Shabbat Parashat Tzav| 5771
Ask the Rabbi: Limits on Merriment During Megilla Readingby Rav Daniel Mann
Question: On Purim, the level of levity during the Megilla reading seems to be ever increasing. Whereas once there were only graggers and stamping after the reading of “Haman”, now there seems to be a competition for the most audacious antics. Is that in keeping with the minhag and in line with the proper behavior in shul?
Answer: The Avudraham (cited by Darkei Moshe 690:4) is one of the earliest sources of this minhag, which originally had the following form. People would write Haman’s name on rocks and bang them together to demonstrate “wiping out the name of Amalek (Haman’s forefather).” Thus, it was not a matter of noise per se and certainly not of merriment. By the time the Rama codified the minhag and strongly argued not to question it (Orach Chayim 690:17), it apparently was closer to the current minhag of hitting anything to make noise.
Actually, other minhagim of Megilla do have to do with liveliness. The minhag to have the congregation read out loud four p’sukim was designed “just for happiness, to make the youngsters happy, and encourage them to … listen to the reading” (Hagahot Maimoniot, Megilla 1:7). The idea of scoffing at Haman, which most people seem to have in mind (resembling the modern phenomena of booing an unpopular person or statement) seems in the mood of Purim and several statements of Chazal. The idea of reveling in a manner that is usually inappropriate is found in various halachot. One, of course, is drinking wine well beyond the norm. Also, one is exempt from payment for damages caused during the Purim celebration because the mayhem is part of the mitzva (Rama, Orach Chayim 695:2).
However, the classic time for wilder merrymaking is at and around a seuda. Davening is davening, and the reading of the Megilla is an important mitzva with many halachot and is a fulfillment of saying Hallel to Hashem (Megilla 14a). Thus, while the minhagim we mentioned for happiness, interest, and demonstrativeness exist (despite opposition of some poskim, including the Pri Megadim (OC 690, EA), on various grounds) outright levity is likely inappropriate. Thus, we would suggest to those who ask to, under normal circumstances, follow the minhag of making noise with lively but dignified moderation.
However, one needs to consider how expression of the spirit of the day has evolved and the role of minhag in our communal lives, as the Rama did. Let us point out two main ideas behind keeping minhagim and not criticizing them (see also, Living the Halachic Process, vol I, pp. 32-33). One is that a minhag is assumed to be initiated or approved by great rabbis. In this case, one could break up the matter into two. Hundreds of years ago, the minhag was presumably instituted by great rabbis. While we are not aware which if any leading rabbis recently initiated the latest antics, it is fair to say that the phenomenon is approved of or at least allowed by a broad cross-section of the rabbinate. We might even suggest that the original minhag initiators, who broke the lines of strict decorum, intended that that every generation and subsection of the religious community would find the balance appropriate for them. Indeed, a youth minyan or kiruv-oriented minyan for the Megilla is more likely enhanced by a livelier service than an established, older community.
The second element regarding minhagim concerns the friction that is caused when one does not fall in line with the local minhag. In our case, if there is a locally accepted manner of listening to the Megilla, including that most people make some noise and a handful are more boisterous, then taking a stand against the latter is likely to cause hard feelings. This is not an extraneous consideration but it is at the heart of the type of communal atmosphere Chazal wanted us to maintain. As we have seen, Purim is a day when we let people’s spirits fly more freely than normal. Of course, as usual, a local rabbi is supposed to have his finger on the community’s pulse and should be the main guide in these matters, as even on Purim we should know some limits.
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