– Author: Rav Doron Podlashuk

With the advent of the coronavirus, a halachic controversy spanning seven hundred years starting from the time of the Rosh and the Maharil has come back into the public eye and deserves a closer look. The Rosh and the Maharil disagree over whether one who receives an aliya to the Torah must read along quietly with the ba’al korei (Torah reader). The problem is that due to social distancing requirements that the oleh (person receiving an aliya) cannot be within two meters of the ba’al korei, it is almost impossible for the oleh to follow along in the text when the ba’al korei reads from the sefer Torah. In this article, we will examine the opinions of the Rosh and Maharil in depth and attempt to understand the nature of the machloket between them as well as how it is applied by the Acharonim within the practical halacha.

The Rosh[1] rules that when one receives an aliya, the oleh is obligated to read silently alongside him even though there is an official ba’al korei. If he does not do this, his beracha is considered levatala (in vain). Hence, one who is unable to read the words from the text – such as a blind or illiterate person – cannot receive an aliya to the Torah. Other Rishonim, such as the Rashba,[2] echo the same sentiment.

On the other hand, the Maharil[3] rules that we do not follow the Rosh, and he therefore permits calling a blind person to the Torah and allowing him to recite the berachot. This is also the opinion of the Nimmukei Yosef quoting the Sefer Ha’Eshkol.[4] The dispute between the Rosh and Maharil regarding a blind person would seemingly be relevant to our new reality as well, where the oleh cannot follow the ba’al koreh due to social distancing. Accordingly, the Rosh would prohibit allowing aliyot in this manner, while the Maharil would permit it.

The basic nature of this argument between the Rosh and Maharil is unclear, leaving room for many Acharonim to attempt to explain the root of the dispute.

  1. Shomei’a K’oneh

One explanation of the dispute is connected to the different understandings of the halachic principle of shomei’a k’oneh – the principle that when one hears another recite a beracha (or similar mitzva matter, such as kiddush or megilla), he is considered to have recited it aloud himself if both have in mind to fulfill the obligation[5]. The Gemara in Sukka (38b) presents the basic principle and cites Rav Shimon ben Pazi, who derives it from an inconsistency in a verse in Melachim II (22:16): “All the words of the book that the king has read.” In this instance, the king was not actually the one doing the reading, so the Gemara infers that since he listened, he was considered to have read it himself. Another variation of this idea can be seen from the ruling of Rav Chiya bar Abba, who states (in the passage immediately preceding the previous one) that a person who hears a beracha but does not answer has fulfilled his obligation.[6]

Ramifications of Shomei’a K’oneh

Based on this principle, Rashi[7] comments that if one is in the middle of the silent Shemoneh Esrei and the shaliach tzibbur reaches Kedusha, one should stop and listen to the Kedusha. Rashi explains that due to shomei’a k’oneh, one fulfills his obligation by listening to the chazzan. On the other hand, Tosafot[8] quote Rabbeinu Tam and Ri who argue with Rashi, claiming that if one pauses during one’s silent Amida to listen to Kedusha, it is tantamount to a hefsek (an unauthorized interruption). They rule that shomei’a k’oneh means that it is as if one recited the Kedusha in the middle of one’s private Amida, which is clearly not permitted.

Two Understandings of the Nature of Shomei’a K’oneh

Some Acharonim[9] explain that the argument between Rashi and Tosafot hinges upon two different understandings of the nature of shomei’a k’oneh. According to Tosafot, shomei’a k’oneh means that the person who listens is considered as if he has physically recited the words. Rashi, on the other hand, does not believe that the act of hearing counts as actual speech. Rather, the person hearing is connected in some way to the person who recited the words and fulfills his obligation through the other person.

Rav Yisrael Gustman[10] suggests that this argument between Rashi and Tosafot is actually a dispute between the Amoraim themselves. As we mentioned above, Rav Shimon Ben Pazi quotes a verse and uses the phrase shomei’a k’oneh, whereas Rav Chiya Bar Abba does not bring a scriptural source, stating merely that one is “yotzei.” Rav Gustman explains that according to Rav Shimon ben Pazi, who derives the principle from Scripture, it is logical that it contains a greater novelty – that the listener is considered to have actually pronounced the words, as Tosafot understand. That is why he employs the phrase shomei’a k’oneh in discussing the idea. However, Rav Chiya Bar Abba, who does not cite a biblical source, understands that this principle merely teaches that one fulfills his obligation, similar to Rashi’s understanding, but one is not considered to have actually said the words himself.

The Rambam seems to blend these two approaches together into a unique third approach. The Rambam[11] writes:

כל השומע ברכה מן הברכות מתחלתה ועד סופה ונתכוון לצאת בה ידי חובתו יצא ואף על פי שלא ענה אמן, וכל העונה אמן אחר המברך הרי זה כמברך…

“Anyone who hears a beracha from beginning to end and had intention to fulfill his obligation, fulfills his obligation, even though he did not recite amen afterwards. And anyone who answers amen after the person who recited the beracha it is as if he has recited the bracha….”

The Kesef Mishneh explains[12] that according to the Rambam, if one hears the beracha, one fulfills one’s obligation, but if one answers amen, it is as if he recited the beracha himself. The Rambam thus seems to adopt the approach of Rashi that the rule of shomei’a k’oneh does not mean that the person actually vocalized the beracha, but only that one fulfills one’s obligation. However, when one answers amen, it is as if he actually said the words.[13]

Practical Ramifications of the Two Approaches to Shomei’a K’oneh

These two different understandings of shomei’a k’oneh have many practical ramifications. One is mentioned by the Tzelach,[14] who discusses whether a person who is unsure whether he must recite a beracha should listen to another person recite the beracha and fulfill his uncertain obligation through shomei’a k’oneh. He states that according to Tosafot this would pose a problem, for if he was not meant to recite the beracha, then by hearing it and intending to fulfill his obligation, he should be considered like one who recited a beracha in vain.[15]

Another ramification between the understandings is where the mitzvah involved does not only require reciting a passage but an additional component as well in order to fulfill one’s obligation (see below for examples). Some Acharonim[16] explain that the nature of shomei’a k’oneh also defines whether one can fulfill secondary requirements other than just reciting the passage. Although Tosafot’s understanding of shomei’a k’oneh is more novel in that it is as if one actually recited the words, it is also more limited in that it limits the principle to only that – listening to the words is considered reciting them, but no more than that. On the other hand, according to Rashi, for whom the principle of shomei’a k’oneh is similar to shelichut (agency), as the other person acts on one’s behalf, it is logical to assume that other requirements are fulfilled through the other person as well. In other words, according to Tosafot, shemia is equivalent to dibbur (speech), whereas according to Rashi, shemia is considered equivalent to having fulfilled a ma’aseh mitzvah. If we assume that shemia is equivalent to a ma’aseh mitzvah (based on shelichut or connecting the person reciting and hearing the words), it makes sense that any other requirements needed to fulfill the mitzvah are also fulfilled by the act of shemia. But according to Tosafot, it is not clear that one can extend the novelty of treating hearing as speaking to other components of the mitzvah.

One example where this discussion might be relevant is the mitzvah of Birkat Kohanim. The Beit HaLevi[17] discusses a community in Italy where one Kohen recited Birkat Kohanim while the other Kohanim listened, under the presumption that they were fulfilling their obligation through the principle of shomei’a k’oneh. The Beit HaLevi came out strongly against this practice, claiming that although the other Kohanim fulfill their obligation of reciting the beracha due to shomei’a k’oneh, Birkat Kohanim contains another requirement, namely that the Kohanim must recite the blessing out loud.

“דשומע כעונה שייך רק בדבר שאין צריך בו אלא אמירה לחודא ,אבל ברכת כהנים דצריך בקול רם כאדם האומר לחבירו… לא שייך שומע כעונה… ולא עדיף מאם היה אומר מפורש בפה רק בלחש שלא יוצא.”

“Shomei’a k’oneh only applies regarding matters that only require speech alone, but Birkat Kohanim, which requires that it be said out loud like someone who is speaking to his friend… the principle of shomei’a k’oneh is not applicable… as it is no better than if a person would say it explicitly with his mouth but softly, in which case he does not fulfill his obligation.”

The Beit HaLevi argues here that the second requirement of Birkat Kohanim of reciting the beracha out loud cannot be fulfilled through the principle of shomei’a k’oneh. It seems, then, that the Beit HaLevi understood shomei’a k’oneh like Tosafot that it is as if one literally verbalized the beracha. However, the second requirement of reciting it aloud cannot be fulfilled through shomei’a k’oneh. The Chazon Ish[18] disagrees with the Beit Halevi and writes that shomei’a k’oneh has a combinatory effect, fusing the speaker and the listener into one actor. Since the listener is connected to the person reciting the beracha, he is connected to him with respect to all conditions of the specific mitzvah, not only the actual verbalization of the words. The Chazon Ish’s interpretation of shomei’a k’oneh seems to fit well with the opinion of Rashi.

Another practical area of dispute pertains to reading the megilla. The Rogachover Gaon[19] argues that although we all listen to the ba’al korei recite Megillat Esther and fulfill our obligation through shomei’a k’oneh, each person must nevertheless recite the names of the ten sons of Haman (in chapter 9 of the megilla) themselves, as it is required to say them in one breath (neshima achat).  The Rogachover Gaon apparently holds that one cannot fulfill the obligation of one breath through the principle of shomei’a k’oneh. Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank explains that like the Beit HaLevi, the Rogachover Gaon feels that only the condition of speech can be fulfilled through shomei’a k’oneh, but any other criteria such as saying it in one breath would not be covered by this principle.

This opinion seems to fit with Tosafot, since although one is considered to have actually pronounced the words, the second condition of saying it in one breath cannot be mimicked through the principle. However, Rav Frank points out that if one understands like Rashi that shomei’a k’oneh allows one to fulfill one’s obligation through another, then whatever is needed in order to fulfill the obligation is considered as having been performed by the listener. Hence, the requirement of neshima achat can also be fulfilled this way.

How Do These Approaches Relate to the Dispute Between the Rosh and the Maharil?

Although the Maharil does not explain his reasoning, the Gra[20] suggests that the reason a blind person can be called to the Torah and recite the berachot is based on shomei’a k’oneh, and this is also how the Mishna Berura[21] understands his opinion. The Taz[22] brings a proof for this principle from a passage from the Yerushalmi[23] where someone recited the berachot prior to reading the megilla on Purim and Rabbi Meir read the megilla. The Yerushalmi asks “Can one person recite the beracha and another read? From here we learn that one who hears is as if he read.” The Taz argues that this is clear proof that we apply the principle of shomei’a k’oneh in our case of Keriat HatTorah as well, and therefore unequivocally rules against the Rosh.

At first glance the proof of the Taz seems to be quite strong. However, Rav Yaakov Emden[24] explains that although invoking the principle of shomei’a k’oneh for a blind person would mean that he himself is considered to have said the words, it would still be considered a violation of the prohibition to read from the Torah by heart.[25] Hence, invoking the principle of shomei’a k’oneh would not help us in the case of a blind person, for it is prohibited to read even one verse by heart.

Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank explains that Rav Emden (who is defending the Rosh and the Shulchan Aruch) clearly understood the nature of shomei’a k’oneh as actually pronouncing the words, following the understanding of Tosafot. For this reason, the second requirement of reading from the text and not by heart would not be fulfilled. Accordingly, we could understand that the argument between the Rosh and the Maharil hinges upon the two understandings of shomei’a k’oneh. The Rosh follows the opinion of Tosafot in that it is as if one actually pronounced the words, but it cannot help regarding other criteria, such as reading from the text (for Keriat HaTorah), reciting it out loud (for Birkat Kohanim), or reciting in one breath (for the ten sons of Haman). The Maharil, on the other hand, holds like Rashi that shomei’a k’oneh connects the listener to the reader in all the ramifications of the particular mitzvah and hence in the case of Keriat HaTorah it is as if one actually read from the text as well.

Difficulties With This Understanding

One of the challenges of defining this as the fundamental argument between the Rosh and the Maharil is that it totally aligns the Rosh with the opinion of Tosafot. The problem is that we do not find that the Rosh rules in accordance with Tosafot regarding other halachot where we might expect him to, such as not stopping one’s silent Amida to hear Kedusha.[26] Although the Rosh in that context does bring a proof for Tosafot, he does not rule in favor of any opinion, as the Beit Yosef[27] explicitly states. Furthermore, the Rosh never mentions that his ruling is dependent upon this argument. This inconsistency would also apply to the Shulchan Aruch who on the one hand rules like Rashi that one should stop during one’s silent Amida to hear Kedusha, while on the other hand rules like the Rosh that a blind person cannot receive an aliya.

  1. The Nature of Birkat HaTorah at a Public Reading

Another approach to understanding the dispute between the Rosh and Maharil may relate to whether one can apply the principle of shomei’a k’oneh to the specific beracha of Birkat HaTorah in public.

Rav Yaakov Emden explains that the proof of the Taz from reading the megilla is not a valid proof, since the nature of Keriat HaTorah is different than that of the megilla reading. He explains that although the entire community is obligated to hear the Torah reading, the Sages only instituted a beracha for the ba’al korei, who actually reads, and not for the listeners.

In contrast, the nature of reading the megillah according to Rav Emden is that everyone is obligated to hear[28] the megilla and the beracha is similar to a birkat mitzvah. Since everyone is obligated to hear, we are also obligated to recite the beracha, and one person recites it while everyone else listens and fulfils their obligation through the principle of shomei’a k’oneh. A similar argument is made by the Bi’ur Halacha,[29] with one marked difference. The Bi’ur Halacha holds that each person is obligated to read the megilla (as opposed to hearing it) and is therefore obligated to recite the beracha. Since each person is obligated to recite the beracha, one can fulfill one’s obligation through the mechanism of shomei’a k’oneh. However, the Sages only instituted a beracha when hearing the public Torah reading for the person actually reading. Therefore, it is not appropriate to invoke the principle of shomei’a k’oneh where the listener had no obligation to recite the beracha in the first place.

If this is the opinion of the Rosh, one could argue that the Maharil and those who held like him understood the nature of the beracha of Keriat HaTorah differently and that everyone in the congregation is obligated to recite the beracha, regardless of whether they are reading from the Torah themselves. Rav Soloveitchik[30] points out that the takana of Keriat HaTorah is inherently different from the regular mitzvah of talmud Torah. He notes that Keriat HaTorah focuses on Torah Shebichtav, where the reading and hearing is critical, as the verse states, “It should be read in the ears of the people.” Furthermore, the Gemara in Chagiga[31] highlights that concerning the mitzva of Hakhel, where the king read from the Torah publicly once every seven years, one was obligated to hear even if one did not understand anything, contrary to the regular mitzvah of talmud Torah, and this is the model upon which our Keriat HaTorah is based.[32] What emerges from the idea of Rav Soloveitchik is that there is a special mitzvah to read and hear the Keriat HaTorah.

Many commentators have debated whether Keriat HaTorah is a chovat yachid (obligation upon the individual) or a chovat tzibbur (obligation upon the congregation). However, even if it is a chovat tzibbur, what does that mean? Based on the above, one could argue that every person in the tzibbur has an obligation – the reader must read and the listener must listen, and together, the public reading is fulfilled.  If so, perhaps the beracha was instituted on the event itself (which is the joint union of the reader and listener together) and not just upon the baal korei. It would then indeed be plausible to invoke the principle of shomei’a k’oneh, as each individual in the tzibbur is obligated to recite a beracha for this event. When the person recites the beracha – everyone else fulfills their obligation through shomei’a k’oneh. The Maharil understood that this is the nature of the beracha and therefore it is legitimate to invoke the principle of shomei’a k’oneh.

It is also possible that even the Maharil agrees that it is preferable for the person who actually reads the verses (either as the baal korei or silently together with him) to recite the beracha. But this is not due to the fact that the beracha is only incumbent upon him. Rather, since he is doing the action, it is preferable that he recites the beracha. Where this is not possible, such as in the case of a blind person, an illiterate person, or where a person is too far away from the sefer to read, we rely on the fact that it is the public reading that requires a beracha and each person in the tzibbur is obligated to recite this and fulfills it through the principle of shomei’a k’oneh.

We have tried to shed some light on the disagreement between the Rosh and Maharil as to whether a blind person is permitted to be called to the Torah and recite the berachot. As we have seen, the Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with the Rosh, whereas the Rema is lenient like the Maharil. This dispute has become extremely relevant as halacha lema’aseh in the age of social distancing where the oleh cannot follow in the text alongside the baal korei. Understanding the nature of the dispute thus becomes a critical component of determining whether the lenient opinion of the Maharil can be employed in our situation and whether the practical halacha should in fact follow his opinion.

[1] Rosh, Megilla 3:1

[2] Responsa of the Rashba (HaChadashot), Siman 15

[3] Sefer Maharil (Minhagim), Hilchot Keriat HaTorah

[4] Cited in the Beit Yosef, O.C. 141

[5] Special thanks to Rav Shmuel Hirschler, who gave a shiur to the Manhigut Toranit participants on this subject and highlighted this possibility. Certain about spelling? Rav with same name who teaches at Hakotel spells it Hershler

[6] See also the section of the Gemara preceding this statement, which deals with shomei’a k’oneh as well.

[7] Rashi, Sukka 38b, s.v. hu omer baruch haba.

[8] Tosafot, ibid., s.v. shama and Berachot 21b, s.v. ad shelo yagia

[9] See, for example, Rav Yosef Engel in Birkot Shem; Bi’ur Halacha, O.C. 104, s.v. v’yihiyeh

[10] Kuntres HaShiurim, Nedarim, aleph, simanim 22-23

[11] Rambam, Hilchot Berachot 1:11

[12] Kesef Mishneh, ibid.

[13] Rav Betzalel Zolti, Kuntrus …. Something missing?

[14] Tzelach, Berachot 21b, s.v. b’emtza

[15] See there where he concludes after a lengthy discussion that this is also the subject of a machloket between the Ra’avad and the Ramban.

[16] See, for example, Chazon Ish, siman 29 quoted in the continuation of the article.

[17] Beit HaLevi, end of Sefer Bereishit

[18] Chazon Ish, O.C. 29

[19] Quoted in Responsa Har Tzvi, O.C. 57

[20] Gra to O.C. 139:4, s.v. umaharil

[21] Mishna Berura, O.C. 139:12; see also Mishna Berura, 143:33

[22] Taz, O.C. 141:3

[23] Yerushalmi, Megilla 4:1

[24] She’ilat Ya’avetz, siman 75

[25] Gittin 60a

[26] Rosh, Berachot 3:18

[27] Beit Yosef, O.C. 104

[28] It appears that Rav Emden held that the mitzvah is to listen to the megilla and not to read it. This is difficult as it seems to go against the opinion of most Rishonim that the mitzvah is to read the megilla, plus the text of the beracha is specifically to read the megilla (al mikra megilla).

[29] Bi’ur Halacha, O.C. 141:2, s.v. l’vatala

[30] Shiurim L’zecher Avi Mori, p. 178

[31] Chagiga 3b

[32] Shiurim L’zecher Avi Mori, ad loc.

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