• Rav Michael Siev


Introduction to the Study of Talmud
by Rav Michael Siev

Megilla: 19: 24b


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Last week, we learned the mishna on 24a that discusses the acceptability of minors, those whose bodies are partially exposed, and blind people for various functions as part of the prayer service. We continue with the gemara's discussion of the latter two categories of people. We start from the last word of the first line of gemara on 24b.   


An exposed person divides the shema, etc.

Ula the son of Rav asked of Abaye: An exposed minor - May he read from the Torah?

He said to him: Ask about one who is naked; why is a naked person ineligible? - because of the dignity of the congregation. Here too, because of the dignity of the congregation. 

פוחח פורס על שמע וכו'.

בעא מיניה עולא בר רב מאביי: קטן פוחח מהו שיקרא בתורה?

אמר ליה: ותיבעי לך ערום; ערום מאי טעמא לא - משום כבוד צבור, הכא נמי - משום כבוד צבור.  

At first glance, this gemara seems a bit confusing. We mentioned last time that the "exposed person" is one whose clothes are tattered, leaving portions of his body exposed, and that the commentators differ about whether it is his upper body that is exposed or his lower body. Either way, why would a minor, who is more restricted in the communal functions that he can perform, have an advantage over an adult, in that he can read the Torah with parts of his body exposed? And how do we understand Abaye's answer? It is clear that there is more of a reason to prohibit a naked person from reading the Torah than one whose clothes are tattered, so how does the law regarding a naked person shed light on the status of one whose body is partially exposed?

Rashi (always our first line of defense!) explains Ula's question (s.v. katan, middle of the first line of Rashi on 24b):

An exposed minor, May he read from the Torah - An exposed adult is forbidden, because of "and there shall not be seen in you any nakedness," (Devarim 23), but a minor is not warned (i.e. he is not included under this prohibition), or perhaps the mishna does not differentiate between a minor and an adult.

According to Rashi's explanation, the possibility of maintaining that an exposed minor can read from the Torah relies on a combination of two assumptions:

  • 1) The reason an exposed adult is disqualified from reading the Torah is because it involves a prohibition to pray in this manner;

    2) A minor is not held accountable for this prohibition. Therefore, if he reads the Torah in this state, it is acceptable.

Based on this, we can understand the continuation of the gemara as well. Abaye explains that the first assumption is inaccurate, because there is another factor involved - k'vod hatzibur, the dignity of the congregation. He expresses this point in a powerful way by claiming that even a fully unclothed minor is disqualified from reading the Torah only because of this factor, that it is not respectful for the congregation (or the Torah) for a person in such condition to be the Torah reader. Once we have proven that the problem is not one of nakedness but of communal dignity, there can be no difference between an adult and a minor. Whether or not a minor is included in the prohibition against praying or reading the Torah unclothed, it is certainly not any more respectful toward the congregation for an unclothed minor to read the Torah for them than for an unclothed adult to do so.

Rashi's explanation of the gemara's question and answer works well with his definition of one who is 'exposed,' namely that the lower half of his body is exposed. However, many commentators differ with Rashi on this point and argue that a poche'ach is one whose clothes are tattered on the upper part of his body. If this is the case, Rashi's explanation here is no longer viable; the inherent prohibition against reading the Torah while unclothed is a general prohibition of saying any b'racha or learning Torah while in such a state, and it applies only if one's private parts are exposed. Others raise additional difficulties with Rashi's explanation; for example, even if a minor is not held accountable for the prohibition of reading the Torah while unclothed, the congregation cannot hear words of Torah in the presence of someone whose private parts are exposed (unless the minor is under the age of 9, in which case his body may not be considered 'nakedness').

The Turei Even (R' Aryeh Leib Ginsberg, the famous 18th century author of Sha'agat Arye) offers a different, simple explanation: The gemara knew all along that the reason for the disqualification is our concern for the dignity of the congregation. The question was simply that perhaps the minor himself is not obligated to take the k'vod hatzibur into account. He would not be personally prohibited from reading the Torah, and therefore if he would do so, that would satisfy the communal requirement of Torah reading. This explanation avoids the problems we mentioned regarding Rashi's explanation, but it too has a weakness - it does not explain Abaye's reference to one who is naked. Abaye's answer is simply that a minor must take the congregation's dignity into account; the case of one who is naked does not express this any more clearly than does the case of one whose clothes are tattered.

Back to the gemara

We return to the gemara, which now discusses the third category of people mentioned in the mishna; those who are blind. We are up to the 6th line of 24b, second word on the line.


One who is blind divides the shema, etc.

Tanya, They said to R' Yehuda: Many have (acted as though they have) seen in order to expound in 'the chariot' and they did not ever see it!

R' Yehuda (answers): There, it depends on the understanding of the heart, and he concentrates and understands. Here it is because of benefit, and he has no benefit.

Rabbanan (argue): He does have benefit, like R' Yosi. For (we learned in a) b'raita, R' Yosi said: All my days I was distressed regarding this verse: "You shall search at noon like a blind man searches in the dark." What does a blind man care if it is light or dark? Until an event happened to me. Once I was walking in the black of night and I saw a blind man who was walking on the path with a torch in his hand. I said to him, 'my son, why do you have this torch?' He said to me: 'As long as the torch is in my hand, people see me and save me from ditches, thorns and thistles.'

סומא פורס על שמע וכו'.

תניא, אמרו לו לרבי יהודה: הרבה צפו לדרוש במרכבה ולא ראו אותה מימיהם.

ורבי יהודה: התם באבנתא דליבא תליא מילתא, והא קא מיכוין וידע. הכא משום הנאה הוא, והא לית ליה הנאה. 

ורבנן: אית ליה הנאה, כרבי יוסי. דתניא, אמר רבי יוסי: כל ימי הייתי מצטער על מקרא זה (דברים כ"ח) "והיית ממשש בצהרים כאשר ימשש העור באפלה," וכי מה אכפת ליה לעור בין אפילה לאורה? עד שבא מעשה לידי. פעם אחת הייתי מהלך באישון לילה ואפלה, וראיתי סומא שהיה מהלך בדרך ואבוקה בידו. אמרתי לו: בני, אבוקה זו למה לך? אמר לי: כל זמן שאבוקה בידי - בני אדם רואין אותי, ומצילין אותי מן הפחתין ומן הקוצין ומן הברקנין.  


The gemara here elaborates on the dispute between R' Yehuda and the Sages regarding whether or not one who is blind can say the first of the birchot k'riat shema, which praises Hashem for creating the sun, moon and stars. R' Yehuda, in the mishna, argued that one who has never seen the luminaries cannot praise Hashem for having created them. The gemara now presents the continuation of this dispute.

The Sages responded to R' Yehuda that there is precedence for one who has never experienced a phenomenon being able to discuss it; many, after all, have expounded the ma'aseh merkava despite never having seen it. The ma'aseh merkava refers to the opening chapter of Sefer Yechezkel (also the haftara for the first day of Shavuot), which describes the celestial beings that surround God's throne. This vision is considered one of the most exalted that any human has ever experienced. Nevertheless, people have expounded even this prophetic vision, despite never having experienced it themselves. This proves that one can speak of something that one has never personally experienced as long as one has some level of understanding of that experience. Similarly, a blind person can have some understanding of light and darkness, and therefore can praise God for their creation via the luminaries despite never having seen the luminaries themselves.

R' Yehuda objects to the Sages' comparison of the two situations. In order to expound the ma'aseh merkava, one needs to understand, at least on some level, what it is about. The beracha of yotzer ham'orot, on the other hand, thanks Hashem for the actual benefit that we have received from the light provided by the luminaries. This is only possible if one has indeed benefited from the light, and a blind person has not directly benefited, as he cannot see.

The Sages accept R' Yehuda's assertion that the beracha of yotzer ham'orot is not simply a detached praise of God's handiwork, in which case any level of understanding would suffice, but a praise that stems from the personal benefit that we have received from Hashem's creation. Nevertheless, they argue that even a blind person has received enough benefit from the light to be able to say this praise. As proof, they cite the incident regarding R' Yosi and the blind man, in which the blind man carried a torch at night so that others would warn him to avoid harm. The dispute between R' Yehuda and the Sages is thus understood as a dispute about the amount of benefit one needs to receive in order to make the beracha. According to R' Yehuda, one needs to actually see the sun, moon and stars, while the Sages argue that even tangential benefit is enough.

The next mishna

This mishna continues the discussion of people who are disqualified from performing certain functions, and takes the issue to birkat kohanim. We are up to the second wide line of 24b.


A kohen whose hands are blemished shall not 'raise his hands.' R' Yehuda says: Even one whose hands are colored with dye shall not 'raise his hands,' because the people look at him.

מתני': כהן שיש בידיו מומין לא ישא את כפיו. רבי יהודה אומר: אף מי שהיו ידיו צבועות סטיס לא ישא את כפיו מפני שהעם מסתכלין בו.

The last phrase of the mishna explains the reason behind the concept in the mishna that one whose hands are of unusual appearance should not do birkat kohanim; we do not want the congregation to look at the kohen's hands, and we are afraid that the unusual appearance may draw people's attention. This idea that one ought not look at the kohen's hands is one that is well known. Let's examine the possible reasons for this concern.

Rashi (s.v. kohen, 5th line of Rashi on 24b) explains:

A kohen whose hands are blemished - because the people look at it, and we say in Masechet Chagiga that one who looks at the kohanim at the time that they 'raise their hands,' his eyes become dim, because the shechina rests on their hands.

Rashi alludes to a sugya in Masechet Chagiga. Tosafot on that sugya (16a), dispute Rashi's explanation. The gemara itself notes that the shechina only rested on the hands of the kohanim as they said birkat kohanim in the beit hamikdash, when the kohanim actually pronounced God's Name. If the shechina does not rest on their hands nowadays, that cannot be the source of our mishna's concern (the mishna was redacted after the destruction of the beit hamikdash). Rather, Tosafot explain, it is important that the non-kohanim who are being blessed focus on the blessings that they are receiving. Gazing at the kohanim - or anything else, for that matter - would interrupt the attention that should be directed toward the beracha itself.


How can we understand Rashi's explanation of this halacha? Did he really assume that the shechina rests on the hands of the kohanim as they say birkat kohanim nowadays, as in days of old? 

It seems clear to me that Rashi agrees that the shechina does not rest nowadays on the hands of the kohanim as it did in the beit hamikdash, and that there is no danger of losing one's eyesight if one looks at the kohanim. In fact, as Tosafot notes, the gemara itself says that the shechina only rested on their hands during the time of the beit hamikdash. Nevertheless, there are many things that we do nowadays in commemoration of the practice in the time of the mikdash, or in preparation for its return. Prominent examples include our eating of korech on the seder night and taking of the lulav and etrog on all 7 days of Sukkot, as was done in the beit hamikdash, rather than just the first day, as is required outside of the mikdash. Sometimes, we also want to guard ourselves from error once the beit hamikdash is rebuilt (hopefully speedily in our days!). Thus, the new crop of grain (at least in Israel) is used starting from the 17th of Nissan rather than the 16th, when Torah law allows its use. In the time of the beit hamikdash, it could not be used until a sacrifice was brought on the 16th. If people are used to eating from the new grain on the morning of the 16th, they may mistakenly do so even after the beit hamikdash is rebuilt, without waiting for the sacrifice. Rashi may understand that our mishna refers to a similar law One should not look at the hands of the kohen during birkat kohanim in commemoration of the practice in the beit hamikdash, and so that we don't inappropriately gaze at the shechina when the beit hamikdash is rebuilt.

There are practical differences between Rashi's explanation and that of Tosafot. According to Rashi, one may not even glance at the kohen's hands, but the law is unique to the hands of the kohen. According to Tosafot, a quick glance is not problematic because it does not distract one from concentrating on the blessings. Also, there is nothing unique about the kohen's hands - it would be equally problematic to distract oneself by gazing at any other object. Halakhically, we follow the opinion of Tosafot. Therefore, one should be careful not to look around at all during birkat kohanim, but rather to stand in place and concentrate on the blessings that one is receiving. Many authorities recommend following Rashi's opinion as well and not even glancing at the kohanim, in commemoration of the mikdash. (Some authorities note that Kabalistic sources seem to disagree with the gemara and assert that the shechina does to a certain degree rest on the hands of the kohanim even nowadays.)

We continue the discussion of birkat kohanim next time. Have a wonderful rest of the week!