Monthly Archives: October 2017

May a Chazan Lead High Holidays Services from a Wheelchair? Part 5

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi:

Mr. Toviah Goodman has davened 1st day Rosh Hashannah Shacharit and Yom Kippur Neilah for our shul since its founding in 1993.  However, he suffered several health setbacks this year, and now is in a wheelchair full time.  Should he continue to serve as shaliach tzibbur, or should we replace him with someone who is able to stand?


The Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak


To the Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak:


The halakhic tradition is unequivocal that disability, even a disability that would disqualify a priest from serving in the Temple, is from a purely halakhic perspective fundamentally irrelevant to serving as a shaliach tzibbur.  The simplest proof of this is the universal agreement that a blind man can serve as shaliach tzibbur (so long as one adopts the consensus position that blind people are fully obligated in mitzvot).

One might raise nonetheless raise the technical objection that a shaliach tzibbur in a wheelchair cannot stand.  However, there is no question that such a person is obligated to pray in a private capacity, and would be able to fulfill that obligation while seated in his wheelchair.  There is no evidence that a shaliach tzibbur is more obligated to stand than an individual.  It follows that inability to stand is not a fundamental bar to being a shaliach tzibbur.

One might nonetheless raise the concern that people who are able to stand will mistakenly learn that standing during prayer is unnecessary.  This concern is found in Sefer Chasidim, and cited by some contemporary halakhists.  However, it seems to me that the case in Sefer Chasidim is explicitly one of someone who had no externally obvious disability, but merely lacked strength, and therefore sat on occasion in an ordinary chair.  A casual observer might therefore conclude that he was choosing to sit, and imitate his behavior.  By contrast, a person sitting in a wheelchair is presumably not doing so by choice, and there is no concern that members of the congregation will mistakenly learn from him that they too may sit.

There is accordingly no question that a person in a wheelchair may serve as a shaliach tzibbur, and that the tzibbur led by such a person fulfills all their halakhic obligations.

What remains is the question of whether, all other things being equal, selecting such a shaliach tzibbur is equal, preferable, or less desirable than selecting a person who is able to stand.

Chavot Yair cites kabbalistic reasons for preferring a non-disabled chazan.  I am not competent to evaluate these arguments directly.  But I am comfortable saying that they carry an implication that disturbs me.  So far as I can see, they relate to the nature of the prayer itself, rather than to the quality of representation.  As such, they suggest that a physical disability inherently damages the quality of a person’s prayer.  This is directly against the position of Maharam and Maharshal.  Chavot Yair cites no precedents for applying his arguments in a halakhic context.   One therefore need not be choshesh for them in our case against Maharam and Maharshal.

Chavot Yair further claims that there is a lack of kavod hamitzvah in appointing such a shaliach tzibbur.  Even those who are not kabbalists, he says, should recognize that this is parallel to Malachi’s criticism of the Jews for bringing lame animals as sacrifices.  If such animals were brought as gifts to an overlord, they would generate disfavor rather than favor: why should we expect G-d to act differently?

Maharam explained why – “The dignity of G-d is not like the dignity of flesh and blood”.  But the truth is, Chavot Yair himself explained that it is the tefillah that is the sacrifice, not the mitpallel (pray-er).  Otherwise, one would be devaluating the individual prayers of the disabled.

It is possible that Chavot Yair is not referring to G-d’s reaction, but rather to that of the community: they will perceive themselves as offering G-d the moral equivalent of blemished animals, and they will therefore devalue their own mitzvot.  One might also suggest, as a supplement to Chavot Yair, that there is an issue of kavod hatzibbur in appointing such a shaliach tzibbur, meaning that other communities will see this community as devaluing itself.

I suggest that even if this is halakhically significant in cases where Torah is otherwise neutral, it is not true where Torah is morally committed to opposing and altering the public perception.  In this case, it seems to me that Maharam and Maharshal understood Torah to have such a commitment, while Chavot Yair did not.  On that analysis, I would be comfortable following Maharam and Maharshal.

The problem is that Maharam’s position itself challenges contemporary sensibility regarding disability.  Our social ideal is for men in wheelchairs to become shluchei tzibbur, or not, at the same rate as men on feet, and for the same reasons.  We do not wish to regard disabled men as broken vessels, or for disabled men to relate to themselves as broken.

The reciprocal problem is that contemporary sensibility is also prima facie incompatible with the ban on kohanim with certain disabilities or blemishes serving in the Temple, and that ban is explicit in the Torah.

This difficulty can be raised against Maharam as well.  As the Zohar points out, G-d bans such physically “broken vessels” from serving in the Temple, and therefore our midrash cannot be understood literally.  Rather, it must refer to those with broken spirits or hearts.

Furthermore, Maharam in his teshuvah refers to the disabled man as one who “has been affected by G-d’s attribute of justice”, and it seems reasonable that the reason G-d’s dignity is enhanced by the service of such men is that they remain attached to Him, rather than embittered against Him, despite having been punished.  This too is difficult to square with contemporary sensibility.

Some have tried to resolve this conundrum by framing what I am calling “contemporary sensibility” in terms of the halakhic category of kavod haberiyot, human dignity.  In other words, they seek to give our sensibility formal halakhic weight, and then to discuss our question in formal halakhic terms.

I prefer to avoid categorizing eligibility or ineligibility for public ritual roles as inherently an issue of kavod haberiyot.  It seems to me that halakhah generally understands kavod haberiyot as a function of habit and reasonable expectations based on experience.  Thus a zaken may refrain from returning a lost object if picking it up is beneath his dignity, even if a non-zaken would be obligated.  Similarly, people can receive private tzedakah to maintain their public standard of living, even if that standard is beyond their current means, and likely even if it is beyond the means of some of those donating.

I also find it deeply problematic to define kavod haberiyot halakhically in ways that conflict with incontrovertible halakhic precedents, let alone explicit Biblical categories.

However, it is very likely an issue of kavod haberiyot to deprive people who have been accustomed to lead services of the ability to do so when they become disabled.  This is the basis for Mas’eit Binyamin’s remarkably emotional teshuvah about aliyot for the blind, and for contemporary discussions of whether men with colostomy bags can receive aliyot.

In our case, Mr. Goodman has become accustomed to playing this role, and so our case is comparable to standard precedents regarding kavod haberiyot.  Accordingly, one can add kavod haberiyot to the grounds for permitting him to continue his role without understanding it as a universal levelling principle.

But we must be clear that it is an additional reason rather than a necessary reason.  The fundamental halakhah remains that being in a wheelchair does not disqualify one from serving as a shaliach tzibbur.  What we have failed to resolve is whether, all other things being equal, it is preferable to choose someone in a wheelchair, following Maharam, or preferable not to, following Chavot Yair.  In the absence of such a resolution, the halakhah in fact if accidentally should track the contemporary sensibility and treat being in a wheelchair as halakhically irrelevant.

We have also failed to resolve the underlying question of the relationship between contemporary sensibility and halakhic precedent, and we have left numerous approaches unexplored.  One might for example argue that in a fundamentally egalitarian society, equal treatment becomes a function of habit and a reasonable expectation.  One might argue that the capacity to represent the community ritually has different significances in different societies.  One might seek to embed principles of equal treatment in halakhic or hashkafic categories other than kavod haberiyot.  One might argue that the weight of halakhic precedent should compel us to position ourselves as countercultural, whether in Maharam’s way or in Chavot Yair’s.  However, none of these arguments are necessary to resolve our case, and so this teshuvah is not the proper place to evaluate them.

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Noach: A High School Seminar Transcript

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

(Note:  A seminar is a class discussion with rigorous and formal canons of discussion, often including a requirement that opinions be backed by specific textual evidence. In today’s class, every student is required to make at least one substantive contribution to receive a passing grade.)

Teacher: Today’s seminar will begin from a very brief opening thesis/dvar Torah by Gittel.

Gittel: Hashem wanted people to be good, but they were bad and getting worse.  Hashem warned them that bad things would happen, but they didn’t listen.  Finally He destroyed the world in a flood, leaving only Noach and his family alive.

We should learn from this that we really need to be good, and that we should believe people when they say that Hashem will destroy the world if we’re not good.

Rivky:  But didn’t Hashem promise that He would never bring another Flood?  I think the lesson is that if people tell us that Hashem will destroy the world if we’re not good, we shouldn’t listen to them: Hashem did that once and he won’t do it again.

Elimelekh:  Just because He promised not to bring a flood, doesn’t mean he isn’t going to destroy the world some other way.  “G-d gave Noah the rainbow sign/no more water, it’s the fire next time.”  And in fact, when Sodom gets as evil as the Flood generation, Hashem rains fire on them.

Yaakov:  That’s cheating!  What’s the point of His promise then?

Rivky:  Anyway, people are always telling us that the world’s going to end soon.  We can’t believe all of them, so how do we choose?  I think we shouldn’t believe any of them.

Gittel: We should listen to prophets.

Rivky: But there are no prophets nowadays!  I know that Chazal said that “Prophecy was taken from the wise and given to the insane and children” – is that whom you want us to listen to?

Yaakov: We have people with ruach hakodesh; we should listen to them.

Elimelekh: People with ruach hakodesh can still make really bad mistakes, and anyway we really don’t know who has it or what it means.

Shlomo:  Maybe it means that we should listen to scientists.  I think a lot of them are telling us that the world will become uninhabitable if we don’t stop global warming.

Yaakov:  But stopping global warming isn’t about morality and avodas Hashem!  It’s about reducing our carbon footprint.

Rivky: And anyway, He promised.

Shlomo: Maybe there’s a connection.  Maybe a society would only go on doing things that could kill our whole species if it had completely lost control of its appetites, and so it must be a really evil society.

Yael: But we’re not really one society in the world, so how could Hashem judge us all together?

Elimelekh:  Why should we believe that what scientists tell us is true?  Doesn’t science keep changing?

Rivky: I think that’s cheating.  We assume that science is true in every other class in this school.

Yaakov:  So let’s stop doing that in the other classes too.

Elimelekh:  Are we really living in a society that might be so evil that G-d would destroy us, at least if He hadn’t promised not to?  Didn’t Rav Moshe Feinstein say that America is a “government of chesed”?

Yaakov: Rav Moshe was niftar many years ago, and things have gotten much worse.  One of my rebbeim said that the generation of the Flood was punished because hishchis kol basar es darko al haaretz, meaning rampant sexual confusion – isn’t that happening in America today?

Gittel: Chazal also said that Hashem spares any society that is interpersonally good, even if they’re terrible at bein adam laMakom.  I think at least America qualifies.

Yaakov: I think Hashem does judge the whole world together, as one society, for these purposes.  There’s something powerful in the idea that we and our worst enemies are all one moral ecosystem from Hashem’s perspective.

Batsheva: Why are you so confident that America is a good society interpersonally?  Almost everything I read is about African-American being killed by police, women (and men) being sexually assaulted, and enormous gaps between the rich and the poor.  It may be true that we profess excellent values, but we don’t live up to them.

Elimelekh: I think you need to keep America’s faults in perspective.  Despite everything, almost everyone in the world realizes that they would prefer to live here if they made a purely rational decision.

Batsheva: Yes, but maybe that’s just because we’re so rich.  If we were a poor country, would people feel the same way?

Shlomo:  You’re assuming that virtue and success are unrelated.  Maybe we’re so rich because we’re so good.

Gittel:  Doesn’t Kohelet tell us that virtue and success are unrelated?

Shlomo: I didn’t mean that Hashem rewards us.  I meant that our society gives people the freedom to be creative and the ambition to live well, and that’s a recipe for national wealth.

Batsheva: Part of the message of Kohelet is that it often takes a long time for the economic effects of virtue or vice to wear off.  We might be rich because our grandparents constructed a virtuous society, even though our society is totally corrupt.

Yaakov:  Maybe Hashem judges individuals “ba’asher hu sham”, as they are now, but judges societies on the basis of their potential.  He only brought the flood when there was no hope that anything worthwhile would ever emerge from that society.  Does America still have the potential for moral greatness?

Gittel: I think it would be enough for Hashem if the Jewish people were virtuous or had the potential for moral greatness.  But I don’t see us being better or worse than anyone else.

Yael:  It’s very hard to compare societies.  But I find it difficult to believe that the world today is worse morally than it was in the 1940s, or in the nineteenth century.  So I really don’t think it makes sense to say that we’re under threat of G-d destroying the world today.

Elimelekh: The whole North Korea situation has really scared me, and I’ve read a lot about the Cold War, when many people thought nuclear war was inevitable.  Maybe we’re always under threat of G-d destroying the world:

Shlomo: But why should we be?  If we’re better than the worst ever, there shouldn’t be a threat.

Rivky: Rambam says that every Jew should imagine every year that the whole world’s survival depends on whether their next choice is for good or evil.  Maybe the possibility of the world being destroyed tomorrow is necessary to make us take our free will seriously.

Teacher: So, last round.  What’s your one sentence takeaway from Parshat Noach?

Batsheva: Societies should always consider whether they are badly overestimating themselves.

Elimelekh: Existence is always fragile.  We survive only while Hashem Wills us to.

Gittel: There really isn’t any excuse for being evil if you believe in Hashem.

Rivky: We should act as if the world depends on us, but really G-d will be merciful anyway.

Shlomo: Human beings and animals have the same end, but if we’re good, maybe Hashem will know our names.

Yaakov: The world is an ark, and we are all on it together, whether we like it or not.

Yael: Humanity is too diverse and complex for Hashem ever to find us completely valueless.

Teacher: Thank you very much for your serious participation.  I think this was a powerful discussion: I learned a lot about the parshah, and about you.  I hope you’ll share this discussion with your parents and your shuls.  Shabbat shalom!

(Please note: This dialogue is a work of fiction.  No actual students were stimulated to think in the course of its preparation, but I would be encouraged if it resembled actual classrooms. Do you agree?)

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The Primordial Covenant of Life

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Avi Hirsch

After the Flood waters have finished receding, Hashem establishes a covenant with Noach and with his children (BeReishit 9:8-11):

ח וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶל־נֹ֔חַ וְאֶל־בָּנָ֥יו אִתּ֖וֹ לֵאמֹֽר׃ ט וַאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃ י וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־נֶ֤פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֔ם בָּע֧וֹף בַּבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּֽבְכָל־חַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ אִתְּכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ יֹצְאֵ֣י הַתֵּבָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ יא וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כָּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And God said to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, “I now establish My covenant with you and your offspring to come, and with every living thing that is with you—birds, cattle, and every wild beast as well—all that have come out of the ark, every living thing on earth. I will maintain My covenant with you: never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Several questions emerge from this passage. First, the language of “מֵקִים” and “וַהֲקִמֹתִי” (to establish or maintain) is unusual for the creation of a covenant. The root that is usually used in the Torah for this is “כרת”.i[1] Furthermore, the classic covenant in the Torah is a two-way pact, with both parties swearing oaths to one another.[2] Here, we find no mention of man’s role in the covenant. Hashem’s promise to uphold life in the world by never again bringing a flood seems to be completely independent of the actions of the other party, namely, Noach and his sons. Where is the other side of the covenant?

To shed light on these questions, we will backtrack to the beginning of the Parashah, where we find another covenant between Hashem and Noach. Hashem tells Noach (6:18):

יח וַהֲקִמֹתִ֥י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתָּ֑ךְ וּבָאתָ֙ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֔ה אַתָּ֕ה וּבָנֶ֛יךָ וְאִשְׁתְּךָ֥ וּנְשֵֽׁי־בָנֶ֖יךָ אִתָּֽךְ:

“And I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives.”

The language here is very reminiscent of the second, post-Flood covenant. The same phrase, “וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי,” “And I will establish my covenant” appears in both passages, and both of our two questions from the later covenant reemerge here. But here there is a new, overarching question that must first be resolved: What is Hashem’s side of the pact? Unlike in the later covenant, here the text does not explicitly tell us what the agreement is that Hashem will be “establishing” with Noach upon his entering the ark.

Several answers to this question are offered by the commentaries. Ibn Ezra, for example, explains that though the text never tells us this explicitly, Hashem had, in fact, sworn to Noach that He will keep him alive during the Flood. Ramban disagrees, and suggests that Hashem’s guarantee is implicit in the next few verses; namely, that Noach, his family, and all the pairs of animals with them will survive the Flood by entering the ark.

Other commentators, such as Abarbanel and the Netziv, take a different approach entirely, explaining that there was an implicit, primordial covenant that already existed from creation. Although the exact approach here differs among the commentators, the general idea is that from the moment Hashem created Man, a covenant was implicitly created between Hashem and all of humanity upholding the life that was created. This ongoing covenant, Hashem now informs Noach, will be upheld through his survival in the ark.

It is this primordial covenant, I think, that is upheld and reaffirmed twice in Parashat Noach, once before the Flood and once following it. This is not a new covenant that needs to be “created;” instead, it needs only to be reestablished with Noach, once before the Flood and once after.

What, then, is humanity’s role in this eternal covenant? Upon further examination, we do find a responsibility that the human must fulfill in both covenants in Parashat Noach, but in both cases, it appears before the mention of the covenant itself. Pre-Flood, Noach is commanded to build the ark in which he and the animals will be saved (6:14-16); post-Flood, Noach and his children are warned against murder (9:6). Furthermore, in both cases, Hashem details Man’s responsibility immediately prior to reassuring them of the covenant that He will uphold. And in both cases, the responsibility of the human “supports” that of Hashem: Noach must do his part to save Hashem’s creations by building the ark (which he faithfully fulfills), and Hashem, in turn, will save Noach through that ark (which He, too, fulfills); following the Flood, all of humanity is instructed not to end human life, and Hashem, in turn, swears to never again bring a flood to end human life.

Thus, both times the covenant is mentioned in Parashat Noach, it follows the same basic three-part structure: first we have an instruction to humanity to fulfill their responsibility in the covenant, then there is mention of the covenant itself, and finally Hashem’s part in upholding this “primordial” covenant is explained.

However, if the primordial covenant has existed since the creation of the first humans, we would expect to find humanity’s role in this covenant already mentioned when the first humans are created. And indeed, we do find a life-affirming commandment there (1:27-28):

כז וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱ-לֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ כח וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱ-לֹהִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱ-לֹהִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

Immediately following the creation of man in God’s image, man is commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. This commandment of “פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ,” then, is man’s responsibility in the primordial covenant to preserve life.

The commandment to reproduce, of course, perfectly parallels and supports Hashem’s creation of humanity. Through this process, humanity, having been made “in God’s image,” becomes His partner in creation. While Hashem created the first humans, we have a responsibility to continue that creation. [3]

However, not until Parashat Noach do we find this covenant made explicit in the text. Why is Noach chosen to fulfill humanity’s role as Hashem’s partner in this covenant? Noach is one of the few individuals in the Torah to be described as a man who “walks with God” (6:9). Not only that, but until the Flood, Noach consistently fulfills Hashem’s commands immediately without pausing to question or second guess them.[4] Noach is, therefore, the perfect person to work with Hashem in fulfilling the covenant of life.

But the primordial covenant is eternal. All of humanity, in every generation, has a responsibility to fulfill its part in the covenant by obeying Hashem’s command to preserve life in the world. In this way, we, like Noach, will “walk with God,” becoming His partner by fulfilling His will.


[1] See BeReishit 15:8, 21:27; Shemot 24:8, 34:10 for some of the many examples.

[2] For example, Avraham and Avimelech enter into a two-way pact in BeReishit 21.

[3] The connection between this passage and the reaffirming of the covenant after the Flood (in BeReishit 9) is emphasized by the repetition there of both humanity’s original mission to be fruitful and multiply (9:1,7), and the nature of humanity as having been created “in the image of God” (9:6).

[4] See BeReishit 6:22, 7:5. In fact, until the Flood, the only thing Noach does that is not a response to an immediate command of Hashem is to have three sons, thereby fulfilling his role in the primordial covenant.

Avi Hirsch (SBM 2017) is a junior at Yeshiva University, where he is studying Computer Science.

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May a Chazan Lead High Holiday Services from a Wheelchair? Part 4

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi:

Mr. Toviah Goodman has davened 1st day Rosh Hashannah Shacharit and Yom Kippur Neilah for our shul since its founding in 1993.  However, he suffered several health setbacks this year, and now is in a wheelchair full time.  Should he continue to serve as shaliach tzibbur, or should we replace him with someone who is able to stand?


The Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak


We can sum up our pre-20th century precedents as follows:

Maharam and Maharshal prefer blemished shluchei tzibbur.

Mahari Brona and Chavot Yair prefer shluchei tzibbur who are unblemished and physically whole.

Sefer Chassidim is indifferent to the question of blemishes.  However, Sefer Chasidim sees disability as an issue if it prevents a shaliach tzibbur from fulfilling the prayer obligation in the manner incumbent upon, or perhaps even preferential for, people without disabilities, lest they learn from him.

In the 20th century, the question of a shaliach tzibbur in a wheelchair was addressed, whether analytically, by reporting anecdotes, or by reporting responses they received, by

  1. Rabbi Ezra Batzri in Techumin vol. 4
  2. Rabbi Shmuel Toledano in Tzohar vol. 3 (5758), and again in Tzohar vol. 10
  3. Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein in Chashukei Chemed to Berakhot 30a
  4. Rabbi Hillel Herzl Yitzchak in Beit Hillel 35 (5768)
  5. Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Leibes in Responsa Beit Avi OC3:38
  6. Rabbi Pinchas Toledano in Responsa Brit Shalom 3:7
  7. Rabbi Mordekhai Tzvi HaLevi Tziyyon in שו”ת השואל #8

1. R. Batzri concludes forcefully that there is no halakhic issue so long as the community does not object, and the community ought not to object.

2. R. Shmuel Toledano in Tzohar vol. 3 (5758) concludes that there is no issue ad hoc or when the person has a chiyuv.  For Yamim Noraim, the same is true if it is clear that the congregation forgives its dignity in this regard.  (However, he discourages appointing an amputee lekhatchilah for the Yamim Noraim or regularly).

He reports that R. Wozner, author of Responsa Shevet Levi, told him that a chazan who cannot stand can be appointed for the Yamim Noraim if he is best for the tzibbur’s kavvanah, and that he might remember R. Meir Shapiro, founder of Yeshivat Chakhmei Lublin, sitting while being shaliach tzibbur for the Yamim Noraim.

In Tzohar vol. 10, R. Toledano revisits the issue and provides more fascinating anecdotes:  

a) Rabbi Moshe Shaul Klein reported that the Imrei Chayyim (Gerrer Rebbe) served as shaliach tzibbur on the Yamim Noraim while seated.

b) R. Chaim Kanievski distinguishes between ad hoc and regular service.  The logic seems to be that the shaliach tzibbur standing is a matter of the dignity of the congregation, and the congregations is permitted to forgive its dignity only on an ad hoc basis.

3. R. Zilberstein reports that R. Elyashiv preferred a shalaich tzibbur who could stand even if that meant a decline in piety or vocal ability.  He assumes that the shaliach tzibbur standing is not only an issue of the dignity of the congregation, but a fundamental requirement of prayer.

4. In Beit Hillel 35 (5768), Rabbi Hillel Herzl Yitzchak notes that one might argue that when the Chazan is using a wheelchair, everyone will know that he is unable to stand, and there is no risk that people will learn from him to sit.  This would remove the proof from Sefer Chassidim.  He nonetheless adopts the positions of Rabbis Elyashiv and Kanievski.

5. R. Leibes argued that in America, where in his perception standards had slipped, it is particularly important that the shaliach tzibbur stand.  He also finds Chavot Yair’s arguments compelling. Unfortunately, the specific question he is responding to is elided on  It seems that he believed that a shliach tzibbur who cannot stand should not be allowed to serve on the Yamim Noraim, even if he has already been appointed and will have to be bought off financially.

6. R. Pinchas Toledano in Responsa Brit Shalom 3:7, assumes the issue is purely one of the dignity of the congregation, and concludes that a chazan whom the community desires can therefore serve, as the community may forgive its honor.

7. R. Tziyyon in Responsa HaShoeil #8 cites a wealth of contemporary poskim, of varying stature, as follows:

a) R. Aviner strongly supported Maharam.

b) R. Nebenzahl also ruled that there was no basis for objecting.

c) The book Tefilah Kehilkhatah rules like Maharam in principle.  However, for the Yamim Noraim it prefers to follow Chavot Yair. However, if there would be a loss of human dignity in excluding someone from serving as shaliach tzibbur, he goes back to Maharam.

d) R. Shammai Gross (following Magen Avrohom) thought that one should not follow Maharam lekhatchilah

e) R. Elchanan Prince distinguishes between ad hoc and fixed appointment

f) R. Eliyahu Schlesinger was opposed

g) R. Herschel Schachter reports that Rav S.Z. Auerbach ruled the same way as R. Zilberstein’s report of R. Elyashiv, and thus Rav Shimon Schwab ceased being shaliach tzibbur for Neilah in Breuer’s

h) R. Tziyyon cites Rav Ovadiah Yosef as opposed.  (However, I think this report is an error, and Rav Ovadiah was referring only to a shaliach tzibbur for keriat haTorah.)

i) R. Tziyyon cites the newsletter Vayishma Moshe, however, as reporting some of these same poskim very differently.  For example, it cites Rav S. Z. Auerbach as saying that there is no issue if the community is agreeable, whereas Rav Schachter’s report indicated a substantive opposition.  It also quotes R. Chaim Wozner, son of the author of Shevet Levi, as saying that he could not imagine any Jew raising the issue against someone who wished to be shaliach tzibbur for a yahrtzeit.

Where does all this leave us?  

Major contemporary poskim apparently reach conclusions ranging from unqualified paskening like Maharam to a hard lekhatchilah preference for chazanim who can stand, even if they are less pious or musical.  However, none of them has given the issue a sustained treatment in print, and the secondhand or anecdotal reports are often contradictory even regarding the same posek.  

From my perspective, the two figures here whose opinions might significantly change the landscape of psak are R. S. Z. Auerbach and R. Yosef.  However, the former’s opinion is reported in contradictory ways, and the report of the latter I think reflects a misunderstanding.  So there is no controlling contemporary authority.

One option is to say that there is no real basis for adjudication here.  Once all the formal arguments have been made, and all positions have survived relatively and roughly equally intact, the issue can and should be left to the lay community to decide.  They may choose to ask a halakhic authority to decide for them anyway, either because leaving it to the congregation would likely lead to intracommunal dissension, or because they resonate with that halakhic authority’s religious intuition.  But that is their choice, and the decision would not be made on what Modern Orthodoxy generally recognizes as formal halakhic grounds.

A second approach is to evaluate the textual evidence ourselves, without regard to the weight of previous authorities.  But in this case, we have already concluded that there is essentially no primary textual evidence.     

A third approach is to frame the issue in terms of broader halakhic issues and values.  For example, three kinds of dignity, or kavod, are mentioned in the responses above.

  1. Kavod hamitzvah – the dignity of the commandment.  
  2. Kavod hatzibbur – the dignity of the congregation
  3. Kavod haberiyot – the dignity of the individual human being

Key questions include:

Is there a halakhic hierarchy among these types of kavod?  How do we evaluate their strength, and relative strength, regarding specific issues and cases?  

Modern Orthodoxy often frames itself as strongly committed to the value of “inclusion”.  Is this just another way of saying “kavod haberityot”, or does it have different connotations and implications?  How does “inclusion” play out halakhically?

A related but not identical approach is to frame the issue in terms of the experiences of the people involved.  For example: Maharam prefers a disabled shaliach tzibbur since “G-d’s formal table-service is broken vessels”.  Would disabled people wish to be shluchei tzibbur if that requires them to perceive themselves as “broken vessels”?

Stay tuned next week for the exciting conclusion of Rabbi Klapper’s responsum!

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Bare Cunning: Cognitive Desire in Eden

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ben Kaplan

The story of the “original sin” is embedded into both the Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness. While many of us take this story for granted, looking into it on a deeper level can help us understand deep truths about the human condition. In particular, analyzing the linguistic nuances of the original Hebrew can provide deep insight into two distinct types of human desire.

Seemingly identical words lie on each side of the border between the second and third chapters of B’reishit:

וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱ-לֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן.

In the second perek, the root ערם clearly means that the humans were “naked”, while in the third perek, since presumably none of the animals in the garden were clothed, it is instead translated as “clever.”

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, a proponent of the idea of the deep and interconnected nature of the Hebrew language, separates the two instances of ערם into two distinct linguistic roots.   He connects the root’s definition as “clever” to the Hebrew word ערמה, heap, since a clever person takes many seemingly small actions which are “heaped” together to great effect. Rav Hirsch concludes that the form of ערם meaning naked comes from the root עור, meaning skin. So too, a blind person is called an עור (vowelized differently) since the primary sense he uses to find his way around is touch, which is sensed through skin.

Even if we assume with Rav Hirsch that the two words come from unrelated roots, the use of the same letters to describe humans and animals seems intended to draw a parallel between the naked man and woman and the cunning snake. The deliberate nature of the juxtaposition grows more evident with the acknowledgement that the chapter separation between the two verses is not intrinsic to the Torah itself, but was added by later (by a Christian archbishop in the 13th century). The Masoretic notes make neither a p’tuchah nor s’tumah separation between the two verses.

Some hints from the language of the Torah, as well as from a (somewhat baffling) midrash, may yield a unified definition for the two instances of the root. Rashi on verse 3:1 quotes B’reishit Rabbah as saying that the snake wanted to cause Adam and Chavah to sin due to the desire he felt at seeing them being publicly intimate with each other. This is a reasonable implication of  2:25. The Torah then describes the serpent tempting Chavah to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. At first, Chavah seems to have no desire to eat from the tree, simply answering the serpent’s questions about which trees she may eat from and which one she may not, citing the danger of death. The serpent rejects her concerns, informing Chavah that God does not wish her and her husband to eat from the tree because then “their eyes will open” and they will becomes like gods. Only after this speech is it stated that Chavah desired the tree.

ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל.

It should be noted that the verse refers to eyes and seeing twice, “Chavah saw… that the tree was temptation for the eyes.” Noticing the oddity that Chavah is only seeing these aspects of the tree now, Rashi comments that it was not the tree that Chavah is seeing, rather she is “seeing” i.e. agreeing with, the argument of the serpent. After Adam and Chavah eat from the fruit of the tree, they begin to feel its effects.

ז וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.

Interestingly, the serpent’s promise is partially fulfilled, as the verse testifies that “their eyes opened and they realized that they were naked.” What exactly was the nature of the change wrought by the forbidden fruit? What does it mean that it opened their eyes?

Eyes and vision play a prominent role in the story, as has already been demonstrated. Additionally, seeing and desire seem to be closely related. Chavah “sees” and desires the tree, which “desirable for the eyes.” Additionally, the “opening of the eyes” caused by the fruit of the tree seems to have awakened some form of desire for evil in Adam and Chavah, as is stated explicitly by Rashi in 2:25. However, it seems odd to take this at face value, since the desire to deviate from God’s command clearly existed before eating from from the tree. After all, the very act of eating from the tree was an evil act!

A possible reconciliation of this contradiction is that there was a form of desire that existed before eating from the Eitz HaDaat and a form of desire that only entered the human consciousness afterward. Base, physical desires were absent from the human consciousness until after they ate the forbidden fruit. However, cognitive desires of the mind still existed. This is why the serpent was able to persuade Chavah to eat the fruit and why she only desired the fruit after the serpent gave her an intellectual argument of why she should. The “opening of the eyes” caused by eating the fruit was the human consciousness awakening to the existence of this physical type of desire. As is pointed out by the S’forno (on 3:1), the distinction between cognitive and physical temptation is explicated in Bamidbar 15:39.

וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם

The Torah here warns both not to follow the temptations of the eyes (physical temptations) as well as the temptations of the heart (cognitive temptations). The new awareness of physical temptation is what causes Adam and Chavah to be ashamed of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. The knowledge that they are displaying the parts of themselves that ignite temptation in others is shameful.

If sight is symbolic of the ability to desire that which is external, then nakedness is symbolic of one’s internal existence as an object of desire. As was indicated by the midrash, Adam’s and Chavah’s nakedness ignited temptation in the serpent. If this is true, then a unified definition of ערום can be proposed; namely, an object of desire. While Adam and Chavah ignited physical desire in others, the serpent was ערום in the sense that he ignited cognitive desire in others. His “cleverness” is what allowed him to tempt Chavah to sin. It then makes sense why Rashi connects Chavah’s act of “seeing” to the words of the snake rather than the tree itself. Since physical desire was only awakened by eating the forbidden fruit, the temptation that Chavah “saw” must have been that of the snake’s words.

The idea of a snake being harmful to look at is not only present in our parshah, but in secular sources as well. In Greek myth, the Medusa was a creature with snakes for hair; those who gazed upon her would turn to stone. Likewise, the basilisk featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (inspired by the creature of European myth) causes death to those who look into its eyes. In the Disney films The Jungle Book and Aladdin looking into the eyes of a snake (or in the latter case, a snake-shaped staff, which conjures other biblical parallels) causes the gazer to come under its thrall.

Rav Hirsch’s idea of ערום stemming from עור, skin, fits well into this concept as well. The Gemara in Arachin (15b) draws a parallel between a snake who bites and does not eat his prey to one who speaks lashon hara (evil speech). One who speaks lashon hara is inherently making himself into an object of cognitive desire, as it is forbidden to listen to lashon hara as well as to speak it. Since the snake in B’reishit misuses his faculty of speech to tempt others to sin, one who speaks lashon hara is compared to the snake. As is stated on the same amud, the punishment for speaking lashon hara is tzaraat, an affliction of the skin, the עור. This connection is seen strikingly when Moshe is given signs to prove to B’nei Yisrael that God has sent him. The first two signs he is given are his staff turning into a snake and the skin of his hand being covered with tzaraat. Rashi comments on Sh’mot 4:3 and 4:6 that these signs hinted to Moshe that he spoke lashon hara about Israel by saying they would not believe him.  

While certain ascetic streams of thought would have us focus on rooting out physical temptation from our society, B’reishit indicates that the “original sin” had nothing to do with physical desire. Rather, promises of power and glory as well as clever schemes designed to harm others caused the first ever sin. Chazal draw the parallel of such cognitive sins to lashon hara, often spoken in an attempt to increase one’s own place in the social pecking order. In order to truly correct humanity’s most fundamental flaw, our focus must be on treating our fellows well and using our knowledge and cunning to assist our brothers and sisters, rather than using them as stepping stones for our own material gain.

Ben Kaplan (SBM 2017) graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in bioengineering in May 2017. After spending the summer in SBM, he made aliyah in August and is currently working as a madrich at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion. 

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CMTL Sukkot/Shabbat Bereishit Reader, 2017 Edition

Check out the 2017 edition of the CMTL Sukkot/Shabbat Bereishit Reader for Divrei Torah from Rabbi Klapper and CMTL alumni!

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May a Chazan Lead High Holidays Services from a Wheelchair? Part 3

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi:

Mr. Toviah Goodman has davened 1st day Rosh Hashannah Shacharit and Yom Kippur Neilah for our shul since its founding in 1993.  However, he suffered several health setbacks this year, and now is in a wheelchair full time.  Should he continue to serve as shaliach tzibbur, or should we replace him with someone who is able to stand?


The Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak


Halakhic data can be arranged synchronically or diachronically. Synchronic means presenting all positions as if they exist at the same time; diachronic means showing how positions originated, were eliminated, developed or changed over time.

A certain element of diachronicity is ineluctable in current Orthodox halakhah. We have a structure of authority that is popularly understood to give more authority to a precedent the further back it goes. This is not quite true; what is generally true is that halakhah gives more formal authority to texts from an earlier era than texts from a later era. Roughly speaking, there are four eras: Tannaim, Amoraim, Rishonim, and Acharonim.

Halakhah actually has a counter-principle known as halakhah k’batrai, meaning that the law follows the latest authority within every era in a dispute. However, this principle does not seem to operate well in the era of the Rishonim, which from a halakhic perspective ended more with a whimper than a bang. The extent to which it will operate regarding the period of the Acharonim is in question; we’d first have to settle whether that era has ended.

All these principles functioned on the presumption that the halakhic world could reasonably be understood as revolving on a single axis. Thus we speak of “the Rishonim” and “Acharonim” as if the cultural progression of medieval Judaism in Yemen and France were perfectly coordinated. Of course, this was not the case. But each culture could imagine that it was. When cultures met, either one attained dominance, or they negotiated a rough compromise, so that the presumption could be plausibly maintained.

Why should legal authority be affected by who comes first? The notion of descending authority, in Hebrew yeridat hadorot (which Rabbi Norman Lamm brilliantly termed “the degeneration theory”), is rooted in the sense that Torah still emerges out of the experience of Sinai, which grows more and more attenuated over time. The notion of ascending authority uses the imagery of nanas al gabei anak, the dwarf standing on a giant’s shoulders. Since we believe in the possibility of Redemption, progress must be possible. How can progress be possible, if we are moving further away from Sinai? The answer is that our contributions never start from scratch; we build on the advances of our greater predecessors

Standing on the intellectual shoulders of our predecessors requires us to be aware of their work. Here is where modernity and what we might call the “Standard Model of Halakhah” can come into conflict. A combination of astounding wealth and the growth of information technology means that the contemporary talmid chakham has access to a broad array of past texts and halakhic cultures that did not make it into earlier cuts of the tradition, or at least of his or her tradition.

Moreover, it is much easier than before to make a convincing argument that a later source was unaware of an earlier source, or had access only to corrupted versions of that source.

Why does this matter?

Halakhah has a category called toeh bidvar Mishnah, which roughly means that a halakhic ruling can be declared null and void if its author demonstrably was unaware of a relevant precedent that, had he or she known it, would or should have changed the ruling. This demonstration is difficult to accomplish directly; how can you know what you yourself would have thought, let alone what someone else would have thought? So we adopt essentially a “reasonable halakhist” standard, namely that if in our opinion a reasonable halakhist would or should certainly have changed his or her mind, then the ruling can be declared null and void.

Now we have access to much more material of the Rishonim than any of the later Rishonim or early Acharonim did. By the formal rules of halakhah as we understand them today, this means that halakhah k’batrai does not apply; instead, if an acharon decides an issue differently than it was previously decided by a rishon, but was unaware of that rishon’s decision – the acharon’s decision is null and void, and certainly we should pasken like the rishon rather than the acharon.

All this brings us back to our specific question of the shaliach tzibbur who uses a wheelchair.

In the previous two sections of this teshuvah, we studied three strands of the tradition.

The 13th century R. Meir of Rothenburg (Maharam) probably ruled that the disabled are ideal chazzanim. We noted that his responsum exists in at least two versions, only one of which explicitly addresses disability, but thought that the version which does so is likely correct. This version, printed and heartily endorsed by Maharshal in the 16th century, is the one cited by all subsequent authorities.

The 15th century R. Israel (Mahari) of Brona conceded that there was no halakhah barring a disabled shaliach tzibbur. He nonetheless opposes appointing a disabled man as the official shaliach tzibbur, rather than to lead services ad hoc, and, all things being equal, would rather have services led by a man who has none of the physical conditions or characteristics that disqualify a kohen from serving at sacrifices in the Temple. He cites as precedent the 13th century Or Zarua, without a specific source; we were not convinced that Or Zatua took any relevant position.

R. Israel seems wholly unaware of Maharam. We can plausibly conjecture that he would have changed his mind had he known of Maharam. So on a halakhic level, we are entitled to rule like Maharam even though a later rishon ruled otherwise.

It is also true that Maharshal was unaware of Mahari Brona. However, he would likely have made the same calculation we did, and thus discount him.

The 17th century Chavot Yair agrees with Mahari Brona that there is no halakhic issue, and furthermore rejects any analogy to the Temple service. He comes up with a host of independent reasons, however, for reaching Mahari Brona’s conclusion.

Chavot Yair makes a reference to a prooftext cited by Maharam, and soundly rejects its relevance, but he nowhere indicates awareness that Maharam’s authority was relevant to the issue. Can we presume that he was unaware of Maharam’s ruling, and that he would have changed his mind had he been aware of it? It seems to me at least as likely that he would have developed a compromise similar to that of Mahari Brona.

In the 20th century, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (Chashukei Chemed to Berakhot 39a) casually introduced an early 13th century (pre-Maharam) source that had either been overlooked or been unavailable to all previous decisors. Sefer Chasidim (Margoliot edition) #5756 reads as follows:

אחד זקן היה רגיל להתפלל ביום הכפורים

שנה אחת לא היה חזק לעמוד (ולהתפלל בעמידה)

אמרו מקצתם

כיון שאין לנו כיוצא בו מוטב להתפלל בישיבה,

אמרו הזקנים

כיון שאינו יכול לעמוד – יתפלל אחר אף על פי שאינו כל כך הגון

פן ילמדו ממנו אחרים ויתפללו מיושב,

ואשר כתוב (ש”ב ז’ י”ח) וישב (דוד) לפני ה’

ישב לבו בתפלה

ואמרו במכילתין ויקחו אבן וישימו תחתיו וישב עליה (שמות י”ז י”ב) –

ויקחו אבן אלו האבות

וישימו תחתיו אלו מעשה האבות

וישב עליה אלו מעשה האמהות

הרי לא ישב ממש.

An elderly man regularly served as shaliach tzibbur on Yom haKippurim

One year, he was not strong enough to stand (throughout the prayer)

Some of the (?congregants?) said:

Since we have no one equal to him, it is best that he lead services while seated.

The elders said:

Since he cannot stand – let another lead, even though he is not as appropriate

lest others learn from him to pray while seated

As for 2 Samuel 17:12, He yashav=sat before Hashem –

Translate instead he yashav-settled his heart in prayer.

and Mekhilta to Shemot 17:12 They took a rock and they placed it under him and he sat on it

They took a rock – meaning the forefathers;

they placed it under him these are the deeds of the forefathers

he sat on it- these are the deeds of the foremothers

so (Moshe) never actually sat.

If one takes Sefer Chasidim as a halakhic source, must we take it as halakhically dispositive? Note that Sefer Chasidim is not addressing the question of the nature of the disabled body; he is concerned with the actual inability to stand. Perhaps Maharam would concede in such a case; we cannot prove otherwise, as Maharam’s case so far as we know involved a chazzan whose disability (an arm injury?) had no effect on any of the ritual of prayer. Very likely Mahari Brona and Chavot Yair would agree that this specific form of disability would pose a formal halakhic difficulty.

This week’s section has treated halakhah as if it were purely a formal game – authority is determined by rules, and whoever has more authority, wins. But that is far from an accurate portrait of halakhah. What about our own intellectual evaluation of the evidence provided in precedents? What about values? Moadim lesimchah and please look for Part 4 next week.

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