosef Messas,48 Melekhet Shamayim,49 and the Sha’arei Teshuvah.50
Yet there is a strong trend in halakhah to validate a Megillah written by a woman. The Derishah goes further, regarding women as eligible to write a sefer Torah as well; and while the Shulhan Arukh and all other rishonim disagree with the Derishah, they fail to mention women among those who are disqualified from writing a Megillah. The omission is glaring, given that the gemara and rishonim all explicitly disqualify a woman from writing Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot. This silence along with strong theoretical arguments, lead a large number of major ahronim to rule either in principle or in practice that scrolls of Esther written by women are valid. These ahronim51 include R. David Oppenheim, the Hida, the Peri Megadim, the Teshuvah mei–Ahavah, the Matteh Yehudah, the Keset ha–Sofer, the Sedei Hemed, the Arukh ha–Shulhan, the Avnei Nezer, the Beit Oved,52 53 and the Tsits Eliezer. Given the number, stature, and compelling reasoning of these ahronim, it seems that the weight of the halakhic discussion inclines toward regarding women as eligible to write scrolls of Esther for communal ritual use provided that they are competent in the requisite halakhot.