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21a-b: Learning Torah Sitting or Standing (2)

Rav Ezra Bick

A scan of the classic printed daf can be found at:

The end of the shiur will continue on to the next daf -

Key words and phrases in Hebrew and Aramaic are marked in blue, and their translation/explanation can be seen by placing the cursor over them. 

From time to time, the shiur will include instructions to stop reading and do some task on your own. This will be marked by a

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It is highly recommended that you follow those instructions. I am working on a way to have your computer melt if you don't, but as of yet, the technical details are still beyond me.

Last week, we ended in the middle of a four-headed discussion of Moshe's posture on Mt. Sinai while learning with God. Specifically, I was interested in the answer of Rava - "easy sitting; hard standing" - which served as the basis for the Ran's explanation why we find cases of teachers who sit on chairs while their students sit on the floor (review last week's shiur, if this is not fresh in your mind). Today, we first turn to the other answers given in the gemara.

First, let us read the text again:


One verse states: "And I sat on the mountain;" and one verse states, "And I stood on the mountain."

(1) Rav said: He stands and studies; he sits and reviews.

(2) R. Chanina said: Neither standing nor sitting, but bowing.

(3) R. Yochanan said: "sitting" means "lingering" as is written, "you sat in Kadesh many days."

(4) Rava said: Easy (subjects) standing; hard sitting.

כתוב אחד אומר, "ואשב בהר"; וכתוב אחר אומר , "ואנכי עמדתי בהר".

אמר רב: עומד ולומד; יושב ושונה.

ר' חנינא אמר: לא עומד ולא יושב אלא שוחה.

רבי יוחנן אמר: אין ישיבה אלא לשון עכבה, שנאמר, "ותשבו בקדש ימים רבים.

רבא אמר: רכות עומד; וקשות יושב.

Rav, as we saw last week in Rashi, is actually distinguishing between Moshe studying with God and studying on his own. Presumably, according to this answer, standing was in honor of God but not in honor of the Torah, since even when reviewing on his own, Moshe is engaged in learning Torah.

R. Chanina solves the contradiction by positing a compromise posture that is both sitting and standing at the same time - Moshe learned with God while bowing. Since we have never heard that bowing is the proper way to learn Torah, this too would seem to be a special reaction to the unusual circumstances of Moshe's learning; namely, that he was learning directly with God. Once again, it would appear that bowing is in honor of God and not in honor of Torah.

Rava, the fourth opinion, makes the distinction between easy learning, which should be done standing, and difficult learning, for which one is permitted to maximize comfort in order to maximize comprehension. R. Yochanan, on the other hand, simply denies that there is a contradiction at all. He claims that "sitting" does not mean sitting, but "sojourning." This is, in fact, an astute semantic point. The Hebrew word "lashevet," which we habitually translate as "to sit," can also mean "to settle" ( as in the Israeli term "mityashvim" - settlers). In the context of wandering ( as the Jews did in the desert, for instance), lashevet could mean that they remained, sojourned, in one place rather than continuing on their journey. That is clearly the meaning of the proof-text R. Yochanan quotes, where Moshe points out to the Jews that, in the context of the forty-year wandering in the desert, they "sat" in Kadesh for many days. Clearly, they did not spend all their time sitting - it means they rested there and did not journey about. R. Yochanan is claiming that the verse about Moshe "sitting" on Mt. Sinai should be read to mean that he dwelled on Mt. Sinai for forty days, while the Jews dwelled below. The point is that he was totally absent from the Israelite camp during that time. However, this does not preclude the fact that while learning with God, he was in fact standing and not sitting.

Accordingly, R. Yochanan does support the idea that one should stand while studying Torah, as Moshe did, without any distinctions, unlike the first and fourth opinion.


  • We have now finished the first unit of gemara in this perek. Notice that in the printed Talmud there is a colon after the last word we have read. This usually, though admittedly not always, means that we have finished a unit of some sort. In this case, the following six words (followed by another colon) are a quote from the next line of the mishna, which will be followed by a new talmudic discussion of that line.


At this point, we shall take a break from the reading of the gemara to consider a shiur given by the Rav, R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l, on the topic of standing during the reading of the Torah.


A literal reading of the gemara we have been learning would indicate that the person required to stand is the reader. The mishna states that one may "read the megilla standing or sitting," and it is that statement that serves as the basis for the beraita's statement that reading the Torah is different; i.e., that there one must read the Torah standing. That is in fact the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch, and what we generally see in the synagogue - the reader stands, while the congregation, at least most of them, are sitting.

The Rav sought to prove that the entire congregation should stand during the reading of the Torah. His starting point was the ruling of the Rambam, who writes that although the mishna permits sitting during the reading of the megilla, this is only bedi'avad.


Bedi'avad and lichatchila: These two terms refer to different modalities of fulfillment of an obligation. Many obligations in halakha are defined first lichatchila, meaning the initial level of expected performance, and secondly bedi'avad, meaning the minimum level of performance which fulfills that obligation. A priori, one should fulfill obligations lichatchila; however, if one fulfilled the bedi'avad  level, then the obligation is post factum fulfilled, although not in the optimal manner.

For instance, in our case, the mishna states that if one sat while reading the megilla, the obligation has been fulfilled. The Rambam interprets this to be bedi'avad; if you have done it this way, you have fulfilled the obligation. However, this is not the way the obligation should be fulfilled lichatchila. Ideally, one should stand for the reading of the megilla.

All other factors being even, the formulation of our mishna, "One who reads the megilla standing or sitting... has fulfilled," is a bedi'avad formulation. If sitting was permitted lichatchila, the accepted formulation would have been, "One reads the megilla standing or sitting."


1) If lichatchila the megilla is to be read standing, and only bedi'avad can be read sitting;

2) and the gemara says that this rule does not apply to the reading of the Torah;

3) this implies that for the reading of the Torah one cannot sit even bedi'avad.

In other words, there are two different rules of standing, one for megilla which is a lichatchila requirement, and another for kriat haTorah which is bedi'avad requirement. We therefore require two different explanations for the obligation to stand.

The Rav explained that the lichatchila obligation present in the reading of the megilla is based on kvod hatzibbur, the respect due to the congregation. When reading for the public, one must show them respect, and hence the public reader should stand. On the other hand, this obligation is not inherent to the reading of the megilla, but is an additional obligation, and therefore its absence does not invalidate the reading itself.

The obligation to stand for the reading of the Torah, which is a bedi'avad requirement, must be inherent to the nature of Torah reading. The Rav explained, based on the fact (which we saw in Rashi) that we are speaking of public reading, that there is a special status accorded to learning Torah in public, that is, with a minyan. We find in the Mishna (Megilla 23b - it is the next mishna in our perek) a list of those things which require a minyan. They all involve the sanctification of the name of God - a halakhic category called davar she-bikedusha. The most familiar to us are probably kadish and  kedusha. The Rav claimed that learning Torah in public (which is what the reading of the Torah in the synagogue is) constitutes an essentially different experience than learning it in private, because in public it is an exercise in the sanctification of God's name, since the learning of Torah indicates its acceptance by the community of Israel. That is the reason why it must be read standing, for it is well known that davar she-bekedusha is recited standing.

There exists a well-known dispute whether only the chazzan  needs to stand for a davar she-bekedusha, or the entire congregation (see Magen Avraham, Shulchan Aruch OH  56,4). The Rama rules that the entire congregation should stand (as is the common practice for kedusha) and also rules (OH 146) that one should stand during the reading of the Torah (which is not the common practice in most synagogues). Based on his analysis, the Rav strongly agreed with this ruling.

The Rav then explained the fourfold answers of the gemara concerning Moshe's standing and sitting on Mt Sinai in accordance with his explanation of standing during public reading of the Torah. The first answer, that of Rav, "learning standing, reviewing sitting," does not require standing in the first instance as a sign of respect for God. Rather, the Rav claimed that learning with God, "whose majesty fills the entire earth," is considered to be public learning, the equivalent of learning with a congregation o Israel. Therefore Moshe stood, as it was a davar she-bekedusha. When he reviewed on his own, he sat. R. Chanina's answer, that he bowed, is also based on davar she-bekedusha, as one should bow down during a davar she-bekedusha, although this is performed only in the Temple (or on Mt. Sinai). Sitting for the hard sections, the solution of Rava, is based on the consideration that it is worth forfeiting a chance to sanctify the name of God with a davar she-bekedusha in order to learn (privately) on a better level of comprehension.

Note: When I presented the gemara last week, I drew a distinction between the requirement to stand for public reading and the requirement to stand when learning which existed before the days of Rabban Gamliel. The first is a law of public reading; the second one of respect. The Rav explicitly rejected that distinction, and explained the entire sugya as based on one consideration - transforming the learning experience into one of the public sanctification of the name of God.



Back to the gemara:

The gemara begins with a citation of the line from the mishna to which it refers.


If one read it, if two read it, they have fulfilled

קראה אחד קראוה שנים יצאו וכו':

We now turn the page and begin the gemara.

(The scan of the new daf is at: )


Tana: Which is not the case with the Torah.

Tanu Rabbanan: With the Torah, one reads and one translates, but not that one reads and two translate.

With the prophets, one reads and two translate, but not that two read and two translate.

With hallel and megilla, even ten may read and ten translate.

Why? Since it is dear, they pay attention and hear:

תנא: מה שאין כן בתורה.

תנו רבנן:
בתורה אחד קורא ואחד מתרגם ובלבד שלא יהא אחד קורא ושנים מתרגמין.

ובנביא אחד קורא ושנים מתרגמין ובלבד שלא יהו שנים קורין ושנים מתרגמין.

ובהלל ובמגילה אפילו עשרה קורין ועשרה מתרגמין.

מאי טעמא? כיון דחביבה יהבי דעתייהו ושמעי:

Two are not permitted to read the Torah. Rashi on the mishna,  which we saw last week, explained that two reading means two reading together. The reason for the stricture is that "two voices are not heard together." Rashi on the gemara we have just read repeats this reason.

Rashi s.v. "ubilvad":


But not that one reads and two translate. And even more so that two may not read. And the reason is that two voices are not heard:

ובלבד שלא יהא אחד קורא ושנים מתרגמין. וכל שכן שאין שנים קורין. וטעמא משום דתרי קלי לא משתמעי:

How does Rashi know that the reason why two are not allowed to read together is because it is difficult to hear two voices; i.e., they interfere with each other and distract us? The answer is found in the continuation of the text - I'll give you two minutes to figure it out.


Hint: By examining an exception, we can understand the rule.

The beraita states that multiple voices are acceptable for hallel and the megilla because, "since it is dear, they pay attention and hear." This implies that the problem of "two voices" is that "they" (the congregation) does not hear, because it requires extra attention to do so. The gemara assumes the interesting point that certain readings are inherently more attractive to the public, and therefore the extra effort is made, which overcomes the cacophony of "two voices."

What is the reason for the distinction between Torah and Prophets? Rashi (s.v. "uvinavi") comments:


With the prophets, one reads and two translate. For the translation is for women and the common people who do not understand the holy language, and the translation is in the language of the Babylonians, and we must take care with the translation of Torah so that they understand the commandments, but we are not that strict concerning the translation of the prophets:

ובנביא אפילו אחד קורא ושנים מתרגמין. שהתרגום אינו אלא להשמיע לנשים ועמי הארץ שאינם מבינים בלשון הקודש, והתרגום הוא לעז הבבליים, ובתרגום של תורה צריכין אנו לחזור שיהו מבינין את המצות אבל בשל נביאים לא קפדי עלייהו כולי האי: 

Since, as we saw, it is not impossible to hear two voices, but only difficult, it is not a waste of time to have two people read together. However, we have a crucial interest in ensuring that everyone understand the Torah, since it contains the mitzvot; therefore, we insist that it be easy to follow the translation as well as the reading. However, this interest is not as great for the prophets, and therefore we are not as insistent on having it translated in the optimal manner.

Three notes:

1) In Talmudic times, the readings of the Torah and the prophets were interlaced with the Aramaic translation, so that, as Rashi explained, all would understand. This is no longer practiced in most synagogues (other than Yemenite ones), among other reasons, since we do not understand Aramaic. But it is still clear that the Sages thought it crucial that one not only hear the reading, but also understand  it.

2) Rashi assumes that women are generally uneducated. In Babylonia, where the common language was Aramaic, this means that they do not know Hebrew. There are, of course, many men ("the common people") who do not know Hebrew either, but apparently nearly all women would be in that category.

3) On the other hand, Rashi assumes that the Sages want women to come to the synagogue and hear and understand the reading of the Torah. Knowledge of the mitzvot is a universal goal.

Finally, one interesting side point. The gemara stated that for hallel and the megilla, even ten can read and ten can translate. Rashi (s.v. "ve-asara") writes that the words "ten can translate" should be erased, as the Writings ("Ketuvim") are not translated in public. This is a rare case. Rashi engaged in extensive textual emendation of the Talmud; however, in most cases, our editions of the Talmud already include Rashi's corrections. This is one of the few cases where the printed text still includes the original text to which Rashi refers.

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