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In the previous lecture we saw that there were opinions of Tanaaim and Amoraim in the Talmud that would have allowed for a reassessment of a deaf person’s status, but that halakha rejected these opinions and rules categorically that a deaf person is not a person of legal standing.  In this lecture, we will see how some poskim did reassess this status when it became clear that deaf people were fully intelligent and fully capable.

Some historical background:

  • It was commonly accepted that deaf people could not be educated; when John of Beverley, Archbishop of York, taught a deaf person to speak in 685, it was deemed a miracle, and he was later canonized.
  • Generally, philosophies linking (spoken) language and intelligence persisted well into the Enlightenment.
  • In 1620, Juan Pablo Bonet published Reducción de las letras y arte para enseñar a hablar a los mudos (‘Reduction of letters and art for teaching mute people to speak’) in Madrid. It is considered the first modern treaty of phonetics and speech therapy, setting out a method of oral education for deaf children by means of the use of manual signs, in the form of a manual alphabet to improve communication with the deaf.
  • Schools for the deaf were established in France and Great Britain in the 1760’s, and in Vienna in 1779 by the Roman-German emperor Joseph II.  They were established in the U.S. in the early 1800’s.
  • The Austrian Institute for the Israelite Deaf and Dumb in Vienna was established in 1844 by businessman Hirsch Kollisch.  Until that point Jewish deaf children were rarely enrolled in deaf schools (see here for more history on Jewish schools for the deaf).


Halakhic approaches for reassessing the status

We now turn to see how some poskim began to reassess the status of deaf people, once it became clear that they were as fully intelligent as people with hearing.  For those who are prepared to reassess, some adopt a formalist approach and some adopt a realist approach, as follows:.

  • Formalist 1 – if a deaf person has learned to speak verbally and chooses to do so, then he is a speaking person and hence not a cheresh since a cheresh is only someone who both cannot hear and cannot speak.
  • Formalist 2 – the same as Formalist 1, but even speaking by sign language would constitute speaking, and any deaf person who spoke sign language would not be a cheresh.  [I have not seen this approach in the poskim, but it seems like one that could be developed.]
  • Realist – since it is obvious that deaf people are intelligent, then regardless of whether they can speak or hear, they cannot be given the status of a chersh/non-ben da’at.


The first of these approaches is the easiest to make halakhically – it does not require challenging any existing halakhic definitions or Talmudic passages.  It is also the narrowest – it only applies to deaf people who can and choose to speak verbally and – as we will see – the need to define someone as speaking may demand that the person speak as hearing people do or be easily intelligible.  It should also be noted that this approach does not recognize deaf culture or deaf people on their own terms but requires them to fit into the hearing person’s world to be given equal status.

The next approach– formalist 2– which defines signing as speaking, is more inclusive and recognizes deaf culture on its own terms.  It is, however, a harder halakhic argument to make, as the Gemara in Gittin specifically addressed the case of an intelligent deaf person who could communicate by writing and ruled that his status remained unchanged.  An argument could be made, possibly, that sign language is a form of speaking while writing is not, as sign-language is a more direct form of communication and it uses body language and in this way it is more like verbal speech.   

The realist approach is also a more inclusive one and one that is harder to make given the Gemara in Gittin.  It could argue – as could the formalist 2 approach – that while single exceptions would not change the status of an individual deaf person, the entire category must be redefined now that we know the facts and know that deaf people are just as intelligent and capable as hearing people.

Let us now see how the poskim of the last few centuries have addressed this issue.


Poskim 17th Century

The 17th century saw a major shift in the realization that deaf people were fully intelligent and could be educated, and in the establishing of schools for the deaf, although such schools did not become a reality for Jewish deaf children till two centuries later.

Tzemach Tzedek {source 1} was asked about a deaf person who was highly intelligent and capable. Notice that the questioner, who is looking to have this person’s status reassessed, refers to him as “unable to speak” rather than “deaf,” as a way of indicating that he does not have the low intelligence that it is assumed that deaf people have.  What is Tzemach Tzedek’s answer?  What is the key phrase that explains his position?  What is evident from the teshuva about the way this person was treated in the society and in the legal system?  Why does Tzemach Tzedek demand that he perform the kiddushin in the particular way he describes?

  1. Tzemach Tzedek, no. 77  | שו”ת צמח צדק שאלה ע”ז

 [R. Menachem Mendel Krochmal ,1600-1661, Moravia]  

על אשר שאל מכ”ת אותי שיש באתריה דמכ”ת אלם אחד שיודע במלאכת חייטין והוא פקח גדול ומבין בטוב וישא את אחותו דמכ”ת היאך יש לנהוג בקידושין ונראה ליה למכ”ת שאין זה חרש אלא אלם מפני שהוא יודע בסדר התפלות להראות מתוך הסידור איזה הם תפלות של חול ואיזה של שבת ויום טוב ומה שמוסיפין לומר לפי סדר המועדים ונושא ונותן עם כל אדם.  ויודע לחתום בחתימת ידו והיה נראה למכ”ת שיכניס ברמיזה בכה”ג שיהיו כותבין לו על הנייר הרי את מקודשת לי וכו’ והרב יהא מראה לו על הכתב ולרמז לו כוונת הכתב והאלם ירכין בראשו הן.

כי לפי דברי הבעלי בתים מבין הוא מתוך הכתב ויודע לקרות.  אלה הם תורף דברי מכ”ת בשאלה.

תשובה החייט הזה אשר הוא באתריה דמכ”ת אני מכיר אותו ואינו מיקרי אלם אלא חרש שהרי אינו שומע ואינו מדבר ולא מיקרי אלם אלא מי ששומע ואינו מדבר דהכי איתא פרק מי שאחזו דף ע”א שומע ואינו מדבר זהו אלם דכתיב ואני כחרש לא אשמע וכאלם לא יפתח פיו וכו’ וכן פסקו כל הפוסקים והכל מבואר בטור א”ה סימן ק”ך וקכ”א והב”י האריך בחלוקי דינים שבין חרש ואלם וכן בטור ח”מ סימן רל”א

אבל בכגון זה דבאתריה דמכ”ת שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר לא מיקרי אלם אלא חרש מיקרי אף על פי דהוא פקח ביותר אין לחלק בין החרשים וראיתי מרבותי נוהגין שהולך לחופה עם החרש אחד שהוא רגיל עמו כגון אחד מן אחיו או שאר קרוביו הגדלים עמו בבית ומכירים ברמיזותיו ואותו הרגיל עמו מראה לו ברמיזות ענין קידושין והחרש מושיט הטבעת לאשה ומקדשה וזה ראיתי בקראקא מחרש אחד שגם הוא היה חייט ופקח גדול היה והיה סוחר עם מלבושים שעשה הוא למכור וראיתיו כי היה פעמים הרבה תובע לאחרים לפני הב”ד ופעמים היה הוא נתבע והיו הרבה מבני הקהלה שהיו מכירין ברמיזותיו כי פקח גדול היה ובקל היה מבין ואפ”ה היה מקדש ע”י אחד מן אחיו שהיה נכנס עמו לחופה כדלעיל:  

ומה שכתב מכ”ת מענין כתיבת הרי את מקודשת לי וכו’ על הנייר ולרמז לו ענין קידושין נראה דלאו שפיר דמי למיעבד כך כדי שלא לחלק בין החרשים ואיכא למיחש לתקלה שהרואים יסברו דקדושין קדושין גמורין הן מן התורה כיון שאינה מקדשה כשאר חרשים ובפרט שמחזיקים אותו לפקח גדול ואם יקדשנה אחר שהוא פקח לא יצטרכו גט משני שיאמרו אין קידושין תופסין ככל שאר אשת איש שנתקדשה שאין קידושין תופסין בה

ובאמת קידושין אלו של חרש אינן קדושין גמורין מן התורה ואם נתקדשה אחר כך מן פקח צריכה גט ממנו כמו שפסק הטור א”ה ריש סימן מ”ד לכך אין לשנות ממה שנהגו בכל החרשים שיקחו אחד מקרוביו הרגיל עמו שילך עמו לחופ’ והוא ירמז לו ענין קדושין החרש יושיט הטבעת לאצבע של האשה ויקדשה הנראה לעניות דעתי כתבתי: 

Regarding what you have asked me, that you have a mute person in your town who works as a tailor. He is very bright and understands things well, and he is meant to marry your sister – how should you conduct the kiddushin. You claim that he is not a cheresh but an ilem, a mute, since he knows the order of the prayers and can identify in the siddur which are the weekday tefilot and which are those of Shabbat and Yom Tov, and what are the additions for the holidays.  He is able to conduct business with all people, and he knows how to sign with his own signature.  It thus seems to you that he can marry with gesturing in the following manner: that they will write for him on a piece of paper: “Behold you are betrothed unto me”, etc., and the Rabbi will show him this paper, and gesture to him the meaning of what is written, and the ilem will nod his head yes.  For according to the testimony of the townspeople he understands what is written and knows how to read. Such is the essence of your words in your question.

Answer: I am familiar with this tailor in your town, and he is not considered an ilem (unable to speak) but rather a cheresh, for he cannot hear nor speak. Only someone who can hear but not speak is considered an ilem, for such is it taught in Gittin (71) that one who hears and cannot speak is considered an ilem, as the verse says: And I was like a cheresh and did not hear, and like an ilem, who did not open his mouth, etc.  All the authorities have ruled thusly, and this is all explained in the Tur, Even HaEzer, 120-121, and the Beit Yosef discussed at length the differences between a cheresh and an ilem

But regarding such a person in your place who cannot hear and not speak, he is not called an ilem, but rather a cheresh.  Although he is very smart, we do not differentiate between the chereshim.  I saw one of my teachers whose practice it was to take with a cheresh to the chuppah a person the cheresh was familiar with, like one of his brothers or other relatives who grew up with him in the same house, and who could understand his gesturing.  This person would gesture to him the issue of the kiddushin, and the cheresh would put a ring on the woman, and would marry her.  I saw this in Krakow, done by a cheresh who also was a tailor and who was very intelligent, and he was a clothes merchant, selling clothes that he had made.  I saw that he would often bring a suit against people in court, and sometimes he would be the defendant, and many of the townspeople understood his gestures, because he was very smart and was easily understood.  Nevertheless, he married his wife with the assistance of one of his brothers who he took with him to the chuppah, as stated above.

Now, regarding what you wrote, that we should write “Behold thou art betrothed to me” on a piece of paper… it is not correct to do this, so as not to differentiate between chereshim.  This could lead to inadvertent sin, for those watching will think that it is a full and Biblically binding kiddushin since he is not marrying her like other chereshim, and in particular because he is known to be a very intelligent person.  Now, if another person, who is not a cheresh, marries her, the court will not demand that this second person give her a get, for they will say that the second man’s kiddushin is not binding, just like any other married woman who had been married by a second man, that this second kiddushin is not binding.

In truth this is not the case, for the kiddushin of this cheresh is not binding Biblically, and if she was married afterwards by a non-cheresh she would need a get from him… Therefore we should not change the practice from what we normally do with all other chereshim, that they should take a person whom he is familiar with to go with him to the chuppah, and this person will gesture for him the matter, and he will put the ring on the woman and married her.  What appears correct to me I have written.

Tzemach Tzedek’s ruled that this person has the same status as any cheresh.  The key phrase is “so as not to distinguish between chereshim.”  The point here is not one of policy but of law – this is a status that applies to a class, and cannot be reassessed on a case-by-case basis.  That being said, this idea is used also in matters of policy.  He rules that the cheresh should not do the kiddushin in the standard way (with writing taking the place of talking) but rather must respond to the gestures of the officiating rabbi, so that people will realize that he has the same status as any cheresh and his marriage is not Biblically binding.  There is something profoundly sad about this – not only is his status that of a person with no legal standing, but he must act in a way demonstrating lack of full competence – at least during this one event – so as not to challenge this classification.

On a more positive note, it is clear that he was accepted as a regular member in the community, that he was marrying a woman with hearing (or else his status would have been a moot point), and that he could even bring people to court and argue cases.  His ability to take cases to court is not in keeping with the technical halakhot regarding a deaf person and his legal standing, and it indicates that in non-ritual matters he may have de facto if not de jure had real rights and privileges.



Rav Jacob Hagiz {source 2} was asked a deeply disturbing question – may (or must) a person violate Shabbat to save the life of a deaf person, since a deaf person is not obligated in mitzvot (and part of the reason that Shabbat may be violated to save a life is because this will allow the person saved to observe Shabbat in the future)? In the teshuva he moves between arguing that a deaf person is intelligent and should not have the status that he does, and between justifying why the Rabbis gave him the status that they did (with some very harsh language used).  Significantly, he ends with speculating that maybe his status should be no different than a blind person, in other words, that he should have full legal standing.

2. Responsa Hilkhot Ketanot, 2:38  |   שו”ת הלכות קטנות, ח”ב סי’ לח

[Jacob Hagiz, 1620-1674, Morocco and Jerusalem]

עוד נשאל אם מחללין עליהם את השבת: תשובה… א”כ בכל גוונא מחללין אפי’ על חרש ושוטה. אבל לא מפני שאנו מדמין ומטעימין הדברים בדרושים נעשה מעשה לענין דינא אע”כ יש להתפלל שלא יחלה א’ מהם בשבת כי יתרשל כל אדם ואינו כשאר פיקוח נפש דהשואל מגונה דהתם גברא בר חיובא הוא…

ומדברי רש”י יש לחלק בין חרש לשוטה דלית ליה דעת כלל, אבל חרש דעתא קלישתא אית ליה כדאיתא ביבמות (קיג,א), וכפי הנודע חרש אין לו גרעון אלא חוש השמע, ומפני שאינו שומע אינו לומד מבני אדם ומצינו חרשים פקחים עד מאד, וכאן היה חרש אחד כהן הוה חייט גדול שבעיר והיה לוקח סידור בשעת התפילה והיו רומזים לו ויודע ובקי בו ועומד בשעת תפילה ונושא כפיו והיה נקל ללמדו לזה וכו’, וקשה הדבר למה נחשב כבהמה, דאטו משום דעתא קלישתא לא יקרא אדם… ונראה דכל שחסר א’ מן החושים החשובים רוחניים כגון הסומא החשיבוהו ללא אדם כמו שאמר (איוב מ”א) למה נחשבנו כבהמה…

ואפשר דחרש נמי דינו כסומא דסומא חסר לו חוש הראות שאינו יכול לעסוק בתורה שבכתב אלא בלשון תרגום כמו רב יוסף (עי’ תוס’ ב”ק ג’: ד”ה כדמתרגם) ה”נ חרש חסר לו חוש השמע שאינו יכול לשמוע ד”ת אבל כבר אמרתי שיכול הוא ללמוד ולעיין בלבו דהרהור כדבור דמי כהנהו אילמי דבי ר’ (חגיגה ג’) כמו שהוכחתי לעיל. א”כ דין חרש כדין סומא דתלוי במחלוקת ומסתפינא למימר הכי דבכל מקום חש”ו שנויים יחד ולפחות קשה למה לא חייבוהו חכמים כמו למ”ד סומא פטור מדאורייתא כתבו בתוס’ (ב”ק שם ועי”ש בש”מ בשם הרשב”א) דמדרבנן חייב והדבר צל”ע

I was also asked if we can violate Shabbat for them [a cheresh whose life is at risk].

Answer… Therefore [based on what I wrote,] in all circumstances we would violate Shabbat even for a cheresh and a shoteh. But not just because we can make an argument does it mean that we should act in practice this way as a matter of law.   We must, perforce, pray that one of them does not get sick [in a life-threatening way] on Shabbat, because every person will be reluctant [to violate Shabbat on their behalf], and this is not like a normal case of saving a life where we would say that whoever stops to ask a question (if Shabbat may be violated) should be ashamed, for there the person (at risk) was someone who was obligated in mitzvot…

From the words of Rashi we can distinguish between a cheresh and a shoteh who does not have any intellect.   A cheresh, on the other hand, has weak intellect, as it is written in Yevamot, and as is well known a cheresh has no disability other than his ability to hear, and because he cannot hear he [generally] cannot learn from other people.  We have found that there are many chereshim who are very smart.  And here there was a cheresh who was a Kohen, and he was a big tailor in the city, and he would take a siddur at the time of prayers and they would gesture to him and he would understand and was well verse in this, and he would rise up at the time of prayers and lift up his hands [for the priestly blessing], and it was easy to teach this person…  The matter then is very difficult, why should he be considered like an animal?  Should we say just because his intellect is weak he should not be called a person?… And it would seem that anyone who is lacking one of the important spiritual senses, like a blind person, they considered him to not be a person, as the verse says, “why have we been considered like an animal…”

It is possible that the status of a cheresh is the same as that of a blind person (who is obligated in mitzvot).  For a blind person is lacking the sense of sight, and thus he cannot involve himself in the learning of the written Torah, except in translation (since Torah verses cannot be recited in Hebrew if not reading directly from a written text) like Rav Yosef (see Tosafot Baba Kama 3b, s.v ki’di’mitargem), here too, a cheresh is lacking the sense of hearing, and thus he cannot hear the words of Torah, but I have already said that he is able to learn and to delve into [Torah] in his mind (lit., heart), and thought is like speech, as we find by those mute people in the house of Rebbe, as I have proven above,  Therefore, a cheresh should have the same status as a blind person, whose status is a matter of debate (whether he is considered to be a bar da’at and fully obligated in mitzvot).  But I am afraid to say such a thing, because in all places [in the Gemara], the cheresh, shoteh, and minor are treated as one group (with no indication that a cheresh might be obligated in mitzvot).  At the very least, it is hard to understand why the sages did not obligate him (a cheresh) in mitzvot, as we have found according to the one who says that a blind person is exempt from mitzvot on a Biblical level, and yet Tosafot write that Rabbinically he is obligated.  And this matter requires further investigation.


Poskim 19th Century – Contemporary Times

The 19th Century saw significant improvement for the deaf Jewish community, with the opening of the Austrian Institute for the Israelite Deaf and Dumb in Nikolsburg, Austria in 1844, later transferred to Vienna in 1852, followed by similar schools in England (1865), Germany (1873) and Hungary (1876) (for more on these schools, see here). The poskim of the time were asked about the halakhic status of those who had been educated in these schools – did they still have the same disadvantaged status that the Talmud assigned to the cheresh?

Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, was a great posek, Hassidic rebbe, and founder of the Sanz Chasidic dynasty. He was one of the first to deal with the question of whether it was appropriate to apply the status of the cheresh to a deaf person who had been educated in a school for the deaf, and who was clearly intelligent and able to communicate {source 3}.  How does he rule and why?  What criteria are necessary for his ruling to be applicable?

3.  Responsa Divrei Chayyim, Even Ha’Ezer, 2:72    |     שו”ת דברי חיים אבן העזר ח”ב:ע”ב

[Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, Sanz, Poland, 1793-1876]

להרב המופלג החריף כו’ מ’ ליבוש נ”י אבד”ק טאפעלא במדינת אונגארין:

שאלה על דבר אלה הם הנולדים מבטן אמם חרשים אינם שומעים ואינם מדברים אך כאשר ברבות הימים הם הולכים לשקוד וללמוד בבית הספר הנקרא טויב שטום שוללע שמה לומדים בלשון וכתב עברי ואשכנזי וכשיוצאים משם יודעים המה להתפלל ומבינים היטב בלשון אשכנזי וגם מלומדים המה לדעת דת וחק רעליגיאהן ומבינים דבר המדברים אליהם כמעט בהברה ובחיתוך הלשון וגם המה מדברים בלשון עלגים קשה עד למאד לפעמים אבל ביכלתם לדבר כזה אשר השומע יודע ומבין מה שמדברים ומה שהמה מבקשים וכעת היום השאלה להלכה ולמעשה לדעת מה דינם לאלה הנ”ל בענין קידושין גירושין חליצה שחיטה עדות משא ומתן וכדומה אם גם אחרי הלימוד עוד המה בכלל חרשים שאמרו חז”ל [עי’ חגיגה ב’ ע”ב] קים להו דלאו בני דיעה ננהו או מאחר כי אף שחרשים המה ואינם שומעים הרי מדברים המה בלשון עלגים ואם קשה הרי אנחנו יודעים ומבינים ע”י דיבורם מה שאומרים ומה שמבקשים ודורשים וגם אנו רואין שמבינים המה ויודעים דרכי והויות העולם כמעט נמצא בהן דעת ותבונה לכן הדבר צריך תלמוד וגם להלכה ולמעשה. כי זה היום איש כזה אשר בא מבית הספר הנ”ל ואנו רואים בו את כל האמור הוא עומד ומבקש לקדש אשה אחת פקחת והשאלה באה לדעת מה דינו…

ואם כן לפי מסקנת הגמרא [לרבנן דפליגי ארשב”ג] לא מהני אפילו בחריפי ויודעים טובא וגם כתבו בכתב ידם לא מהני ואינו גט כלל…ואפילו בפיקח ונתחרש…

אך [בנידון דידן] באם מדברים קצת [ואפילו בלשון עלגים] והוי בגדר מדבר באופן שכתב מהרי”ט ז”ל [בתשובה הנ”ל] בכהאי גוונא לפענ”ד כפקחים הם ואי משום שאינם שומעים הנה לפי מה שכתב הרמב”ם [בפירוש המשניות תרומות פ”א מ”א ד”ה חרש] דעל פי טבעי הרפואה אי אפשר לדבר מבלתי שמוע ולכן אם הם מדברים מסתמא שומעים קצת על כל פנים דזה מהני להיות נחשב כשומע ומדבר… אבל באמת שומע ואינו מדבר ומדבר ואינו שומע כפקחים:

To the brilliant Rabbi, etc., Rabbi Leibusch, the chief rabbi of Topolya, Hungary,

Question – regarding those who are born deaf from their mother’s womb, neither able to hear or to speak.  In the course of time they go to study and learn in the school called Taubstummen Schul (= School for the Deaf and Mute) where they learn the Hebrew and German language and script, and when the graduate from there they know how to pray and the understand German fluently, and they are educated, knowledgeable in the laws and practices of the religion and they understand what is being spoken to them almost fully by lip reading, and they also speak in an inarticulate way, extremely difficult at times [to understand them], but they are able to speak in such a way that the listener knows and understands what they are saying and what they are asking for.  The question now before us for halakha and for practical application is to determine what is their status regarding marriage and divorce, chalitza, ritual slaughtering, testimony, business transactions, and similar matters.  Should we say that even after this course of study they should still be in the category of chereshim regarding whom the Rabbis said that we have established that they are not people of intellect, or should we say that even though they are deaf and cannot hear, behold they can speak in an inarticulate way, and even if it is difficult, nevertheless we can know and understand through this speech what they are saying and what they are asking for and requesting, and we also see that they have intelligence and know the ways of the world, and they practically have understanding and wisdom, therefore this matter requires investigation, both as a matter of halakha [in theory] and also for practical application.  For today, a person who came from this school and we see that he has all of these abilities, is standing before us and requesting to marry a woman who is a pikcheit, and the question is to determine what is his legal standing…

Therefore, according to the conclusion of the Gemara [Gittin 71a-b], according to the Rabbis who argue on Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, it does not help (i.e., the status remains the same) even for those who are very sharp (intelligent) and know a great deal. And even his ability to communicate through writing doesn’t help, and [a gett from him] is not a gett at all… and this is true even for someone who was hearing and became deaf later in life..

However, in our case, if they can speak a little, even if only inarticulately, and would be in the category of one who speaks, in a similar way as Maharit wrote – in such a case it would seem in my humble opinion, that they are like pikchim [have full legal status].  The fact that they cannot hear is not a concern, as Rambam writes [in his commentary to Mishna] that we know through medical science that it is not possible to speak without being able to hear, and therefore, if they can speak, it stands to reason that they can hear somewhat, and this would suffice to categorize them as a person who can speak and hear… but regardless, a person who can hear and not speak and a person who can speak and not hear are both like pikchim [and have full legal status].

Because of the ruling of the Gemara Gittin, Rav Halberstam is unable to change the status of a deaf person on the basis of his intelligence or ability to communicate non-verbally.  However, he is willing to change the status if the deaf person is able to communicate verbally, for then he could be categorized as “speaking”.  Although he adopts this formalistic approach, he states explicitly that this would apply even if the person’s speech was very inarticulate and difficult to understand, as long as he could make himself understood.  As we will see, some later poskim who adopted the formalistic approach required that the person be able to speak in an easily understandable way before they would be prepared to categorize him as “speaking.”



Rav Simcha Bunim Sofer, son of the famous Ketav Sofer, grandson of the Chatam Sofer, deals with the question of sending a child who became deaf at the age of two to a Jewish school for the deaf where he would eat non-kosher food (specifically, meat slaughtered by Reform Jews).  In the course of the teshuva {source 4} he addresses the question of the halakhic status of the person who has attended the school and is now able to communicate.  What is his initial position and what authorities does he quote?  How halakhically does he suggest redefining the status?  What his conclusion in the end?

4. Shevet Sofer, Even Ha’Ezer, no. 21   |    שו”ת שבט הסופר אבה”ע ס’ כ”א

[R. Simcha Bunim Sofer, 1842-1906, Pressburg]

בע”פ מעוז ומגדול כש”ת מו”ה מרדכי הלוי האראוויטץ נ”י אב”ד דק”ק שאמלויא יע”א.

אחדש”ה ראיתי קונטרסו אשר שדר לן ויצא לפתוח בכח דהתירא אודות בנו הילד אשר בהיותו שתי שנים ומחצה הי’ יניק וחכים טובא דיבר בלשון טוב וצח ונחלה בחולי כבד מאוד משך שתי חדשים ובעת שנתרפא מחליו נעשה ר”ל חרש שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר ונלאו כל הרופאים להמציא לו תרופה למכתו ולא נשאר דרך אחר רק לתתו לבית חינוך הילדים של החרשים והאלמים שקורין טויבשטוממען אינשטיטוט בעיר פעסט או וויען ללמדו שם לדבר בקושי ויעשה כלי מוכשר לישא וליתן עם שאר בני אדם ויכול להשיב על כל מה ששואלים ולדעת כל מצות עשה ול”ת…

והנה מה דפשיטא ליה למע”כ דאם יהי’ שם בבית חינוך וילמוד לדבר שם בקושי ע”י קריצותיו ורמיזותיו ותנועותיו ויתפקח מה שיכול ויבין להתפלל ולישא וליתן עם בני אדם דודאי מחויב במצות כשאר ישראל כבר הבאתי מצ”צ שכתב בהאי חייט דהוי פקח גדול באומנתו וידע כל סדר התפלות בכל זאת כתב דאין חילוק כלל בינו לשאר חרשים וכן משמע כאשר כתבתי מלשון הש”ס דלא יוציא עולמית לרבות אע”ג דחזינן ליה דחריף טובא…

אלא באלו שלומדים בבית חינוך ומדברים בקושי ומבין מה שדברו אחרים ע”י תנועותיו יש להסתפק אם לומר דלא הוי רק מעשה אומן בעלמא והא שמדבר בקושי לא הוי חילוק לשאר קריצותיו ותנועותיו כי ע”י רגילות הוא או שדינו כנתפקח ושמעתי כמה פעמים מאאמ”ו מאוה”ג זצ”ל שאמר שהוא מסופק אם אינם מחוייבים במצות וכאשר הי’ בוויען בקשו ממנו המורים בבית חינוך החרשים שיכבד אותם בכבודו לראות בעיניו מעשה אומן נפלא שלהם והי’ משתומם מהדברים אשר ראה שם מה שלמדו אלו החרשים ואינם מדברים עד שעלה ספק זה בלבו אם אינם בר דעת גמור ומחויבים במצות וכמדומה לי שאמר ובקש מהמורים שם ליקח להם תפילין שיניחו אותם שוב נאמר לי שכבר דיבר מזה בשו”ת מהר”ם שי”ק אע”ז סי’ ע”ט וגם הוא מסיק להלכה שעדיין לא יצא מספק אינו בר דעת ואין לאכול משחיטתו ואין לצרפו למנין ויש להחמיר עליו כמעיקרא יע”ש…


אבל בשוטה וחרש שאם לא יתרפא יהי’ לעולם פטור ממצות לא שייך טמטום הלב כלל וא”כ בנדון שלנו ממ”נ מותר להכניסו שם דאם יתפקח עד שיהי’ מחויב במצות בודאי מותר להכניסו שם ולא שייך מוטב שיהי’ שוטה דהא אפי’ ספי בידים ממש מותר ואם אין דינו כפקח אף על פי שילמוד שם לדבר בקושי א”כ כיון שיהי’ נשאר שוטה בודאי לא שייך מוטב כיון דלא אתי’ לכלל מצות כלל…

כן נראה לי ברור ומצאתי תקנה לחרשים ואלמים להכניסם בבית החינוך… ועכשיו שיש בתי חינוך בוויען ופעסט העומדים תחת יהודים אף שעומדים תחת השגחת של החדשים שנאסרו במדינה זה שנים לאכול משחיטתן בודאי יותר טוב להכניסו שמה וה’ יחננה דעה בינה והשכל וישמח את נפשו היפה ויסיר ממנו כל צער ומחלה

הכ”ד חותם בברכה פ”ב חדש מרחשון תרמ”ה לפ”ק. הק’ שמחה בונם סופר בה”ג מהראשב”ס זצ”ל.

Peace and blessing to the honorable Rav… Mordechai HaLevi Horrowitz…

After proper inquires to your well-being – I have seen your monograph that you sent us, and you came out with the power of being permissive, regarding your son, the boy that when he was two and half years old was very intelligent, he could speak clearly and beautifully, and he then fell ill with a severe illness for two months, and when he was healed from his illness he became – God save us – a deaf person who could neither hear not speak.  All the doctors tried in vain to find a cure for his affliction, and there was no other option but to put him in a school for the deaf and mute, called Taubstummen-Institut in Pest or Vienna, where he will be taught to speak with difficulty and he will make an instrument to allow him to interact with other people and he will be able to respond to any question asked of him and to know all of the positive and negative commandments.  [Can he be sent there, knowing that they will feed him non-kosher food?]…

What seems obvious to you that if he was in a special school for the deaf and was taught to speak with difficulty through winking, hinting and gesturing and became intelligent in that he could pray and conduct business with others, then he would definitely be obligated in all mitzvoth like any other Jew, I have already quoted the Tzemach Tzedek regarding the tailor who was intelligent and an expert in his field and knew how to pray, but nevertheless ruled that there was no distinction between him and any other cheresh.  And this is implied by the Gemara which says (about a married man who became a cheresh): “He can never divorce his wife”, which suggests even if we see that he is very smart……  

But regarding those who study in a special school and can speak with difficulty and others can understand them when they communicate, we have reason to raise the question whether their speaking is more akin to “learned behavior” and the speaking that he does with difficulty is no different than his other gesturing, because it is just learned out of practice and habit, or whether his status is that of someone who has become a pikeach.  And I have heard a number of times from my master my father zatza”l that he was in doubt whether indeed they are obligated in mitzvoth and that once when he was in Vienna, he was invited by the staff to visit the School for the Deaf and honor them with his presence and to see with his own eyes their wonderful work of theirs. And he was astounded by what he saw- how they were able to teach the deaf who could not speak, so much so that this doubt entered his heart, that perhaps they should be considered as a fully intelligent person and obligated in mitzvoth. And I seem to recall that he said that he asked the teachers there to take tefillin to them and put them on them.  Afterwards it was said to me that this matter has already been discussed by Marahm Shik, Even HaEzer, 79, and he also concludes as a matter of halakha that he (the cheresh) cannot be removed from the category of someone who may not be a person of intellect, and we cannot eat from animals that he has slaughtered not count him to a minyan, and we need to be strict just like we were originally…

[Returning to the question of sending him to the school -] But regarding a cheresh or a shoteh that will never be healed, they would always be exempt from mitzvot, so there is no concern at all [that the non-kosher food will] “spiritually impurify their hearts”.  Therefore, in our case, it is permissible to enroll him in the school, either way [we rule about his status when educated].  For if he is healed to the point where he becomes obligated in mitzvot, then it is definitely permissible to enroll him there, and there is no argument to be made that it is better that he remain a shoteh [rather than eat non-kosher food], for it would even be permissible to directly feed him this food [if it will make him healed and obligated in mitzvot].  And if his status is not that of a hearing person, even if he learns how to speak with difficulty, then since he will remain a shoteh, it is definitely not relevant to say “better [to not have him eat the non-kosher food]” since he will in no way ever reach the level of being obligated in mitzvot…

This appears to me to be clear, and I have found a solution for deaf-mutes to be enrolled in a school [for the deaf]… And now that there are school in Vienna and Pest which are Jewish-run, although they are controlled by the “innovators” (i.e., Reform Jews), regarding whom, for many years now the practice has been to forbid the animals that they slaughter, it is certainly better to enroll him there, and God should grant him knowledge and understanding and gladden his beautiful soul and remove from him any anguish or illness.

Behold such are my words, and I will sign off with a blessing.  Pressburg, Marcheshvan,5 645 (1885).  Simcha Bunim Sofer.

Rav Sofer’s initial position is that this person’s status is no different from that of any other chersh, i.e., he has no legal standing.  He bases himself on the authority of the Tzemach Tzedek and on the Gemara which also states that the status remains the same even if it is clear that the person is intelligent.  

He then relates specifically to the phenomenon of those who have learned in a school for the deaf.  This allows him to distinguish these cases from the blanket status that the Gemara gives the entire class.  Once they have studied in school and can speak intelligibly, he argues, perhaps they have been healed!  The Gemara recognizes the case of a deaf person who is healed (see Mishna Gittin 2:7) and states that such a person has full legal standing. To apply this here is, of course, somewhat of a legal fiction – the deaf person still cannot hear, and he has been educated, not “healed”.  Nevertheless, the status of cheresh only applies to a person who is deaf and mute, and this person, in contrast, is now able to speak.  As discussed above, this is the Formalist 1 argument.

Rav Sofer’s only hesitation is whether to see the speaking as some “learned behavior,” perhaps like teaching a parrot to speak, or whether it is genuine communication.  This possibility can be entertained because it was not yet fully accepted that deaf people were just as intellectually capable as hearing people. It will be obvious to later poskim that it is genuine speaking and communication.

Significantly, Rav Softer relates the story of his father’s visit to the school for the deaf (presumably the Jewish school for the deaf) and the impression that this made on his father.  This shows how important direct contact and knowledge is in cases such as this, and in halakha in general.  Note how his father, the famed Ketav Sofer, seems inclined to just rule that deaf people have da’at, without the halakhic argument that they have been healed.  It sounds like this is the realist argument – just acknowledging that deaf people are intelligent.  It is not clear how he would have dealt with the counter-text in Gittin.  It is unimaginable that he would have said that the Rabbis were in error; perhaps he would have said that “nature changed” and that deaf people are now intelligent, whatever the reality was in rabbinic times.

In the end, though, there seems to be too much precedent for him to rule for a definite change in status, and he concludes that the matter remains in doubt.  The implications of this questionable status become clear in the final paragraphs – he will have to keep all the mitzvot because he might be obligated.  However, because he might not be obligated, Rav Sofer still rules that he cannot count in a minyan (although this is only a Rabbinic issue), and it is clear that he would also not be able to discharge other people’s obligation, or do other synagogue ritual for the community.

Rav Hildesheimer dealt with the same issue {source 5}.  Notice how he brings in relevant historical and scientific data.  What, for him, is the way in which it would be possible to redefine this category nowadays?  How is the science relevant?  How does he conclude?

5. Responsa R. Esriel Hildesheimer, 2:58    |     שו”ת רבי עזריאל הילדסהיימר ב:נ”ח

[1820-1899, Germany]

חרש שלימדוהו לדבר. 

[א”ה, סי’ זה מלוקט ומתורגם ללה”ק מתוך מאמרי המחבר במכ”ע יידישע פרעססע בשנת אלף שמנה מאות שמנים ושש..]

בדינו של חרש שלימדוהו לדבר בבית חינוך לחרשים (בדרך שנתחדש בשנים האחרונות) עד שאינו נבדל משאר בני אדם אלא בחסרון חוש השמיעה ובגמגום לשונו בלבד, אבל מדת שכלו והבנתו במשא ומתן היא כשל כל בנ”א =בני אדם= הפקחים, נחלקו גדולי הדור.  י”א דהוי כפקח לכל דבר כדין מדבר ואינו שומע. וי”א דהוי כשוטה כדין מי שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר. ויש שלא הכריעו בדבר ודנוהו מספק לחומרא. 

מן הסוברים שהוא כפיקח לכל דבר הוא הג”ר חיים מצאנז זצ”ל בתשובתו בשו”ת דברי חיים ח”ב חאהע”ז סי’ ע”ב…

ונלע”ד שעיקר הדבר תלוי בשאלה אם כח השכל של החרש לקוי באופן מוחלט או שהוא נורמאלי כשלעצמו וכעין אוצר גנוז. 

כהצד הראשון היה מקובל אצל הגוים עד תחלת המאה הי”ט לספה”נ, עד שבא גואלם ומצילם של מסכנים אלו בעלי ארבעת החושים, ויקטור אוגוסט יעגער… שהסיק בחיבורו (הדרכה לחינוך ילדים חרשים – אלמים בדיבור, בדת ובמקצועות אחרים שמלמדים בבתי הספר) כי לחרש יש כל הכשרונות לרכישת שפת הדיבור: שכל המסוגל ללמוד שפה, האיברים הצריכים לכך, החושים המאפשרים את קליטת צורות השפה, ונוסף לכל זה האמצעים להתקשר עם הזולת. בנוסח מדויק יותר הסיק במחקרו יוחנן אייכינגער, מנהל מוסד לחרשים בלינץ שבעסטרייך /שבאוסטריה/: לחרשים יש כח השכל כלכל אדם אלא שכמובן קשה יותר לעוררו ולפתחו, כלומר להביאו לידי תודעתו…

וחזינן דהמציאות מכחשת את מש”כ הגאון מהר”ם שיק שפעולת החרש שלימדוהו הוי כמעשה קוף בעלמא ושאינה אלא כפי מה שנקבע ונטבע בו מההרגל והלימוד ואין לו בחירה ודעה חפשית. 

והנה מדברי המומחים הנ”ל סייעתא לדעת בעל מלאכת חרש שהסכים לו הגאון מצאנז, וכך נראה גם לענ”ד

Regarding a cheresh who was taught to speak.

[Editor’s note: This is translated from an article that the author wrote in the journal Yiddish Press in the year 1886…]

Regarding a cheresh who was taught to speak in a school for the deaf (in the way that has been innovated in recent years) until the point where he is no longer distinguishable from other people except regarding his ability to hear and in the inarticulateness of his speech alone. But the degree of his intelligence and his understanding in business is like all other people who can hear – in this matter the gedolei ha’dor have argued: Some say he is to be regarded as a pikeach.  Some say he is to remain regarded as a shoteh or one who cannot hear or speak / Others have regarded it as a matter of doubt.

Among those who say that he is like a pikeach in all matters is the gaon R. Chaim from Senz, in his responsa Divrei Chayim, 2:72…

In my humble opinion it seems that the issue hinges on the question of whether the intellectual capacity of a cheresh is damaged or whether it is inherently normal but like a hidden treasure.

The former was assumed by the nations until the beginning of the 19th century when the redeemer and savior of these unfortunate ones who have only four senses, Viktor August Jaeger… who published his guide to teaching deaf children that a deaf person has all the capacities to acquire speech: an intellect that can learn language, the parts of the body to produce the speech, the sense that enable one to absorb language, and in addition to all this the means to connect with another person.  In a more precise formulation Yochanan Eichenger, the headmaster of the school for the dead in Linz, Austria, stated: “Deaf people have the same intellectual capacity as any other person, but, as is known, it is more difficult to develop it – that is, to bring it to its full realization.”…

From all of the expert statements and experience we see that reality contradicts the opinion of an earlier authority- Maharam Schick- who claimed that the speech taught to the deaf was a maaseh kof, acts of a monkey, and is simply behaviorism but does not reflect his own volition.

Behold from the words of these experts is a support to the opinion of the author of Melekhet Cheresh, to which the gaon of Senz agreed, and so it appears in my humble opinion.

Like in Rav Sofer’s teshuva, the key halakhic question here is whether the speech of a deaf person who has learned to talk in a way that is intelligible (perhaps with some difficulty), is whether this would redefine him as a deaf person who can talk.  This again is the formalist 1 argument, and for most poskim this is the only way to make the argument, since the Gemara seems to have closed off the possibility of reassessing just based on the person’s demonstrated intellect.

The scientific data is relevant to counter the claim that emerged from a belief that a deaf person did not have true intelligence.  This led some (he cites Maharam Shik) to argue that the talking of a deaf person could not really be true communication, and must be like a trick taught to a monkey (or like the talking of a parrot).  Rav Hildesheimer states that the facts are a clear refutation of this.  He concludes that if a deaf person can learn to talk intelligibly he will no longer have the halakhic status of a cheresh.



Rav Yitzchak HeLevi Herzog {source 6} begins his teshuva by countering the opinion of Rav Tolidano who writes that a deaf person definitely still has the same status that he had in the time of the Gemara, i.e., a person of no legal standing.  Other than quoting authorities who argue on this, what are Rav Herzog’s arguments that his status has changed?  What is his conclusion?

6.  Heichal Yitzchak – R. Yitzchak Halevi Herzog , 2:47   |    שו”ת היכל יצחק ב:מ”ז

[1888-1959, Israel]

עיינתי בקונטרסו של הגרי”מ טולידנו שליט”א, הרה”ר לתל-אביב-יפו, והנני הולך ומעיר:

א) הוא מחליט שהדיעה שאלה שגמרו ביה”ס לחרשים – אלמים הם כפקחים לכל דבריהם דחויה היא, ולא נכנס אפילו בגדר ספק. 

עיני קשה הדבר לאומרו. הרי גאוני האחרונים ז”ל עד דורו של הגאון מצאנז לא דיברו מזה כלל ועיקר, ואלה החמשה הנמנים בסוף ספר מלאכת חרש אפשר שהרב טולידנו שליט”א לא הכיר אותם, אבל כולם היו גאוני ארץ, והמעיין יראה שהיו מהם שפסקו שהנ”ל כפקחים גמורים (ואיך אפשר לבטל דעתם לגמרי?)  והיו מהם שפסקו שהם ספק, ורק מיעוט מהם פסקו שהנ”ל כחרשים לכל דבריהם, ואיך אפשר לומר אף על דעתו של אחד מהם שהיא לא באה בחשבון?…

 ה) … אלא באלו שאנו עסוקים, הם גם קצת מדברים, והם עסוקים בישובו של עולם, ומחזיקים במשרות אחריות (כגון בנידון שלנו, שהוא עובד בעתונות), ומה זה ענין לרבנן שסוברים שדעתו דעת קלושה ולא צלולה.  הלא בזה אנו מסופקים, אם החינוך הזה שקבלו הוא הרפואה ולא אמרו חז”ל שחרש גמור אינו יכול להתרפא, ואדרבה, הלא מפורש במשנתנו גיטין כ”ג ע”א חרש ונתפקח וכו’ (ועיין תוס’ חגיגה כ”ב ע”ב ד”ה והא ק”ל (ולפשוט דבר זה מהראשונים ומהאחרונים ז”ל שקדמו לאותה האמצאה א”א, שהרי לא ידעו רפואה זו, וע”כ הדבר נשאר בספק

ואילולי  שאין דעתי מכרעת הייתי אומר שאכן יש להם דין ודאי פקחים אבל עכ”פ מידי ספק לא יצאנו…

ח) ברם עצם דברי רבינו הגדול צ”ע, שאם דעתו נכונה ומיושבת עליו, וזה ניכר מתוך כתבו, למה לא יהא נחשב בן דעת? ואפילו אם היה כתוב מפורש בתורה איש ולא חרש (ולא היה אפשר לאמר שאסמכתא היוא) עדיין היינו יכולים לפרש בחרש שאין ניכר מתוך כתבו שדעתו נכונה ומיושבת עליו… אבל אם היה מתברר שדעתו גמורה, אין ה”נ שהיה נחשב פיקח לאותו שעה, אך זה חידוש יותר מדי.

והנראה שכל זה בלי לימוד, אבל בלימוד הזה שלא היה נמצא בימי חז”ל יצא מכלל אינו בן דעת, ועכ”פ ספק הוא… שזה הלימוד המודרני רפואה גמורה…

I have looked into the monograph of Rav Tolidano, the Rav haRashi of Tel Aviv – Yafo, and here I proceed to give my comments:

1) He concludes that the opinion that those who have learned in a school for the deaf-mutes are like people of sound intelligence for all matters, is a rejected opinion, and it is not even considered a doubt (that this might be the case).

In my opinion it is difficult to say this.  For behold, the great authorities of the Achronim until the generation of the gaon from Senz did not speak about this matter at all, and the five opinions that are listed at the end of the book Melekhet Cheresh (by Rav Yichezkel Chafetz) – it is possible that Rav Tolidano does not recognize them, but they are of the greats of the land.  And one who investigates the matter will see that among them are those who ruled that such people are of the status of those with complete intelligence (and how is it possible to totally negate these sages’ opinion?), and there are those who ruled that their status is a doubt, and only a minority of them have ruled that the above people are unequivocally like a cheresh in all matters.  How, then, is it possible to say regarding even one of these opinions that it should not come into our consideration?…

5)… But this is the exact question that we are asking.  These people speak to some degree, and they are involved in productive activity, and they are able to hold positions of responsibility (such as in our case, the man works in newspapers), so how then is this relevant to the position of the rabbis in the Gemara who hold that the intelligence of the cheresh is weak and not clear?  This is exactly our doubt – is the education that they have received considered a cure for their condition?  And, Hazal have never said that a full cheresh cannot be healed.  To the contrary, it is explicit in the mishna in Gittin (23a): “a cheresh who is cured…”.  So to attempt to conclude this matter from the positions of the Rishonim and Achronim who preceded this innovation is impossible, for behold they were not aware of this remedy, and thus this matter remains in doubt.

Were it not that my opinion is not worthy of deciding this matter, I would say that in truth they have the status of those with full intelligence.  Nevertheless, the matter remains in doubt…

8) However, the very words of our great Rabbi (Rambam) require investigation, for if the cheresh has good intellect, and this is evident from his writing, why then should he not be considered a person of intellect?  Even if it were written explicitly in the Torah: ‘a man – and not a cheresh’ (and we would not be able to say that it was an asmakhta), we would still be able to explain that that was referring to a cheresh whose intellect cannot be determined through his writing… But if it were clarified that his intellect was complete, then yes, indeed, he would be considered a person of intellect for that period (when it was demonstrated).  But this is a very great chidush.

It appears, though, that all of these rulings were said when the person was not educated, but with this education that we now have that was not known in the time of Hazal, he could actually leave the status of one who is not a person of intellect… for this modern education is a full remedy of his condition…

Like the earlier teshuvot, Rav Herzog is inclined to rule that the status of a deaf person has changed completely, but in the end he pulls back and writes that it still remains somewhat of a doubt.  He again uses the logic that they have been “healed,” and he rejects counter arguments from the Gemara, inasmuch as the Gemara could not address itself to the contemporary phenomenon of education for the deaf.   What stands out in this teshuva is that he does not seem to want to make the technical argument that they can speak (if they have learned how), but rather that it is obvious that they have intelligence, and this should lead to a complete reassessment of the category.  He rejects formalist arguments saying that even if this was a Biblical verse, the facts would require us to redefine the category.  Nevertheless, as stated, he does not feel he has the authority to rule definitively that their status has changed.



In contrast to Rav Herzog, Rav Aurbach {source 7} tries to explain how the Rabbis could give the status that they did to a deaf person, even if it was clear that he was intelligent.  What is his explanation?  What is the cost of justifying Hazal in this way?  What for him would be the only basis for reassessing the status?  How does he conclude?

7.   Minchat Shlomo 1:34    |   שו”ת מנחת שלמה א:ל”ד

[R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach , 1910-1995, Israel]

חרש שלמד לדבר – לענין חיובו במצוות…

ומצד הסברא ודאי קשה לומר על חרש שהוא פקח גמור וחריף טובא דדעתי’ קלישתא ואינה שלימה וקשה לנו להבין מנין ידעו חז”ל לפוטרו ממצוות ולפוסלו משם איש בלא שום ילפותא מקראי או מהלכה אבל כיון שכן הוא האמת חייבים אנו לומר שידעו חז”ל ברוב חכמתם דחרש שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר הוא איש כזה שאי אפשר לראותו כאחראי על מעשיו ולכן אין מתחשבין במעשיו אפי’ אם לפי דעתינו הוא זריז וממולח וכל מעשיו הם בפקחות ודעת שלימה וסברא זו כה חזקה ואמת עד שגם בבן נח אמרינן הכי וכדאמרן דלא מצינן שום הבדל בהגדרת איש בין ישראל לבן נח לענין חרש ושוטה

אשר על כן נלע”ד שבנ”ד צריכים רק לדון דבר אחד אם זה שהתלמד לדבר בעקימת שפתים אי חשיב משום כך כמדבר או לא… אך מ”ש המהר”ם שיק שהוא כגדול עומד על גביו שרק כח המלמדו נפעל בו ולא דעת עצמו מאוד תמוה ולא שייך כלל בזמננו ובפרט בנד”ד. וכן ראיתי בספר שלחן העזר (ס’ ח’ סע’ ד’ כלל א’) דכתב נמי הכי דבזמננו זה ודאי דעת עצמו ולא דעת מלמדו.

לכן נלע”ד… שאם הוא מדבר באופן כזה שסתם בני אדם יכולים להבין כוונתו אף אם תנועות השפתיים הם שונות משל כל אדם אפילו הכי מסתבר דשפיר חשיב כמדבר ואינו שומע דדינו כפיקח לכל דבר, אך אם רק האנשים שרגילים לדבר אתו יודעים ומבינים כוונתו ולא אחרים איננו יודע להכריע אם חשיב כמדבר או לא.

ג. עוד בענין הנ”ל (תשובה אחרת)

בענין חרש בר דעת שאינו שומע, אבל יכול לדבר בשפת עלגים שמלמדים אותם לדבר בתנועות שפתים, נשאלתי לפני כמה שנים ע”י חכם אחד בנידון כזה, בצעיר חרש, אך חריף בשכלו ופיקח גמור, וגם יש לו חברותא בלימוד, והשבתי שדינו כפקח, וגם מחותני הגאון ר’ יוסף שלו’ אלישיב שליט”א נשאל על כך והסכמנו אז לדבר אחד שדינו כפקח, ורק לענין לעלות לתורה חושבני דכיון שאינו יכול לברך כראוי מסתבר שאין להעלותו…

ומ”ש המהר”ם שיק דחרש אין בו דעת עצמו רק דעת מלמדו, הרי עינינו רואות שבזמננו אין הדבר כן ויש להם פקחות וחריצות משלהם וגם יש אשר הם יותר משכילים ממלמדיהם, ולכן יותר מסתבר כהב”ש שהביאו כת”ר דחשיבי שפיר בני מצוות, ואף שהביא כת”ר מדברי מלכיאל ח”ו “בזה נתקבל מהלכה למשה מסיני” משום דא”א לומר שחכמי הש”ס טעו ח”ו בדין חרש בשביל שלא ידעו שאפשר ללמדו, נלענ”ד דיתכן דלפני שידעו ללמדם ולפתח את שכלם כמו שיודעים בזמננו היו נחשבים באמת כשוטים משא”כ בזמננו, דוגמא לדבר בן ח’ אשר חלילא לומר גם בזמננו דהרי הוא כאבן (מסופקני במי שנמצא כיום באיזו מדינה אשר אין שם אינקובטור אם מותר לחלל שבת עבור חיי שעה של בן ח’ כיון דבזמננו הם יכולים לחיות וצ”ע)…

סוף דבר נראה לענין חרש שלמעשה קשה מאד להכריע בדבר שגדולי תורה אשר מימיהם אנו שותים כבר האריכו בזה אבל גם קשה מאד לדחותם ח”ו מקיום מצוות. 

A cheresh, deaf-mute who has learned to speak – regarding his obligation in mitzvoth…

Logically, it is definitely difficult to say that a cheresh who is fully intellectually able and very perceptive, that his intellect is weak and incomplete, and it is difficult for us to understand whence Hazal learned to exempt him from mitzvoth and to invalidate him from the status of ish, ‘a man’, without making any derivation from a verse or from halakhah.  But since this is undoubtedly the truth [that this is the halakha], we are obligated to say that Hazal knew in their great wisdom that a cheresh who cannot hear and speak is a type of a person whom it is impossible to see him as responsible for his actions, and therefore we do not give significance to his acts, even if according to our understanding he is smart and intelligent, and all his actions are done with reason and full understanding and this logic (that he is not responsible, etc.) is so strong and true that we would even say it regarding a Noahide.  For as we have said, we have not found any distinction in the definitions of a “man” between a Jew and a Noahide in the cases of cheresh and shoteh (i.e. there is no formalistic rule of cheresh and shoteh, just the assessment of the reality, that he is not of complete understanding, and this should apply equally for Jews and non-Jews).

Therefore, it appears in my humble opinion, that in our cases the only discussion is regarding one matter, to wit, if this person who was taught to speak with movement of the lips if he is considered to be a speaking person or not… But regarding what Maharam Shik wrote that when he speaks (after being taught how to do so) it is like someone is standing over him and he is mimicking what he was taught (lit., “he only has the power of his teacher operating in him”), and is not acting on his own intelligence – such a statement is greatly astounding, and this is not at all relevant in our times, and in particular in our case.  Similarly, I found in the book Shulkhan HaEzer (8:4:1), who writes likewise, that in our days he is definitely exhibiting his own intellect and not that of the one who taught him.

Therefore, it seems in my humble opinion… that if he speaks in such a manner that an average person can understand his intent, even if his movement of his lips is different from all other people, nevertheless, it makes sense that he is rightly considered to be a speaking person who cannot hear, who has the status of a person of sound mind for all matters.  However, if only people who are accustomed to speak with him can understand his intentions, and others cannot, in such a case, I do not know how to decide whether he is considered like a speaking person or not.

[3] More on the same matter (from another responsum)

Regarding a cheresh who is of sound mind who cannot hear but he can speak in an inarticulate way – that they teach them to speak by moving the lips. I was asked already several years ago by a certain sage regarding a case like this: a young deaf-mute, but very intellectually sharp, and completely of sound mind, he even has a study partner in his learning.  I responded that his status is that of a hearing person, and also my mechutan Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita, was asked regarding this and we came to the same conclusion, that his status was that of a hearing person.  Only when it came to receiving an aliyah to the Torah, it was my opinion that since he cannot make the blessings in a fit fashion, it would stand to reason that we should not give him an aliyah…

As for what Maharam Shik wrote, that a deaf-mute has no native intelligence, and his only knowledge comes from those who have taught him – behold, we see with our own eyes that in our days such is not the case.  There are smart and intelligent people among them, and there are those who are more intelligent than their teachers.  Therefore, the position of the Beit Shmuel, that you cited, make more sense, that they are indeed considered to be obligated in mitzvoth.  Now, you also cited from the Divrei Malkiel, section 6, to wit: “This law [that a deaf-mute is not obligated in mitzvoth] was accepted as a halakha to Moses from Sinai – for behold, it is impossible to say that the Sages of the Talmud made an error – God forbid! – regarding a deaf-mute, that they were unaware that it was impossible to educate him.  It would seem in my humble opinion, that it is possible that before they knew how to teach them and to develop their intellect, as we now know, they were indeed considered to be as imbeciles.  But that is not the case nowadays.  A parallel can be drawn to a child born in the eighth month of pregnancy.  God forbid that someone should say even nowadays that he is “like a stone” [cannot even be held on Shabbat, because he will definitely die].  (I am uncertain regarding someone who lives in a country where no incubator is available, if it is permissible to violate Shabbat for the temporary life of a baby born in the eighth month, since nowadays it is possible for them to live.  And this requires further investigation).  I am also reminded that it is worth pointing out to you that you should look in Orchot Chayim, no. 341…

The bottom line is that regarding a cheresh it is extremely difficult to make a decision in a mater that the Torah giants, whose waters we drink, have already analyzed at great length [without arriving at a consensus position].  But it is also extremely difficult to push them away, God forbid, for fulfilling mitzvoth.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach questions the logic behind the status that the Rabbis gave a deaf person.  To give some rationale for it, he explains that the rabbis assessed that such a person could not be seen to be responsible for his actions.  The use of the phrase “could not be seen” seems to refer more to a societal reality than a medical one.  Regardless, the cost of giving a rationale to this status even when applied to an intelligent person is that – in contrast to Rav Herzog –  it makes it harder to reassess the category nowadays.  He therefore reverts to the formalist approach we have seen earlier – if they can talk intelligibly, this will in a formal sense redefine them as speaking, and redefine their status.  Because of this formalist approach, he adds a new criterion we have not seen earlier – the person has to be intelligible to an average person.  He also cites Rav Elyashiv who agrees that if the deaf person has been taught to speak, he no longer has the status of a cheresh.  At the end, though, he pulls back again, and it is hard to know his final take on this matter.

How does Rav Ovadya rule {source 8} regarding the status of a deaf person?  What does he allow for that we have not yet seen in earlier teshuvot?

8. Responsa Yechave Daat, 2:6   |    שו”ת יחווה דעת חלק ב סימן ו

[Rav Ovadya Yosef, 1920- 2013, Israel]

שאלה: חרש אילם שלמד בבית ספר לחרשים אילמים, ומתנהג כאיש פקח, ויכול גם כן לדבר קצת, אלא שאין מבטאו ברור, האם יוכל להצטרף לעשרה לכל דבר שבקדושה?

…ובשו”ת שבט סופר, הביא בקצרה מה שכתב אליו הגאון רבי מרדכי הלוי איש הורוויץ, שאם החרש אילם יתחנך בבית הספר לחרשים אילמים, וילמד לדבר בקושי על ידי רמיזותיו ותנועותיו, ויתפקח ויבין להתפלל ולישא ולתת עם בני אדם, יהיה בודאי חייב במצות כשאר כל ישראל. והשיב לו הגאון המחבר, שמדברי הצמח צדק הנ”ל נראה שגם באופן כזה אין חילוק בינו לשאר חרש אילם. אמנם שמעתי מפי מרן אבא הגאון בעל כתב סופר זצ”ל, שלאחר שביקר בעיר וינא בבית הספר לחרשים אילמים, לפי בקשת הנהלת המוסד, ועמד מקרוב על סדר לימודם, היה מופתע לטובה ממה שראו עיניו מכל סדר לימודיהם, והנהגתם, עד שעלה ספק בלבו אם אין דינם כבני דעת לגמרי שמחוייבים במצוות…

ובשו”ת נחלת בנימין (סימן לא) נשאל גם אם מצטרף לעשרה, והעלה שמכיון שהצירוף לעשרה לדברים שבקדושה הוא רק מדרבנן… לכן יש לצרפו למנין, ומה שכתבו הפוסקים שחרש שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר אינו מצטרף למנין, זהו רק בסתם חרש שאינו בר דעת ואינו ניכרת מחשבתו מתוך מעשיו, אבל חרש כזה שלמד להניח תפילין ולהתנהג כהוגן, נקרא בר חיוב מצות ובר דעת, שהרי מחשבתו ניכרת מתוך מעשיו וקיימא לן (בחולין יב.) שבדברי סופרים יש להתחשב בכך ולכן יש לצרפו לעשרה…

ונראה שלענין הלכה למעשה, כדאים הם הגאונים המקילים לצרף חרש אילם שלמד בבית הספר לחרשים אילמים, למנין, לקדיש ולקדושה. ומכל מקום כשהם מנין מצומצם בצירוף החרש אילם, ראוי לכתחילה שלא יחזור השליח צבור תפלת שמונה עשרה, אלא יאמר תפלת שמונה עשרה פעם אחת בקול רם עם הקדושה, כדי שלא להכנס בחשש איסור ברכה לבטלה…

Question: A deaf-mute that learned in a school for deaf-mutes, and he acts like a person of full intelligence, and he can even speak a little, but he cannot articulate clearly, can he count towards a minyan for all devarim she’bikdusha?

Answer: In Responsa Shevet Sofer, he quotes what was written to him by the gaon Rav Mordekhai Halvei Horowitz, that if the cheresh was educated in a school for the deaf-mute, and he learned to speak with difficulty through his gestures and movements, and he gained understanding and knows how to pray and to interact with all people, then he is definitely obligated in mitzvoth like all Jews.  The author responded to him that from the words of the Tzemach Tzedek it appears that even in this case there is not distinction between him and a normal deaf-mute. But – continues the author – I heard from my father the author of Ketav Sofer – that after he visited the school for the deaf in Vienna, having been invited by the administration of the institution, and he observed the manner of the teaching, he was astounded by what his eyes saw regarding the manner of their education and their behavior, until the doubt entered his mind that perhaps their status is that of those of full intellect who are obligated in mitzvoth…

In Responsa Nachalat Binyamin (31) he was also asked if such a person counts towards a minyan, and he concluded that since counting towards a minyan for devarim she’bikdusha is a rabbinic issue… therefore, we can count him towards a minyan.  Regarding what the decisors wrote that a cheresh who cannot hear and cannot talk does not count towards a minyan – that is only in a “standard” case of a cheresh who is not a person of intelligence and his thinking cannot be discerned through his actions.  But in the case of a cheresh who has learned to put on tefillin and to act properly, such a person is call a person who is obligated in mitzvoth and a person of intelligence, because one can discern his intelligence through his actions, and we hold (Hullin 12a) that in rabbinic matters we give weight to this fact.  Therefore, he can be counted in a minyan…

It appears regarding practical law, that these sages are deserving to be relied upon for the purpose of including a deaf-mute who learned in a school for the deaf in a minyan, for kaddish and kedusha.  Nevertheless, if there is only a minimum minyan (exactly 10) counting the deaf-mute, it is preferable ab initio, that the shaliach tzibbur should not repeat the shmoneh esrei, but rather say it once, out loud, with the kedusha, to avoid the possible problem of a blessing for naught…

Rav Ovadya follows the earlier teshuvot, and is willing to reconsider the status of a deaf person, either because he can now talk, in cases where this is the case – the formalist argument -, or on the basis of a more direct reassessment, namely, that- his actions make it clear that he has intelligence – the realist argument.  In the end, rather than concluding that it is a doubt, he states that one can rely on those poskim who rule that a deaf person definitely has full status, at least when it comes to rabbinic issues, such as counting to a minyan, kaddish, kedusha, an aliyah, and the like.  His one reservation is repeating the Shmoneh Esrei when the deaf person is one of the ten men needed for the minyan.  This emerges from a concern of a blessing for naught, a concern that Rav Ovadya gives much more weight to than most Ashkenazi poskim.  Although not a full redefinition of the status, the practical implications of Rav Ovadya’s position are enormous.



Rav Moshe {source 9} deals with this issue as well (the teshuva was published posthumously by his grandson).  We cite only part of the teshuva here.  Rav Moshe takes a formalist approach and states that a deaf person’s status can only change if he is able to talk in a way that is easily intelligible.  Notice the progression – earlier poskim just required intelligibility, Rav Aurbach required that he be intelligible by most people, and Rav Moshe requires that he be intelligible easily.  This all results from taking a formalist approach and defining this as “normal speaking.”

9. Iggrot Moshe, Yoreh Deah, 4:49   |    אגרות משה יורה דעה חלק ד סימן מט

[Rav Moshe Feinstein, 1895-1986, America]

בעניין הגדרת חרש, ודיניו בקיום מצוות, ברכות ועליה לתורה

בע”ה ר”ח אייר תמש”ה.

למע”כ נכדי אהובי הרב הגאון מוהר”ר מרדכי טענדלער שליט”א.

הנה אף שקשה לי לסדר תשובה להלכה כעת, מחמת חולשת בריאותי, ל”ע, השי”ת ירחם עלי בתוך שאר חולי ישראל, מ”מ מחמת חשיבות ענין זה, שטענת שנוגע להרבה מאחינו בני ישראל, השי”ת ישלח להם רפואה שלמה, התחזקתי ואמרתי מילים אלו, שיעתיקו במכונת כתיבה ויפרסמו כתשובה בשמי. וזה שאגיד כעת הוא בנוי על מה שכתבת בשמי לפני כשנה.

א. מי הוא הנחשב חרש ממש, ומי הוא הנחשב מדבר ואינו שומע

הגדרת מצב של חרשות לדינא אינה תלויה בשכל או הבנת המדובר. וגזירת הכתוב אינו תלוי בהסברתו

כידוע חרש שיכול באמת לדבר, דזה שמדבר מילים שמובנות בקל, אינו נחשב כחרש לדינא, כדאיתא בנדה דף י”ג ע”ב, אבל חרש שאינו יכול לדבר מילים שיהיו מובנים לרוב אנשים נחשב כחרש, אף אם יכול לדבר ע”י ידיו או בכתיבה.
ב. חרש צריך להשתדל לקיים מצוות

גם חרש שלדינא חרש, ישתדל לקיים כל המצות, אינו הגון שיפטור עצמו בטענה שמדינא פטור.

Regarding the definition of a cheresh and the laws regarding him regarding the fulfillment of mitzvot, making brakhot, and being called up to the Torah.

1 Adar 5745 (1985)

To my grandson,  Mordechai Tendler, shlita,

Behold, although it is difficult to compose a teshuva regarding halakha right now, because of my weak health – not upon us – God should have compassion on me together with all the other ill people in Israel – nevertheless, because of the importance of this topic, that you have claimed affects many of our brothers among the children of Israel – God should send them a full healing – I have gathered the strength and said the following words, which should be written down and published as a responsum in my name.  What I am saying now is built on what you have written in my name about a year ago.

[1] Who is considered to be a true cheresh, and who is considered to be someone who can speak but not hear.

The definition of the status of chershut (“deaf-muteness”) for matters of halakha is not dependent on intellect or on the ability to understand what is being spoken.  It is rather a Scriptural edict, and it is not dependent on the ability of the cheresh to understand.

As is known, a cheresh who can truly speak, that is to say, who can speak words that are easily intelligible, is not considered to have the legal status of a cheresh, as is stated in Niddah 13b.  But a cheresh who cannot speak words which are intelligible to most people, is considered to be a cheresh, even if he can talk with his hands or through writing.

[2] A cheresh must strive to fulfill the mitzvot.

Even a cheresh who is legally considered to be a cheresh, should strive to fulfill the mitzvot.  It is not proper that he should exempt himself with the claim that he is legally exempt.




We have seen that once education for the deaf became pervasive, poskim were forced to reconsider the halakhic status of a deaf person.  Some argued that his status remained the same, some that he was now to be considered a person of full halakhic status and standing, and some that his status was in doubt.  The ways to redefine his status was either by claiming that he was healed and could now talk (when he actually could and chose to do so) – the formalist approach, or the more radical approach to just acknowledge that such people truly are intelligent and that the Rabbinic category is no longer relevant.  As we have seen, the more conservative formalist approach led to additional requirements – first, that he actually have learned how to speak;  second, that it be intelligible to hearing people; and third – added by  some of the more recent poskim – that it be intelligible by most people or even easily intelligible.  

It is clear that many poskim wanted a full redefinition, but did not feel that they had the authority to rule this way.  Rav Ovadya allows for a compromise that practically accomplishes a great deal – one can really on those poskim who rule that a deaf person has full halakhic status in rabbinic matters.  This allows for a large degree of communal inclusion.  Of course, there are poskim who rule that a deaf person has full status even for Biblical matters, and if the person can speak intelligibly, many poskim would agree to this.