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Question: May a cheresh, a deaf-mute, who exhibits other signs of intelligence, be included in a minyan? I live in a small town where this is a very relevant question, where we struggle to put together a minyan. Are there any halachic implications for including such a person?

Name Withheld
Small Town, USA

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Answer: We truly live in times of great opportunity, especially as relates to those unfortunate members of our community who suffer from disabilities, which in earlier times had little available in the way of remedies.

An example is what I read some time ago out of Israel. A group has been working with special trainers from the United States to train seeing-eye dogs for a segment of Israeli society in dire need of such assistance.

Until now, most of these dogs only understood commands in English. The new program trains the dogs to respond to Hebrew commands.

It really should be nothing new. As I remember on a trip to Israel, we were walking in the street in Jerusalem and we encountered a man walking his dog, speaking in Hebrew and issuing commands to the pet who was clearly responding. Notwithstanding, training animals to respond to myriad situations with Hebrew commands is a welcome and important undertaking. Especially for those in need it is both a G-d-send and a new lease on life, in effect providing sightless Hebrew speakers the advantage of sight-free movement through the assistance of these dogs.

Our discussion centers on the cheresh, the deaf-mute, and an individual who neither hears nor speaks, usually due to a congenital disability.

Here, too, there has been much progress over the past 150 years as epitomized by the accomplishments of the legendary Helen Keller, a blind deaf-mute who learned how to speak. Before that, the general assumption in secular society was that someone who could not hear even though he could speak, or one who could not speak but could hear, was unable to learn. Our Sages seem to refute that conclusion.

After a lengthy discussion, the Talmud (Chagigah 3a) arrived at the following: One who is unable to speak cannot comprehend what is taught to him. In refutation, the Gemara presents the following episode: There were two mutes [brothers] who lived in the neighborhood of Rabbi [Judah the prince], they were grandsons [sons of the daughter] of R. Yochanan b. Gudgeda [others say they were his sister’s sons]. It would happen that whenever Rabbi would enter the Beit Midrash, they would follow him and sit before him, and as he taught they would nod their heads and move their lips.

Rabbi, taking pity on them and seeing their earnestness, prayed on their behalf, and they were healed. Ultimately, they were tested and it was revealed that they were thoroughly knowledgeable in halacha, the Sifra, the Sifre, and the entire six orders of Mishna.

This Gemara serves as reason enough for us to be engaged in all types of clinically tried intervention for those with similar disabilities. But such intervention presents itself with halachic implications.

Rabbi Yosef Karo (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayyim 55:8) issues the following statement as he rules: A cheresh, a deaf-mute, who speaks but does not hear and one who hears but does not speak are considered similar to pikchin, those who have full senses – they hear and speak, and are included in the count of ten – the minimum quorum for public prayer and other matters of kedusha. But one who neither hears nor speaks is considered similar to one of limited capacity or a minor who may not be included in the minimum quorum.

Mishnah Berurah (ad loc. sk 38) cites Taz (infra 124:2) who opines that one who does not hear even though he speaks is not included to constitute the minimum quorum. He reasons that since he does not hear, he is unable to answer amen to the blessings or the chazzan.

Mishnah Berurah, however, notes that there are many authorities that opine in accord with Rabbi Karo’s ruling. As a support to their view he cites the Gemara (Sukkah 51b) in its discussion of the basilica in Alexandria, Egypt. Due to the enormous size of that edifice and its attendant assemblage, the chazzan haknesset [actually the gabbai] would have to wave a flag, as the chazzan [the one leading in prayer] would conclude each blessing. This was done as a signal for the congregation to respond “Amen.”

In defense of the Taz’s view, we might answer the obvious, that those nearest to the chazzan did indeed hear him as he concluded, and most probably a minimum of ten responded to what they actually heard.

To be continued

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.