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Women are allowed to chant the Scroll of Esther on behalf of men if no competent men are available, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardi community, ruled last week in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of his Ashkenazi counterparts.

Esther is traditionally read in synagogue on the holiday of Purim, which this year falls next week. And while some rabbis have long permitted women to read the megillah, or scroll, for other women, most do not allow women to read on behalf of men.

In his weekly Torah class on Saturday night, however, Yosef discussed the rules of reading the megillah and ruled that not only may women read it in front of men, but the men will thereby have fulfilled their obligation to hear the scroll read.

"It is permissible for a woman to fulfill this obligation on behalf of men," he said, because the obligation to hear the megillah falls equally on men and women.

Yosef said that most rabbis forbid women to read the megillah on the grounds that men are forbidden to listen to women sing, because a woman's singing voice can stimulate sexual arousal. However, he said, he does not agree that a woman chanting a sacred text is the kind of singing that stimulates sexual arousal. The analogy rabbis have drawn between singing and chanting sacred texts has "no value," he declared.

Yosef said women should not read for men if there are men capable of doing the reading. But in a "small community" where there are no men capable of chanting the text properly, it is permissible to bring a woman to read, he ruled.

Yosef also said that women could write a kosher Scroll of Esther - another task that most rabbis say can be done only by men. He said that ancient megillahs written by women have been found in Yemen, and it would be permissible for women to do so today as well, "to earn a living for their household," since women "were part of the miracle" that the megillah describes.

However, he admitted wryly, it is an open question "whether anyone would buy it."

In both cases, Yosef's rulings were specific to Megillat Esther and do not necessarily apply to other sacred texts, such as the Torah.