Taanit Esther is neither of Biblical nor Talmudic origin (according to the vast majority of authorities – see Beit Yosef, Orach Chayim 686). It is a custom dating back to the times of the Geonim. Yet despite its relatively low-level halachic status, most people break their Taanit Esther fast much later than they break their Yom Kippur fast!
The reason for this practice is simple: Purim (usually) immediately follows Taanit Esther. As soon as Taanit Esther ends, the obligation to read Megillat Esther sets in. Since one shouldn’t eat before performing a mitzvah, the fast by default ends up lasting until the services for Purim night conclude. For those who can’t attend services in shul and must wait until someone comes home shul to leyn Megillah for them, the fast lasts even longer.
Fasting for so long, however, amounts to a great hardship for some people. Is there any recourse for them?
The intuitive solution is to allow them to eat a snack after nightfall before Megillah reading begins. After all, it’s only really forbidden to eat a meal (especially with a significant quantity of bread or cake) – not a snack – before performing a mitzvah (Magen Avraham 692:7).
The Terumat HaDeshen (siman 109), however, forbids any eating before the reading in light of the great importance of the mitzvah of Megillah. He offers a different (and surprising) solution for people who find fasting difficult: Read the Megillah after plag ha’mincha (1 ¼ hours before sunset or nightfall).
But how can one read the Megillah before Purim starts? The Terumat HaDeshen answers this question by citing Rabbeinu Tam, who maintains that one can even fulfill one’s Torah obligation to recite the evening Shema after plag ha’mincha. Although most Rishonim require that Shema be read after nightfall (following the Mishnah, Berachot 1:1), the Terumat HaDeshen cites earlier Ashkenazic authorities who firmly note that the accepted custom reflects the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam.
The Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the Terumat HaDeshen (Orach Chayim 692:4), which would seemingly lend his leniency normative status. The Pri Chadash, however, attacks this ruling, insisting that the Megillah may not be read before tzeit ha’kochavim (687:1 and 692:2).
The Pri Chadash rejects relying on Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion since virtually all other poskim insist that Shema must be recited after nightfall. Thus, we cannot apply Rabbeinu Tam’s lenient ruling about saying Shema to reading Megillah.
Furthermore, argues the Pri Chadash, the Talmud itself indicates that the Megillah must be read after nightfall proper. It cites the amora R. Yehoshua ben Levi who requires the Megillah to be read on both Purim night and Purim day (Megillah 4a) and who finds a scriptural allusion to this requirement from Psalms 22:3: “O my God, I call by day, but Thou answerest not; and at night, and there is no surcease for me.” Since the pasuk specifically references day and night, there is no room, argues the Pri Chadash, to read Megillah at night before it’s fully night – i.e., after tzeit ha’kochavim.
Later authorities tend to be sympathetic to the Pri Chadash’s arguments (Bei’ur Ha’Gra 692:4, Mishnah Berurah 692:14). But even if the Pri Chadash’s critique of the Terumat HaDeshen is salient, there are several reasons to approach the nighttime Megillah reading with leniency.
First, the nighttime leyning is not mentioned at all in Tannaitic sources (and seems to be explicitly excluded by the Tosefta [Megillah 2:4]). This omission leads several commentators to conclude that the nighttime reading is an enactment of the Amoraim; from the late biblical period until Mishnaic times, the Megillah was read during the day only (see, for example, Turei Even, Megillah 4a). If so, we certainly have a right to be lenient about the nighttime reading.[i]
Moreover, in Mishnaic times, the Megillah was read as early as the 11th of Adar in some towns, depending on what day Purim fell (Megillah 1:1). Nowadays, due to changed circumstances, the Megillah is always read on Purim itself – the 14th of Adar (or, in cities walled at the time of Joshua, the 15th). Nevertheless, some authorities maintain that since the Megillah can theoretically be read on earlier days, one fulfills one’s Megillah obligation, even in contemporary times, in an extreme emergency if one reads the Megillah on one of these days.
This is especially so if one reads it on the 13th of Adar, which is not only one of the days on which the Megillah was formerly read, but is the very day on which the Jews fought their enemies during the events of the Purim story. Thus, if one reads the Megillah early on Purim evening, one will at worst be relying on the opinion that allows reading it on the 13th in situations of duress (Raavad, Katuv Sham, Megillah 3a; cited in Kol Bo 45 and Meiri, Megillah 2a).
There is even more basis to be lenient if the Megillah is read significantly later than plag ha’mincha, i.e. during bein ha’shemashot – the transition period between day and night, usually assumed to begin at sunset. Since it’s uncertain whether this period belongs to the night or to the day, we may apply the principle of safek de’rabbanan le’kula (when there is a doubt regarding a rabbinical precept, one may err in the direction of leniency) and assume that night has already begun (cf. Aruch Ha’Shulchan 687:4).[ii]
Although the classical psak prefers that a person read Megillah early rather than eat before the reading (see Hilchot Chag beChag Purim, ch. 6 n. 11), contemporary authorities generally prefer that he or she eat a small snack when Taanit Esther is over rather than start the Megillah reading before tzeit ha’kochavim (Mishnah Berurah 692:14, Aruch Hashulchan 692:8). However, those who do begin reading Megillah somewhat before nightfall have a basis on which to rely (Bei’ur Halacha 692 s.v. u’mi’plag).[iii]
It should be noted, however, that the clear implication of most sources that permit reading Megillah before nightfall is that this permission should only be granted on an individual basis in cases of great need. As such, it is by no means correct for a general, communal Megillah reading to commence before tzeit ha’kochavim.[iv] While of course it is ideal for Maariv to begin after tzeit ha’kochavim as well, strictly speaking a congregation can daven Maariv a bit early so long as the Megillah reading begins after nightfall.
In extremely desperate circumstances – for example, a critical mass of members in a congregation are not observant and won’t come to shul if the Megillah reading begins too late for their taste – there are grounds to rely on the lenient view even for a communal reading (cf. Mor UKtziah 687; Bei’ur Halacha, op. cit.). In all situations where an early Megillah reading is sanctioned, it’s much better to begin during bein ha’shemashot rather than earlier at plag ha’mincha.
[i] The Rambam, however, apparently maintains that the nighttime Megillah reading has the same halachic force as the daytime reading (Hilchot Megillah 1:3).
[ii] However, a few authorities maintain that when a rabbinical precept is mentioned in the Bible (divrei kabbalah), one must err on the side of stringency. If we assume that the nighttime Megillah reading is not a later enactment, these authorities would not permit it bein ha’shemashot (see further analysis of reading Megillah during twilight in Hilchot Chag beChag Purim ch. 6 n. 6-7). The Pri Chadash may agree with their reasoning, but he also seems to maintain that the Gemara’s invocation of a prooftext that mentions night specifically indicates that for reading the Megillah at night, absolute night is required in any event.
[iii] Reading Megillah early may be necessary if eating a snack won’t solve the problem – e.g., the person is elderly or ill and needs to go to sleep extremely early. It should also be emphasized that the Megillah may not be read early when Purim falls on Motzei Shabbat, since it’s forbidden to read the Megilah on Shabbat.
[iv] In New York, the Megillah should preferably not be read until 35 minutes after sunset. At Purim time, this corresponds to when the sun is slightly more than seven degrees below the horizon. This is in accordance with the tradition of those communities in Europe that had a masorah for how to calculate tzeit ha’kochavim for matters other than the end of Shabbat, which requires a more stringent time (see HaZmanim BaHavanah by R. Hirsch Lampin for an excellent and clear discussion of this matter). However, it is possible to argue that tzeit ha’kochavim is a bit earlier (when the sun is six degrees, or perhaps a bit less, below the horizon); those who rely on this opinion for reading the Megillah should not be admonished, since we’re dealing with a rabbinical precept and many authorities permit the Megillah to be read earlier than nightfall in any event.