Breathless: Reading the Names of Haman's Ten Sons in One Breath

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Breathless: Reading Haman’s Ten Sons
Aryeh Lebowitz

I. Source and Psak Halacha. When one opens a megillah a quick glance at the text will reveal that one column look different from all of the others. The list of Haman’s ten sons is written in a style known as shirah, with significant amounts of empty space between the text. The custom in most shuls is for the congregation to recite all ten names aloud followed by the bal korei reading these ten names very quickly and in a single breath. In this essay we will explore the sources for the customs relating to reading the names of Haman’s ten sons, and discuss the halachic considerations that may affect these customs.
A. Talmudic Source. The gemara (Megillah 16b) states that the names of all of Haman’s sons should be read in a single breath because they all died at the same moment. By reading about their deaths in a single breath we indicate that the deaths were not ten separate events, but a single moment when they all died. The gemara states further that the “vav” in the name “Vayzasa” should be elongated as an indication that all of Haman’s sons were hanged from the same gallows.
B. How Much Should be Said in a Single Breath? The Rema records a practice to include the phrase “chamesh me’os ish” (which precedes the list of Haman’s sons) in the same breath as all ten names and the word “aseres” which follows the list of names.
1. Hagahos Maymoniyos (Megillah 2:1) strongly questions the practice suggested by the Rema. After all, the gemara explained that we include all of the names in a single breath because they all died simultaneously, a phenomenon that does not seem to be true for the five hundred men! Maharil (Hilchos Purim #13) suggests that Haman’s sons were each leaders of battalions that contained fifty men. Thus their deaths symbolized the end of their battalions, which all “died” along with their leaders.
2. The Mishnah Berurah (690:54) writes that if one does not think he will be able to include everything in a single breath, he should forgo the Rema’s stringency of including “chamesh me’os ish” in order to try to preserve the custom as it is mentioned in the gemara. The Kaf Hachaim (690:95) adds that if one doesn’t even believe he will be able to say the names alone in a single breath, he should begin with “chamesh me’os ish” and read until he must take a breath.
II. Does the congregation also have to read the list aloud? As we previously mentioned, many congregations have the custom of reciting the list of Haman’s sons aloud and in unison. The gemara does not record any such practice. In fact, the implication of the Rema (690:17) is that it was not the prevalent practice in his time (the Rema lists those pesukim that should be recited aloud and makes no mention of the list of Haman’s sons). Indeed, the Mishnah Berurah (690:52) cites the Chayei Adam as having rejected this practice, saying that “it is not a minhag” and that it should be read only by the bal korei just like the rest of the megilah.
A. Chiddush of Beit Halevi. Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik zt”l suggests in his Beis Halevi al HaTorah (end of inyanei Chanukah) that although most mitzvos that involve speech can be fulfilled by just hearing (shome’a k’oneh), when the mitzvah entails more than the words alone one cannot discharge his obligation by only hearing the words. For instance, Rav Soloveitchik argues, a kohein cannot discharge his obligation in birchas kohanim by standing silently listening to the blessing of his fellow kohanim. It seems that in the view of the Beis Halevi whenever the requirement does not only involve a recitation, but involves a specific way to perform the recitation, one must say the words himself and cannot rely on hearing it alone. What emerges from this analysis is that the requirement of reading the megilah can be fulfilled by merely listening, but the specific requirement of saying the ten sons of Haman in a single breath cannot be fulfilled by mere listening. Perhaps this is the source of the custom to have the entire congregation recite this list themselves, and not rely on what they hear from the bal korei. In fact, the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Yosef Rosen (Tzafnas Pane’ach III Hashmatos l’hilchos Gerushin) argues that the custom to write the names of Haman’s sons in larger print is based on the fact that the entire congregation will have to read those names aloud.
1. The later authorities took issue with the novel suggestion of Rabbis Soloveitchik and Rosen for a variety of reasons:
a. The Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim 29:3) argues that one need look no further than reading megilah to find clear proof that the method of how to read can also be fulfilled through mere listening. There is a requirement that the megilah be read from a scroll, and that it be read loud enough for one to hear it with their own ears, yet both of these obligations seem to be fulfilled by the listener. Apparently, the rule of shome’a k’oneh allows the listener to fulfill his obligation as if he were doing all that the reader is doing. The Steipler Gaon (Kehilos Yakov Pesachim 45), however, cites a teshuva authored by the Ran who explains that the requirement to read from a scroll only applies to one who is fulfilling the mitzvah through reading, but not one who is fulfilling the mitzvah through listening. The Mishnah Berurah (690:55) similarly rules that the obligation to fold the megilah like a letter only applies to the reader and not to the listener. We may, however, argue that the requirement of saying the names in a single breath applies equally to the listener and the reader (see Kehilos Yakov ibid.).
b. Even if one were to accept that details relating to how something may be said cannot be fulfilled through shome’a k’oneh, the reading of Haman’s sons may be an exception. The Rambam (Hilchos Megilah 2:12) writes that the reading is done in a single breath in order “to inform the entire nation that all of them were hanged and killed at the same time”. It seems from the Rambam that the focus of the requirement is not how the list is read, but the message conveyed by the reading. If this is the case, when the bal korei reads them in one breath the message has effectively been conveyed. In other words, the requirement to recite all of the names in a single breath may be understood, not as a special requirement in how to read the names, but as a requirement to refrain from giving the wrong impression by reading the names separately. If the requirement is formulated in this way, one can certainly fulfill the requirement through listening.
c. The Netziv (Meishiv Davar) questions the Beis Halevi’s assertion based on a mishnah in Bikurim (3:7) which explicitly allows for one to fulfill the reading of Parshas Bikurim through the mechanism of shome’a k’oneh even though the parsha must be read aloud. In defending the Beis Halevi, Rav Herschel Schachter writes in the name of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (the Beis Halevi’s great grandson) that one can distinguish between cases where the manner of saying something relates to practical considerations and where it is simply a rule in the way that something must be said. In the case of birchas kohanim the requirement of saying it aloud is practical in nature, so that the congregation can hear it (and the exact volume of the voice would therefore depend on the size of the crowd). The practical consideration does not pass on to the listener, who at the end of the day has not recited the berachos in a way that the congregation can hear them. In the case of bikurim on the other hand, the requirement to recite the parsha audibly is a special halacha related to how one is supposed to read the parsha and NOT merely a practical consideration. With such halachos all details of how something is said can be passed to the listener. As such, it emerges that the Beis Halevi would maintain that the recitation of Haman’s ten sons in a single breath is certainly fulfilled by the listener. (The Rogatchover would obviously disagree with this analysis).
B. More Practical Explanations of the Custom. While the suggestion of the Beis Halevi and Rogatchover put their trademark brilliance on full display, other poskim have suggested more simple explanations for the practice of the entire congregation reciting the names of Haman’s ten sons aloud:
1. Rabbi Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvos V’hanhagos II:358) writes that due to the speed with which the bal korei reads off the ten names, many in the congregation may have missed a word or two. The custom therefore developed for the congregation to recite all of the names themselves.
2. The Ketzos Hashulchan (Hosafos at end of Chelek Gimel) writes that the practice in Chevron when he was a young child was for the children to make noise during the reading of Haman’s sons just like we have the practice of doing during the reading of Haman’s own name. As a result, he suggests, we have the custom of the congregation reading their names first so that we will not have missed any words in the megilah.
III. Problems That Arise From Using A Single Breath. While we certainly are obligated to follow the custom recorded in the gemara to recite all ten names in a single breath, we must also remain cognizant of likely pitfalls that result from following this custom.
A. First, on a very practical level, due to the speed at which the words are read, it is highly likely that the listener will miss a word. The Rashba (Teshuvos haRashba 1:467) and the Mishnah Berurah (690:4) both underscore the importance of hearing every single word of the megilah. As a result one should either follow the practice mentioned earlier in this essay of reading the list of Haman’s sons on his own before the bal korei or pay extra careful attention when the bal korei reads them.
B. Additionally, the Kaf Hachaim (690:97) points out that the bal korei will frequently not read the word “v’es” from the scroll when rushing through the list of Haman’s sons. Due to the configuration of the text and the repetitive appearance of the word it is very likely that the average bal korei will say the word by heart at some point during the reading. Even if he does read it from the scroll, it is somewhat likely that he will read the wrong “v’es” for one of the names, as it is difficult to follow the line across so much empty space. Although one can fulfill the mitzvah of megilah even if some of the words were said by heart, the Beis Yosef (690:4) writes that this is certainly not the preferred way to fulfill the mitzvah. This problem gave rise to an interesting discussion amongst contemporary poskim. What should one do if he knows that he is capable of either reading from the text or saying all of the names in a single breath, but he is not capable of doing both? Is it better to give up on the single breath in order to ensure reading each word from the text or is it better to read each word from the text, thereby sacrificing the requirement to read all of the names in a single breath?
1. The Moadim l’Simcha (page 297) cites the Birchas Refael that since there are opinions (though we don’t pasken like them) that maintain one does not fulfill the mitzvah unless he read the megilah in a single breath, while there are no authorities who maintain the same for one who reads a few words by heart, it is best to sacrifice the reading from the scroll in favor of reading in a single breath.
2. Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv is cited as having ruled that it is best to sacrifice the single breath in order to ensure that every single word be read from the scroll. His logic is that any stringency related to the actual reading will take precedence over stringencies relating to the way in which it is read.
IV. What If One Did Not Read It In One Breath?
A. The Halacha. Tosafos (Megilah 16b) writes that the requirement to read Haman’s sons in a single breath is only an ideal, but one can certainly fulfill his obligation without having done so. The Maharil (Minhagim, Hilchos Purim 13) however, reports an episode that occurred in Magentza where the bal korei did not say all of the names in a single breath, and was forced to begin the entire megilah over again. The Maharil disagrees with this ruling, suggesting instead that it would have sufficed to go back to the words “chamesh me’os ish”. The clear implication of the Maharil is that even if one had already read the names in more than one breath, he would be obligated to go back and repeat it in the proper way.
1. While at first glance the opinions of Tosafos and the Maharil may seem incompatible, it may be suggested that they in fact agree with each other. Though Tosafos says that one fulfills his obligation b’dieved, he may be speaking of a case where a person has finished the entire megilah already. The Maharil who requires going back to read the names again is likely referring to a case where the reading of the megilah has not yet been completed. Indeed, the Darkei Moshe cites the Maharil as saying that one does fulfill his obligation even if he took an extra breath, probably assuming that he had already concluded his reading of the megilah.
2. The opinion of the sages of Magentza seems difficult to justify. After all, why would there be any requirement to repeat the entire megilah on account of saying Haman’s sons in more than one breath? Perhaps the situation was such that a full blown halachic debate had erupted when the bal korei took the extra breath, resulting in a break of time in middle of megilah reading that invalidated the entire reading to that point.
B. Does it even help to read it again? Assuming that one has fulfilled his obligation to read the megilah even if he had read the names in multiple breaths, there is room to argue that nothing is gained by going back and reading the names in a single breath. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik is reported to have said that if one has two esrogim on Sukkos, one that is definitely kosher but not beautiful, and another that is beautiful but possibly not kosher, it is better to take the latter esrog first, followed by the former. His logic is that once one has taken an esrog that is definitely kosher, there is nothing to gain from taking another more beautiful esrog, because once the mitzvah has been fulfilled and is complete, it is too late to fulfill a hidur independent of the mitzvah. Similarly, once one has fulfilled the reading of the names of Haman’s sons, there is no point in going back and fulfilling the hidur of reading them in one breath, independent of the fulfillment of the mitzvah.
1. Distinction between megilah and esrog. It may be cogently argued, however, that there is a fundamental distinction between the reading of Haman’s sons and the case of the two esrogim. In the case of the esrogim, once one has taken an esrog he has already fulfilled his obligation and has completed the mitzvah. Consequently, there is nothing to be gained by taking a more beautiful esrog. In the case of megilah, even if one has completed reading the names of Haman’s sons, so long as he has not completed the entire megilah, the mitzvah is still not over. Consequently, going back to read the names in a single breath will provide the benefit of the added hidur while still involved in the initial mitzvah.
V. Conclusion. We have briefly discussed the pertinent issues relating to a single element of the megilah reading. The hope is that our understanding and appreciation of even seemingly minor minhagim is enhanced by exploring some of the pertinent halachic literature associated with this single custom.


Venue: Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere Beis Haknesses of North Woodmere

Halacha:
Purim 

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    1. Title: Reading the sons of Haman
      Author: False == 1 ? Anonymous : Steven Denenberg &##44;

      Hi, Rabbi! Somehow, I just found and read this essay of yours. I have a question that I've been thinking about and asking around for *years*, but nobody has an answer, and I'd love a comment from you, especially because you've studied the issue. I read Megillat Esther every year at my schul. The Hazzan divides it up so 5 or 6 readers cover all 10 chapters. Pass around the kavod. I'm never the one who "gets" to read the ten sons, but: Whoever is reading the sons reads them in one breath, but he reads them soooooo fast. He gets them done in, literally, about two seconds. Now, I always thought the minhag was to read them in one breath. But there aren't fifty sons! If you can do it, in one breath, at a normal pace, why not? It always seems as though the goal is not *just* to do it in one breath, but to do it absolutely as fast as your mumbling can accomplish it. I have excellent breath control when I sing. I could easily make it last thirty seconds, and not be nervous about running out of air. Would that be wrong? You hint at an answer in your essay, mentioning that there's a potential problem if the speed of the reader -- in order to do it in one breath -- causes the congregation to *not* be able to hear the words, or causes the reader to skip the "v'es"'s. Anyway, I'd love to hear what you think of the issue of speed, assuming that the reader won't get in trouble with completing the sons in one breath. Thanks so much for any insight! And chag sameach coming up! Stay safe! --Steve Denenberg

    2. Title: Reading the sons of Haman
      Author: False == 1 ? Anonymous : Steven Denenberg &##44;

      Hi, Rabbi! Somehow, I just found and read this essay of yours. I have a question that I've been thinking about and asking around for *years*, but nobody has an answer, and I'd love a comment from you, especially because you've studied the issue. I read Megillat Esther every year at my schul. The Hazzan divides it up so 5 or 6 readers cover all 10 chapters. Pass around the kavod. I'm never the one who "gets" to read the ten sons, but: Whoever is reading the sons reads them in one breath, but he reads them soooooo fast. He gets them done in, literally, about two seconds. Now, I always thought the minhag was to read them in one breath. But there aren't fifty sons! If you can do it, in one breath, at a normal pace, why not? It always seems as though the goal is not *just* to do it in one breath, but to do it absolutely as fast as your mumbling can accomplish it. I have excellent breath control when I sing. I could easily make it last thirty seconds, and not be nervous about running out of air. Would that be wrong? You hint at an answer in your essay, mentioning that there's a potential problem if the speed of the reader -- in order to do it in one breath -- causes the congregation to *not* be able to hear the words, or causes the reader to skip the "v'es"'s. Anyway, I'd love to hear what you think of the issue of speed, assuming that the reader won't get in trouble with completing the sons in one breath. Thanks so much for any insight! And chag sameach coming up! Stay safe! --Steve Denenberg

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