Chapter 1: Perceptions of Deaf people in the Torah, Talmud, and today

David Bar-Tzur

Created 9 September 2008.

ark curtain of blue velvet with golden stiched designs of a top border, crown and hands in the blessing position of the kohanim, like a two-handed Mr. Spock gesture

1.1 Torah and Talmudic period

Whereas Christians have made great strides in providing interpreters for worship services and religious outreach, the Jewish response has been more subdued. Indeed one of the motivations for better access to Jewish services is that Deaf Jews are being lost to Christianity because there is nothing available for them in their home religion. Alexander Fleischman, a previous executive director of the National Congress of the Jewish Deaf and president of the World Organization of the Jewish Deaf (quoted in The Deaf Jew in the Modern World, Edited by Jerome D. Schein and Lester J. Waldman, Ktav Publishing House for New York Society for the Deaf, 1986), said of residential schools for the deaf in the 1980's,

Ofttimes there are no Jewish religious programs, and the Jewish child innocently participates with the Christian children in their Bible classes. The picture is far different for the Christian deaf students. Every denomination is represented with ordained or lay people, fluent in sign language, to give spiritual guidance to the youngsters. Lacking the breadth and depth of instruction about Judaism, many deaf adults lose their Jewish identity. They intermarry, assimilate, convert. Ofttimes they become easy prey to Jews for Jesus and other such movements.

To understand how this has come about, we need to review the Torah's perspective on deafness, especially as it came to be explicated through the Talmud. The Torah, in a narrow sense, is the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). It contains the laws by which religious Jews should structure their lives: both positive actions that lead to a better relationship with God and neighbor and prohibitions against acts that would cause such relationships to suffer. In a broader sense, the Torah is the full exegetical expansion of all the wisdom to be found in these Five Books that has developed over the ages. The Talmud is a record of the most canonical interpretations of the Five Books, showing the argumentation that has led to legal decisions. The Torah and Talmud together give us a picture of the evolving Jewish consciousness that is still being explicated today.

An extremely detailed and analytical approach has been provided by Judith Z. Abrams in her book Judaism and disability: Portraits in ancient texts from the Tanach through the Bavli. I will summarize some of her findings, but I strongly recommend that you read the book in its entirety for a deeper understanding. Her analysis, as you can see by the title, is broader than deafness alone, but deafness is our focus here and even from that vantage she discusses a number of interesting topics that we need not deal with here.

In modern and Biblical Hebrew, a deaf person is called a cheresh. The status of chereshim (the plural form) is often dealt with in connection with the mentally ill, and minors (cheresh, shoteh, and qatan). This seems odd, but Abrams orients us to this by explaining about the sages, the early rabbis whose discussions and decisions were recorded in the Talmud. "In general, to be able to act fully in the sages' system, a person must (1) have da'at ("cognition" or "consciousness"), (2) have the ability to act on that da'at, and (3) be entitled to put his or her da'at into action in the society the sages constructed." [J&D, 15] Until recently, deaf people did not have an opportunity to come together in sufficient numbers to develop a sign language. This prevented them from constructing a Jewish da'at, since the principles of Jewish thinking could not be conveyed to them. The mentally ill have a da'at impaired in proportion to the severity of their illness, and minors do not yet have a fully mature da'at.

Another element of the traditional attitude parallels the concept of defects in sacrifices and those who offer them up. People have offered up sacrifices to God or the gods from time immemorial, and before the time of Moses the first-born son would be the kohain [priest] for his family. Moses was instructed by God to build a portable temple, the Tabernacle, and have it carried with the Jewish people until they settled in Israel. No longer could sacrifices be offered anywhere the worshippers happened to be. God also chose Aaron and his descendants as kohanim (priests) who would officiate at these sacrifices, so that now individuals must depend on these kohanim to offer up for them.

Even if a person were a descendant of Aaron and therefore a kohain, he could not offer up unless he were free of defects. Various defects (but not all) invalidated the kohanim: deafness, blindness, lameness, and dwarfism, among other things. The sacrifices had to be free from defects because God deserved the best and those who were to officiate had to be among the "best". Need we say that people were less inclusive in those days? In addition, one would imagine that if a person were profoundly deaf from birth, there would be no way to communicate the intricacies of the divine service. Here is a good place to mention that cheresh really means a deaf-mute. This is a compact way of saying it, but nowadays the politically correct term would be profoundly, pre-lingually deaf. It would probably include severe deafness as well. I don't really like the term "pre-lingually deaf" either because it implies that ASL is not a language.

When the Temple was destroyed and sacrifices could no longer be brought, the kohanim could still utter the priestly blessing recorded in Numbers 6:24-26 in the synagogue. This mitzvah (commandment) is still observed today. The same physical defects that invalidated the kohanim from sacrifices also invalidates them from raising their hands to bless the congregation. With the Temple gone, holiness took on a new meaning. The Documentary Hypothesis believes that the Torah was woven from five major theological sources, of which P, the priestly school, and H, the holiness school are two. "For P, spatial holiness is limited to the sanctuary; for H, it is coextensive with the promised land. Holiness of persons is restricted in P to priests and Nazirites; H extends it to all Israel [the Jewish people]." [Milgrom 1991, 48 quoted in Abrams, 39].

Although kohanim who have physical defects are not allowed to perform the divine service, they still may stay with their brothers and benefit from the food and shelter provided so that the group can busy itself with spiritual matters. Non-priests who have defects are also protected from exploitation by such laws as Lev. 19:14, "You shall not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind." There seems to be three obstacles to da'at that historically prevented a deaf person from full participation in Jewish life: (1) tradition was transmitted orally, so a person who could not hear could not be fully aware and informed of the culture, (2) an individual had to be free to act, so a person who could not speak would be unable to express his/her opinion, (3) an individual was not supposed to be constantly dependent on others (“owned” like a woman or child) so as to be properly informed and not misled. Now that there are sophisticated sign languages in most countries and oral methods and assistive hearing devices are more advanced, it could be argued that these three things don’t have to be obstacles, although they still may be operant in underdeveloped countries or where the deaf person has not been provided with the benefits of modern civilization.

1.2 The modern Jewish perspective on Deaf people

There has been a shift in attitude about the da'at of Deaf people as technology, deaf education and sign language have allowed for the transmission of values to Deaf Jews. This section is culled from the anthology we quoted from at the opening of this chapter by Schein and Waldman. When the Mishnah says cheresh, the Talmud interprets this to mean not only someone who cannot hear, but also cannot speak. "Already in the nineteenth century the halachic authorities said that as long as a person can hear with assistance, he can hear... The Halachah states that there are no longer any disabilities so long as he can hear, even with assistance, such as the horn." (Rabbi David M. Feldman in "Deafness and Jewish Law" in Schein & Waldman, 14).

Rabbis were divided as to whether a person still retained the limitations of a cheresh if s/he learned sign language and thus could communicate through an interpreter, but education is so highly valued that even the Chatam Sofer poskined [determined that under Jewish law] a child who had to eat non-kosher food in order to attend a school for the deaf and thus learn to communicate was permitted to do so. Rabbi Feldman feels that there is such a stigma attached to the word cheresh from its old Talmudic connotations, that a word like k'vad shmiah [hard of hearing] should be used nowadays. Israeli Deaf people still use the word as in their national organization Agudat haCheresim b'Yisrael [Society of the Deaf in Israel]. Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi in Israel said in his keynote address to the Second Congress of the World Organization of the Jewish Deaf in 1982 (quoted in Schein and Waldman, 28) said:

In any case I can assure you that we consider you as members of the Jewish people with equal rights and obligations as far as Halachah is concerned. When questions such as being counted in a minyan or even personal status, marriage or divorce, arise, the development of communication between you and the rest of mankind enables us to deal with them.

1.3 Halacha l'maaseh [Practical applications of Jewish law] for deaf and hard of hearing people

R. [Rabbi] Mordechai Shuchatowitz has compiled an essential listing of halachic rulings on deaf people's obligations. I think that every interpreter for Jewish settings should have a copy of this article, which is available from Our Way, a branch of NCSY, 45 West 36 Street, New York, NY 10018. It is useful as a reference when a rabbi or Deaf or hard of hearing person is not familiar with what Jewish law might say on this topic. I will summarize the findings in this section. The article provides the references for the rulings cited, and the more machmir [strict] the rabbi, the more he will want to know this information so that he can decide if he can agree with it. It is like telling a doctor that you know the results of medical research and he wants to know which medical journal this is from, so that s/he can check the validity of the results.

1.3.1 Use of a hearing aid on Shabbat

My summary will be more explanatory of Jewish concepts than that of R. Shuchatowitz, since he is assuming the reader has a background in Halacha [Jewish law]. Shabbat [the Sabbath] is a commemoration of God's cessation of creative acts on the seventh day, and Jews must also not engage in creative acts on this day, which is from Friday sunset to the time three stars would be visible on Saturday night. Actions are deemed creative if they can be related to that which was necessary to build and maintain the Mishkan [portable tabernacle in the wilderness] and the Mikdash [the Jerusalem Temple, which is no longer extant]. One of these proscribed actions is creating or using fire.

When electricity was first harnessed in the nineteenth century, the rabbinic community had to research to determine if turning on or adjusting electrical equipment was considered a toldah [subcategory of a proscribed act] of fire. It was determined that it was and so Orthodox Jews do not turn on or adjust electrical equipment on Shabbat. Members of other movements in Judaism (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionism, etc) may or may not choose to follow some rulings in Halacha. Even Orthodoxy has subgroups who would disagree as to the particulars of Halacha.

Use of a hearing aid is permitted on Shabbat is permitted although it is technically speaking a miniature microphone. The reason this is so is that it produces a sound that is only heard by the wearer and a layman would not be able to fix it. Many rabbis require that the wearer should tape over the on-off switch, and perhaps the battery compartment, so that it will not be used, or opened, accidentally. Orthodox Jews tape off their light switches for the same reason. The volume of an aid can also be turned up or down although lights cannot be. I have not read R. S. Z. Auerbach's papers to learn why this is so, but I am guessing this has to do with its acting as a safety device for the deaf, warning of impending danger, and so can't be too loud (damaging to the ear) or too soft (not serving its function to warn). The wearer should avoid producing feedback, which would make it become like a regular microphone that all can hear.

If an object cannot be used on Shabbat, such as money or scissors, it is called muktza. If a hearing aid should stop working on Shabbat, it becomes muktza. Some authorities say that a non-Jew could turn it on or replace its battery and certainly on Yom Tov [Festivals]. A hearing aid cannot be switched from "M" [microphone, the regular "on" position] to "T" [telephone] or vice versa, since this causes a significant change in the aid and falls under the category of metakain manah ["fixing a utensil" which is proscribed on Shabbat]. This is also not permissible on Yom Tov.

1.3.2 Being yotze or motzi a deaf person for spoken mitzvot

When a person can be considered to have fulfilled a mitzvah [a commandment] s/he is said to be yotze. For example, a person who says his/her prayers in English, rather than Hebrew, is yotze, although saying prayers in Hebrew is preferable. When person A enables person B to be yotze in his/her obligation to perform a mitzvah by doing it for B, A is said to be motzi B. For example, a person who eats food should say a brocha [blessing], but if A says the brocha and B answers "Amen!", A is motzi B.

Many mitzvot depend on speech and hearing, such as tefillot [prayers], brochot [blessings], reading Megillat Ester [the Book of Esther handwritten on a scroll] or reading the Haggadah [the service for the ritual meal on Passover]. These mitzvot can be performed in one of two ways: (1) reciting the words out loud or (2) listening to someone else recite the words and saying "Amen!" The first option allows a person to be yotze. The second option is motzi the hearer because of Shomea k'oneh [The hearer is like the speaker].

If a person can neither speak nor hear, can s/he be yotze or motzi? Yes, there is a third way. S/he can think them in his/her heart. R. Shuchatowitz comments:

A source for this is brought from the Midrash [Stories elaborating on incidents in the Bible, to derive a principle of Jewish law or provide a moral lesson] in Psalms on the verse (5,2) "Listen to my words G-d, and understand my thoughts." The Midrash explains that King David asked G-d, "when I am able to speak, please listen to my words. When I am not able to, please understand my thoughts and accept them instead." Hashem [The Lord] who knows our hearts and understands our thoughts will give reward for them just like for spoken prayers.

This satisfies the need to be yotze without speech, but if a person signs, it seems that the halacha says one cannot be motzi others. It is not clear to me why this is so, but I am merely relaying what the article says. In reference to making kiddush [the blessing on wine that proclaims it is Shabbat], the Rabbi says:

Their [deaf people who watch someone sign Kiddush] thinking may be stimulated by the sign language of the one making Kiddush or by reading his lips, just as by looking in a Siddur [prayer book]. So they too can "listen" to the Kiddush, but should realize that it is with their own thinking that they are doing the Mitzva, no with the other's recital. (See Magen Avrohom 1932.) In these cases of thinking Kiddush or saying it along, each person should preferable have his own cup of wine before him. If not possible, it may suffice to have in mind to drink from the other's cup. If a person uses a hearing-aid, they can fulfill the mitzvah by listening, which may be easier than hearing regular speech, since they know what the person will say. Some authorities say that hearing through an artificial device does not allow the person to be yotze.

On Purim, it is a mitzvah to hear Megillat Ester read aloud. There are two criteria that concern us here that must be met: (1) The scroll that is read from must be on parchment, using the proper ink and other criteria that parallel a Torah scroll, and (2) the language that is read out loud must be the same language that is written on the scroll. If a deaf individual cannot read it aloud for himself and cannot hear the reader, s/he cannot be yotze, because thinking to oneself is not hearing.

You might think that an interpreter can be motzi a deaf person, but even if a signer were to directly read a megillah and sight translate it into Sign Language, s/he cannot be yotze or motzi others because the language that is read aloud must be the language that is written on the megillah, so the signer would have to be reading from a megillah written on kosher [ritually acceptable] parchment in ASL. There is no orthographic [writing] system for ASL, so this is impossible. If a deaf person follows the reading through sign language or lip reading, s/he will receive a part in the rewards of the mitzvah [Dreesha (85), and Shalo, brought in Magen Avraham 62:2] but it is an incomplete act.

1.3.3 Inclusion of deaf people in a minyan

If ten male Jews over the age of 13 [the age of adulthood in Jewish law] assemble together for prayer, this is called a minyan, and additional prayers may be said that would could not be included if they prayed individually or in a smaller group: the Bar'chu [the call to worship], repetition of the Shmoneh Esreh [the standing silent prayer], and Kaddish [Sanctification of God's name]. Deaf people and hard of hearing can be counted to complete this minyan, see the Shulchan Aruch OR.CH 55:8. R. Shuchatowitz says:

There is therefore Halachic basis to count even the totally deaf into a minyan and to rely on them to recite the sacred sections of the Kaddish, Kedusha, and Borachu. [Footnote: See list of authorities of this opinion in Techaveh Daas (Rav Ovadia Yosef) 2:6.] The Mishna Brura [55:38] (the widely accepted Halachic authority of recent times) presents the majority view to hold that even for the Repetition, the non-hearing can be counted into the minyan... However, there may be a minimal requirement of having most ot the minyan able to listen and answer Amen. [Footnote: Ralbach in Magen Avrohom. See Maaseh Choshev, Rav L. Hallpern, (Jerusalem '85) 1:12 that supports this view.] This is important information to know and show the citation if the congregation does not want to include the deaf or hard of hearing person in the minyan.

1.4 Resources for further study

Abrams, J. Z. Judaism and disability: Portraits in ancient texts from the Tanach through the Bavli. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press.

Documents and analyzes the Torah's perspective on deafness.

Jewish Deaf Community Center:

Important information for Jewish Deaf people and interpreters alike. See especially the "Interpreter's Corner".

Jewish glossary:

Helpful for negotiating nonce signs and for conceptual understanding.

Jewish heritage and holidays in ASL:

Excellent videos aimed at educating Deaf Jewish children whose parents don't know ASL.

Judaism 101:

Very clear, succinct explanation of Jewish concepts.

Namir, L., Sela, I. Rimor, M., and Schlesinger, I. in cooperation with the Association of the Deaf in Israel. 1979. Dictionary of Sign Language of the Deaf in Israel. Jerusalem: Ministry of Social Welfare.

n older collection of Israeli signs. See the more recent collection by Savir, C.

Our Way for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing:

Services: Information and Referral Services, Weekend Retreats, Holiday Celebrations, Jewish Heritage Classes, Jewish Deaf Singles Registry, Family Workshops, Job Placement and Support Services, Inclusion and Educational Support, Publications in Sign Language. Sign Language Prayer Charts: Shabbat Candle Lighting, Brachot Booklet, Signs of the Seder, Chanukah Candle Lighting, Shema Yisroel, Hamakom (Mourner's Chart), L'Shanah Ha-Ba B'Yerushalayimm, Signs of Shabbat.

Savir, C. (Editor) (1992). Gateway to Israeli Sign Language. Tel Aviv: The Association of the Deaf in Israel. (13 Sd. Yad Labanim, Tel Aviv 61090).

Especially useful for indigenous signs for cities and organizations in Israel.

Schein, J. D. and Waldman, L. J. (eds.). The Deaf Jew in the Modern World. Ktav Publishing House for New York Society for the Deaf, 1986.

Articles that instill pride and show the evolution of the halachic status of deaf people.

Shuart, A. (1997). Signs in Judaism: A resource book for the Jewish Deaf community. New York: Bloch Publishing. Co. ISBN: 0819705055.

Illustrations of ASL Jewish signs and explanation of concepts.

Shuchatowitz, M. "Halacha concerning Jewish Deaf and Hard of Hearing." A publication of "OurWay" NCSY NCSY [National Conference of Synagogue Youth], 45 West 36 Street, New York, NY 10018.

A summary of Jewish law that will be helpful in citing where these legal decisions are from. This is important if you want to convince a Rabbi of the validity of these decisions.

Telushkin, J. (1991). Jewish literacy: The most important things to know about the Jewish religion, its people, and its history. New York: William Morrow & Co. ISBN 0-688-08506-7.

Very insightful, but not long-winded content knowledge.

Temple Beth Solomon of the Deaf:

"For 40 years TBS has served its members with a full range of social, religious and educational programs. We offer Shabbat evening services twice a month, life-cycle events, High Holy Day services, specialized bar/bat mitzvah training, holiday workshops, holiday potluck dinners, a community Passover seder, sign language studies, with an emphasis in translating Hebrew concepts into sign language, community outreach, senior citizen advocacy, a monthly newsletter and weekly social events."

The Jewish Deaf Congress:

"Our mission is to provide religious, cultural, and educational experiences. Our people include those who became deaf before acquiring language, those who became deaf later in life, and those who are hard of hearing. Parents join our organization, as do grandparents. Some with our deaf constituents represent a community of interpreters or educators, and rabbis, or perhaps even children or siblings or just friends of deaf adults."

The Jewish Deaf Resource Center:

"JDRC, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization is a resource for the entire Jewish community, advising institutions on accessibility, offering Jewish storytelling in American Sign Language (ASL) for Deaf and hearing families, and training Judaic ASL interpreters. JDRC is unique in its team approach, with Deaf and hearing working collaboratively."

Yeshivas Nefesh Dovid:

"Geared specifically to the challenges and needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, vibrant and strong leadership is provided by role models, who are either deaf or hard-of hearing themselves. In addition to trained and qualified rebbeim, sign language interpreting services, speech pathology, audiology services and dorm supervision all complement the program. Recreational programming includes exercise, sports and swimming as part of the yeshiva's mission to enhance self-confidence through social development."