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Can a Blind Man Read the Torah for the Congregation?

Aliza Sperling

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An essay from Havineini – a collection of essays written by the Morot L’Halakha | Cheshvan 5779
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Becoming a Bar Mitzvah marks the beginning of Jewish adulthood, and is often celebrated by having the Bar Mitzvah read the Torah for the congregation. Can a blind boy celebrate his Bar Mitzvah by reading the Torah for the congregation from a Braille text? Can a blind man read the Torah and exempt the congregation from their obligation to read the Torah?

Background

Hebrew Braille became available in the 1940s, and whereas blind individuals previously had no access to reading the Torah text, this innovation enabled blind individuals to read with their fingers through a system of raised dots. Braille is not a language, but rather a code by which a variety of languages can be written and read. Research has found that blind people process reading Braille in the same area of the brain where sighted people process reading print. Braille chumashim are now readily available, and a blind person who reads Braille could read the Torah portion like a sighted person, with two differences: (1) the reading is performed through touch, not by sight; and (2) the reading would be done out of a Braille text, not a Sefer Torah.

It is always preferable to perform a mitzvah in the most ideal manner possible (לכתחילה), and from a halakhic perspective the best way to read the Torah is directly from a Sefer Torah. However, adherence to the ideal practice will lead to the exclusion of blind persons from keriat haTorah. This paper embarks upon a journey to discover which halachic elements are crucial, which are “negotiable,” and whether the circumstances of accommodating the inclusion of a blind bar mitzva justify departure from normative practice.

Is a Blind Individual Obligated in Keeping Mitzvot?

In practice, a blind individual is obligated in keeping mitzvot (Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 53:8; Mishnah Berurah 53:14). This law follows the position of the Rabbis, who maintained that the blind are obligated in mitzvot by Torah law, as opposed to Rabbi Yehuda, who exempted them (see BT Bava Kamma 86b-87a. See also Tosafot Rosh Hashana 33b s.v. ha Rabbi Yehuda ha Rabbi Yose, who maintain that even Rabbi Yehuda believes that blind individuals are obligated in mitzvot by rabbinic law). There are, however, certain cases in which blindness is an impediment to performing certain mitzvot.

Is a Blind Individual Permitted to Read the Torah for the Congregation?

Three major factors must be explored in order to address the question whether a blind man is permitted read the Torah without an ability to see the text, and whether he can fulfill the congregation’s obligation to publicly read the Torah when reading from a braille text. In this section we will explore the following issues: (a) the permissibility of reciting the Torah from memory, and whether the community can fulfill their obligation in public Torah reading in this way; is reading from Braille better or equal to reciting from memory? (b) Can the prohibition to read from memory be waived in general, and specifically in the case of a blind individual? (c) Halachic Developments in Blind People’s Access to keriat haTorah.

A. Reciting the Torah from Memory, and Reading from Braille

The Talmud in Gittin 60b and Temurah 14b state that reciting the Torah text from memory, and possibly even from a book instead of from a Sefer Torah, is prohibited: דברים שבכתב אי אתה רשאי לאומרן על פה, ‘it is not permitted to recite the Written Torah from memory.’ Presumably, this would disqualify a blind individual from reading Torah, since he cannot sight-read the words from the text. Until the invention of Hebrew Braille, a blind individual could only recite the words of the Written Torah from memory.

However, in practice people recite verses from memory all the time, as well as from books that are not Sifrei Torah. Furthermore, we know that the Kohen Gadol recited a section of Torah from memory on Yom Kippur. The Rishonim were aware of this disparity between prohibition and practice, and have suggested various resolutions. The resolutions outlined below might create an opening for having the Torah read by a blind individual.

According to one position this rule is no longer applicable at all, while others consider it a mitzvah min hamuvchar (a more elevated way of performing the mitzvah), or a general preference that is not an actual prohibition.

On the opposite extreme, Ritva on Yoma 70a argues that one may not recite the Torah for the congregation, or even read the Torah for individual study, unless it is directly from a Torah scroll. However, when a Torah reading has a different function, such as prayer, praise for G-d, an announcement of upcoming events, or general memorization – it is not subject to the prohibition of “devarim shebechtav.” According to this view, a blind individual is prohibited from reciting the Torah from memory both for his or her own study, and as part of keriat haTorah for the congregation.

Abudraham quotes the Jerusalem Talmud (although the quote does not appear in our editions) in saying that “devarim shebechtav” pertains specifically to times when there is an obligation to read the Torah publicly, “lest they say that [the Torah] is missing [some of the text that is being recited].” While this view specifically prohibits keriat haTorah from memory, nowadays when the congregation have their own chumashim, the concern of fabrication would be obviated.

Tosafot in Temurah 14b and the Rosh distinguish between an individual learning on his or her own, and reciting the Torah to aid someone else in fulfilling their obligation. Here we raise the question: does keriat haTorah fulfill the obligation of others in the same way, since it appears to be a communal obligation rather than a personal one?

The Mordechai quotes Rabbenu Tam as saying that the ban of devarim shebechtav applies only when the passage that is being recited is not generally known by heart. If the issue is ensuring that no mistakes are made, this is easily solvable today.

  • The Beit Yosef (Tur, Orach Chaim 49) quotes Rav Shlomo Min HaHar who says that some Biblical texts, like Shema, are supposed to be recited from memory. Therefore, “since we are obligated to recite it from memory, he may recite it even when it is not an obligation whenever he desires.”

Many of these interpretations of “devarim shebechtav” focus on our concern that one who recites from memory will make mistakes, or will not have access to all the cues in the written text, or that the congregation will suspect that the reader is fabricating what the Torah says since he is not reading from the text. Since today, if a blind Bar Mitzvah should read from a Braille text, while the congregation has their own chumashim and can assure themselves that the reading is accurate, these new factors should assuage these concerns.

B. Waiving the Prohibition in General, and Specifically with Regard to the Blind

In Gittin 60b, Rabbah and Rav Yosef initially prohibit the recitation of the haftarah from a Sefer Aftarta, a book that contains all the haftarot, because of the rule דלא ניתן ליכתב – these haftarot may not be written down outside of the context of the full book from which they were taken. Ritva explains that reading from the Sefer Aftarta would be the equivalent of reading from memory: the Written Torah was only permitted to be read from a complete scroll; reading from less than a complete scroll is considered to be reciting it from memory, and is therefore prohibited. The Gemara rejects this ruling, comparing this case to writing the words of the Oral Torah. The doctrineעת לעשות לה’ הפרו תורתך comes into play: when there is an overriding concern, we can violate a commandment to protect the overall vitality of Torah. Just as the Oral Law was ultimately written because of the fear that it would otherwise be forgotten, so too the Written Law can be recited by memory because of an impossible situation: most people did not have complete scrolls to use every time they wanted to recite part of the Written Torah. Two possible ramifications may emerge from the Gemara’s use of עת לעשות לה’ in this context:

  1. The requirement of “devarim shebechtav” has been completely waived

The Rishonim are divided as to whether עת לעשות has the power to waive the prohibition of reciting the Written Torah from memory, or whether it simply limits the prohibition to certain cases (as above). In his responsum (which we will examine later), Rambam writes that keriat haTorah may be recited for the congregation from a non-kosher Torah scroll, a chumash, or even from memory. According to Aruch Hashulchan, Rambam believed that “devarim shebechtav” was completely overturned, and there is no longer any requirement whatsoever – even for keriat haTorah for the congregation – for the reading to be from a kosher Sefer Torah.

  1. “Devarim shebechtav” does not apply to blind individuals

Tosafot on Bava Kamma 3b argue that blind individuals may recite the Written Torah even from memory. Certainly, they say, אין לך עת לעשות גדול מזה – this is a case in which we must allow the blind individual to recite the Written Torah even if he or she can’t see it – for how else can they have access to Torah? Is there a case of  “et la’asot” that is more critical than allowing someone who is blind the ability to access Torah? Radbaz argues with Tosafot, saying that עת לעשות cannot be applied to a certain class of individuals, and can only be used in situations affecting the entire nation.

It is unclear whether Tosafot meant to completely exempt blind people from the strictures of “devarim shebechtav” or whether they only permitted the blind individual to recite the Torah as part of his or her individual Torah study. We argue, based on a comparison with Tosafot in Temurah 14b, that Tosafot here completely exempts blind individuals from the prohibition of devarim shebechtav.

In his commentary on Megillah 24a, Meiri quotes (and rejects) an opinion that allows a blind individual to perform keriat haTorah for the congregation since he is not explicitly excluded from doing so. According to this opinion, “devarim shebechtav” only applies to those who are physically capable of reading from a printed text, and not to those who are physically incapable of doing so.

C. Halachic Developments in Access to Keriat haTorah for the Blind

Over the course of the past 500 years, there have been striking developments in the access given to blind people to read the Torah. In almost every congregation, it is now the custom to give an Aliyah to a blind man. As we shall see, this practice has significant ramifications on the question of whether a blind individual can read Torah for the congregation.

The Shulchan Aruch (OC 53:14, 139:3) prohibits a blind individual from reading the Torah for the congregation (as an Oleh), citing the prohibition of “devarim shebechtav.” However, the Rema (139:3) cites the Maharil, who maintained that in our current times when someone else (besides the oleh) reads Torah portion, a blind man may receive an Aliya and recite the blessing. Perisha writes that the practice of allowing a blind individual to receive an Aliya is practiced in “kehilot gedolot” and Rav Mordechai Yaffe wrote that we should uphold this practice.

This practice of allowing a blind individual to receive an Aliya developed and spread throughout the world. (See Bach, OC 141.) Halacha Yomit, a website dedicated to the rulings of Rav Ovadia Yosef, notes that in Izmir, blind individuals are called up for an Aliya to the Torah, even though they followed the Mechaber for every other practice. Furthermore, Rav Ovadia relied on the opinion quoted in the Rema and would give an Aliya to the musician and Hazan Mordechai Halfon, who was blind in both eyes, “because [prohibiting him from receiving an aliyah] could cause great anguish to someone who is blind . . . and it is prohibited for us to rule stringently with him . . . and we can rely on the words of the Ba’al HaEshkol.”

What is the underlying rationale for this revolution in allowing a blind individual to receive an Aliya? There are two possibilities: (1) The practice of having a baal koreh read the Torah for the congregation instead of the Oleh removed the obligation to read the Torah from the Oleh, who fulfills his obligation through the concept of shome’a k’oneh. In this case, it would make it more difficult to allow a blind baal koreh to read, since the Torah reader (and not the oleh) now has the obligation to read the Torah; (2) The oleh still has the obligation to read from the text, and the baal koreh still functions as his enabler. However, just as we now allow an illiterate oleh to discharge his obligation of reading by repeating the words of the baal koreh and following along in the scroll, we now allow a blind oleh to discharge his obligation by repeating the words of the baal koreh even though he cannot follow along in the scroll.

According to Rav Ovadia Yosef, the new practice can be explained according to the second explanation: the Oleh still must actually read from the Torah scroll in order to fulfill his obligation (instead of simply listening to the baal koreh). However, “reading from the Torah” can encompass even indirect reading not from the written word. According to this position, one is not required to read the Torah directly from the text in order to fulfill the mitzvah of reading from the Torah.

Rav Ovadia’s understanding that one can be considered to have read from the Torah via an intermediary, without necessarily reading from the Torah scroll itself, opens the door to allowing a blind individual to read for the congregation from a Braille text. At the very least, if the main obligation still rests upon the oleh, and the baal koreh is there as an enabler of the Oleh‘s reading, there might be a more lenient standard for the baal koreh‘s reading. However, Rav Ovadia’s position that indirect reading of the Torah is sufficient goes even further. The Braille text can be compared to the baal koreh supplying the words to the blind oleh; in fact, reading from a Braille text is preferable, since we do not need to rely on listening to someone else read where the mode of listening and repeating can lead to error. According to this understanding, the blind Bar Mitzvah could receive an Aliyah and then read the Torah for the congregation from a Braille chumash. In fact, according to Rav Ovadia, those who oppose giving a blind man an Aliya agree that the reading does not have to be from the Torah text itself, but are reluctant to trust the process of having the baal koreh read and the oleh repeat. Reading from a Braille text would relieve their concerns.

Using a Braille Chumash for Keriat HaTorah

A. Is reading from Braille considered b’al peh – reciting from memory?

While the Chatam Sofer considers anything that is not read directly from a Sefer Torah to be “b’al peh,” other authorities understand b’al peh in reference to recitation from memory. Rav Soloveitchik (in his teachings, not in his halachic rulings) on Tosafot in BT Berachot 13a distinguishes between a Sefer Torah that is written on leather (klaf), in Hebrew letters (ktav Ashurit), with ink, and is considered to have the sanctified status of a Sefer Torah, and a Torah that does not have these elements but would still be considered a חפצא דתורה שבכתב – ‘an object of Written Torah.’ It follows that a Braille chumash that is lacking klaf, Ashurit script, and ink, could still be considered a חפצא דתורה שבכתב.

B. Keriat haTorah with a Text that is Not a Kosher Sefer Torah

TB Gittin 60a relates that the people of Galilee sent the following question to the rabbis: may we read from chumashim, individual books of the Torah written on parchment according to the requirements of a Torah scroll, in order to fulfill the obligation of keriat haTorah? At first, no one knows the answer. Ultimately, the Gemara quotes Rabba and Rav Yosef, who ruled that a congregation should not read from a chumash in the beit knesset because of k’vod hatzibur.

The commentaries offer a few different understandings of kvod hatzibur in this context. It could be that reading from a chumash is embarrassing because it shows that the congregation is too poor to afford a complete Torah scroll. Alternatively, since the community has an obligation to purchase a Sefer Torah, and the congregation in this beit knesset did not do so, it is to their detriment. In a similar vein, Ra’avyah writes in the name of the Yerushalmi that the goal is to cause the congregants to be so miserable about not being allowed to read the Torah b’tzibur that they will make an effort to buy a Sefer Torah.

In the case of a blind individual reading from a Braille text, none of these reasons would apply, since it would be clear to anyone in the beit knesset that the congregation does own a Sefer Torah, and that the blind individual simply cannot read from it. There would be no embarrassment to the congregation for being too poor or parsimonious to purchase a Torah, and no need to incentivize the purchase of a Sefer Torah. Indeed, including a person with a disability in the synagogue service enhances, rather than detracts, from, k’vod tzibur.

Rambam and Rashba disagree about whether one may perform keriat haTorah for the congregation from a text other than a kosher Sefer Torah. Rambam argues that it is acceptable b’dieved, while Rashba maintains that only a kosher Sefer Torah is acceptable. Shulchan Aruch in OC 143 writes that we do not read from a chumash for keriat haTorah. However, he writes in OC 143:4 that if a Sefer Torah is found to be disqualified in the middle of the Torah reading, we do not need to make a new bracha and repeat the section that was already read. Thus, according to the Shulchan Aruch, keriat haTorah from a non-kosher Sefer Torah fulfills the obligation b’dievad; a disqualified text does not disqualify the reading. Rema similarly does not require repetition from a new, kosher Sefer Torah. The Shulchan Aruch’s ruling opens the door to exploring readings from other texts besides a kosher Sefer Torah.

Conclusion

We have seen that there is a clear path forward to permit a blind Bar Mitzvah to read Torah for the congregation.

While the Talmud in Gittin and Temurah state: דברים שבכתב אי אתה רשאי לאומרם על פה, which seems to indicate that if a blind person cannot read the words from the text, he may not recite the words of the Written Torah, we have seen many approaches that limit the application of this rule. Some argue that this rule is no longer applicable at all, while others consider it a mitzvah min hamuvchar or a general preference that does not rise to the level of an actual prohibition. Tosafot and an opinion in the Meiri argue that the rule devarim shebechtav does not apply to blind persons at all. The Shulchan Aruch’s position that a blind person may not receive an Aliyah because of devarim shebechtav has been rejected by almost the entire Jewish community, perhaps because indirect reading of the Torah (for example, from a Braille book) may fulfill the mitzvah of keriat haTorah. Furthermore, a Braille chumash may be considered the equivalent of a written scroll, like a Torah scroll written in another language.

While the Gemara in Gittin prohibits reading from chumashim for the congregation because of kvod tzibur, it refers only to cases where the congregation is too poor or parsimonious to purchase a Sefer Torah. There certainly does not seem to be an issue of kvod tzibur if the Bar Mitzvah reads from a Braille text; in fact, as we saw above, kvod tzibur would mandate in favor of creating greater access if possible to a person with a disability.

Rashba and others maintain that keriat haTorah can only be accomplished with a kosher Sefer Torah; however, Rambam (and Tosafot in TB Berachot 13a) maintains that the presence of a kosher Sefer Torah is not necessary to fulfill the mitzvah. The Shulchan Aruch rules that we do not need to repeat keriat haTorah if the Torah scroll is found to be invalid, implying that b’dieved, keriat haTorah can be fulfilled without a kosher Torah scroll.

Underlying the legal discussions, we have seen a striking theme pulsing throughout these sources: the drive to include blind people in Torah study and the Torah service. Tosafot’s remarkable commentary on TB Bava Kamma 3b attacked those who said that Rav Yosef was not allowed to recite the Written Torah, and insisted that a blind person is not subject to “devarim shebechtav” because אין לך עת לעשות גדול מזה. Meiri quoted an opinion that the prohibition against reciting the Written Torah from memory applied דווקא במי שאפשר לו בכתב – ‘specifically with regard to those who are able to read.’

Even more strikingly, the decision of Maharil, Sefer HaEshkol, Rema, and others to allow a blind person to receive an Aliyah, despite significant opposition, was an extraordinary step that sought to find a way for blind persons to have more access to Torah and participation in the synagogue. More astounding is the fact that even the Sephardic world followed suit, despite the position of the Shulchan Aruch, to the point that in Izmir, they followed all the rulings of the Shulchan Aruch except this one. Rav Ovadiah Yosef gave Aliyot to blind persons, and cautioned against stringencies that could cause anguish to someone who is blind. Their actions instruct us that we may not be stringent when there is a way to allow a blind person greater access to Torah, and that we must do all that is in our power to spare the blind person the anguish of being excluded from the Torah service.

When Rav Binyamin Selznik, author of the Maset Binyamin, lost his eyesight, he wrote an extraordinary teshuvah in which he forthrightly shared his sorrow at the Shulchan Aruch’s stance that a blind person does not receive an Aliyah, feeling as if the Shulchan Aruch had “banished [him] from seeking refuge in the inheritance of the Lord, in the Torah of truth and eternal life.”

שו”ת משאת בנימין סימן סב

ואני אמרתי, כי זה עתה לעת זקנתי חשכו הרואות בארובות, ותכהנה עיני מראות, ולפי אשר עלתה במחשבה של הרב ז”ל, לגרשני מלהסתפח בנחלת ה’ ותורת אמת חיי עולם, לבלתי אחשב במספר המנויים לעלות, ולכן אמרתי וגמרתי בלבי חלילה לי מלעזוב את דרך עץ החיים ומלאחוז בענפיה, אהבתי זאת התעודה מימי קדם קדמתה, משפטה ודתה, וגם לעת זקנתי בל אשליכה, ובה אתהלכה, ואפתח בדבר הלכה, לראות על מה עשה לי הרב ככה…

The pain of the Maset Binyamin and other blind persons like him who wish to come closer to the “Torah of truth and eternal life” despite their disability animates many of the extraordinary commentaries and halachic decisions that we have seen up to this point. These authorities dealt only with cases where the blind person would recite the Torah from memory, since Hebrew Braille was not invented until the 1940s. Today, Braille chumashim are readily available and a blind Bar Mitzvah can read his parasha from Braille print. We are called to respond to this new situation by permitting the blind Bar Mitzvah to read Torah for the congregation, following the path that we have discussed above, rather than ruling stringently and pushing them away. As a blind child becomes bar mitzvah, what message do we want to send him? We should avail ourselves of the many sources that permit a blind person to read the Torah for the congregation, communicating to the new adult member of our community that he has a place within the community of God and the Torah of eternal life – נחלת ה’ ותורת אמת חיי עולם.

Footnotes

This paper is an executive summary of a more extensive article: Aliza Sperling, “May a Blind Bar Mitzvah Read the Torah for the Congregation?” (forthcoming).

 

Aliza Sperling

Aliza Sperling