Halacha concerning the deaf.

This ran as a sidebar to the cover story in Jewish Week in May 1995.

Halacha Sidebar:

The most authoritative and widely disseminated writing on halachic issues involving deaf Jews is "Halacha Concerning the Deaf and Hearing Impaired," which was compiled four years ago for Our Way and sent to hundreds of Orthodox congregations around the United States and Canada.

It is the work of Rabbi Mordechai Shuchatowitz, the spiritual leader of Congregation Agudas Israel of Greenspring in Baltimore and a member of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College Kollel. The 11-page document covers the use of hearing aids on the Sabbath, "spoken mitzvahs" such as saying Kiddush or reading the Megillah on Purim, hearing the shofar blown, and whether deaf Jews can count in a minyan.

"I thought many people would find this information helpful," said Shuchatowitz, who has four children who all have either severe or profound hearing loss. Among the halachic points Shuchatowitz makes:

The use of hearing aids is permitted on Shabbat even though they are technically considered miniaturized, portable microphones which are usually prohibited on the day of rest. But because hearing aids don't produce sound audible to the public, they're kosher. However turning on a hearing aid or replacing its battery on Shabbat is forbidden. The volume may be adjusted if necessary. Some rabbinic authorities advise that the on/off switches be taped over to avoid accidentally turning on or off the device.

Deaf Jews who are unable to say daily prayers, the Sh'ma and blessings before meals with their mouths "should think them in their hearts instead." Rabbi Shuchatowitz notes that in the Midrash it is mentioned that King David asked of God, "When I am able to speak, please listen to my words. When I am not able to, please understand my thoughts and accept them instead." When Kiddush is being made, the rabbi writes, deaf Jews can fulfill the mitzvah by reading the lips of one who is making it, reading along in a siddur or watching Kiddush being signed. However, when it comes to the commandment regarding the reading of the Megillah, those who are unable to read the Megillah themselves or to hear its reading from another, aren't able to fulfill the mitzvah and are therefore not obligated to observe it.

The mitzvah of hearing the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah is most difficult for the deaf and hearing impaired. According to halacha, those who are unable to hear the sound of the shofar are not permitted to blow it for others to hear. Although Rabbi Shuchatowitz notes that most halachic authorities have concluded that Jews may not listen to the shofar being blown with hearing aids, he cites the renowned Chazan Ish, Rav Avraham Yeshaih Karelitz, and offers that "there does exist a possibility that the aid-wearer may indeed be able to fulfill this mitzvah."

Those who are not totally deaf may be able to hear some sound of the shofar being blown without hearing aids if they stand close to it. Rabbi David Edelson of the Hebrew Association of the Deaf and Beth Or of the Deaf invites people to feel the vibration of the shofar by touching the end of the shofar when it is blown.

"I feel it fulfills the commandment which is to experience the shofar," Rabbi Edelson said. "I blow it alot."

Shuchatowitz declares that "the deaf and hearing impaired can be counted on to complete [a] minyan." In explaining that God's presence rests amongst a group of 10 Jews and that the minyan results from a special closeness when 10 Jews daven, Shuchatowitz argues that "this special closeness is the result of God's relating to ten Jewish souls, and does not depend on their hearing ability." But the rabbi does recognize a requirement of some ability to communicate. He points out that many halachic authorities recognize sign language as being a demonstration of sufficient communicative ability. "There is therefore a halachic basis to count even the totally deaf into a minyan and to rely on them to recite the sacred sections of the Kaddish, Kedusha and Borachu." Although he musters numerous precedents for counting deaf men as part of a minyan, Rabbi Shuchatowitz is quick to add: "There is controversy over this subject and if a deaf person visits a congregation and it has its own interpretation of the halacha, they shouldn't take it as a personal affront."

Rabbi Fred Friedman, another Baltimore rabbi who happens to be deaf, said the last time he was excluded from a minyan was about 15 years ago.

"It's not a problem for me these days," Friedman said.