Skip to main content

Iyun Masechet Sota: 39a

Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein


Rava bar Rav Huna's statement that "it is forbidden to speak, even in divrei Torah, once the sefer Torah has been opened," would seem to be in direct contradiction to the position of Rav Sheshet. The Gemara in Berakhot (8a) relates that R. Sheshet would turn away from the tzibbur and engage in learning during Kriat HaTorah, explaining that "I am occupied with my affairs and they are occupied with their affairs." Tosafot (Sota 39a s.v. keivan, Berakhot 8a s.v. Rav Sheshet), and other Rishonim, address this issue and offer several solutions to the problem, most of which entered into the Shulchan Arukh (OC145). A discussion of this contradiction will take us to the core of KT issues and must therefore begin with a more general analysis of the takana of KT. The following presentation of the basics of KT is based upon concepts developed by the Rav, zt"l.


The Rambam, in his description of the mitzva of Hakhel, explains why even those who will not understand what is read, such as small children, are brought to the ceremony.  "... who do not understand, should prepare their hearts and bend their ears to hear with awe and fear and joy in trembling like the day it was given at Sinai... and he should see himself as though he were now commanded and hearing it from the mouth of the Almighty" (Hilkhot Chagiga 3:6). Hakhel, according to the Rambam, is not aimed at transmitting intellectual content, rather it a re-creation of the Matan Torah experience, a renewal of Brit Sinai (the Sinai covenant).


The Rambam's claim that the focus of Hakhel - a once-in-seven years special event of the entire nation - is not intellectual but experiential is highly convincing. The infrequency of the gathering, its massive size and ceremonial figures (the details of Hakhel are in the last Mishna of our perek) make it an inappropriate vehicle for the transmission of knowledge (just imagine the amount of noise from all of the kids that the Torah summons to the event).


KT, though, unlike Hakhel, is a local weekly event taking place in a community setting at a shul near you; hence, it is not unreasonable to surmise that Talmud Torah may be the motivating element behind it. On the other hand, it too is a public event that requires a minyan and a kosher sefer Torah, so that there is a ceremonial element in KT that would seem to indicate that it is not merely a learning activity for the pursuit of knowledge but has an existential element that engages us within the context of the God-man relationship that is so integral to tefilla. Simply put, the question that we are grappling with is whether KT has more in common with Talmud Torah as a communal learning act that acquaints the broad general public with Chumash (assuming the tzibbur would actually pay attention to the text and not talk about the market or the playoffs during KT. I would not belittle this aspect at all. If the average American yeshiva high school student would pay attention to KT in shul, his knowledge of Chumash would be increased a hundredfold, as I discovered daily to my dismay during the time that I taught in the States) or does our communal reading belong to the system of tefilla and avoda.


The sugya in Megilla (21a) declares that, unlike megilla reading, the reading of KT must be done standing up, based upon a pasuk that describes the KBH's summons to Moshe Rabeinu to stand with Him during Matan Torah. The Gemara then proceeds to state that from the times of Moshe Rabeinu to Raban Gamliel, the learning of Torah was practiced with both students and teachers standing during their learning, until "weakness descended to the world" and, henceforth, Torah was taught with the students sitting.


The importance of the posture of the Ba'al Koreh or the talmidim is due to the above considerations. The insistence or preference for the more exerting standing position rather than the more comfortable sitting posture is not based upon a calculation of their effectiveness to the learning process, for if so sitting would obviously be preferable, but to the existential-ceremonial element of awe and the attempt to re-experience Matan Torah, as can be deduced from the source quoted by the Gemara.


The desire to associate our learning with the Matan Torah experience is true both in regard to the private learning of the individual and the communal learning of KT. (See Tur OC 47 for an explanation of the daily Birkat HaTorah recited upon our everyday learning as focused upon Matan Torah.) Yet there is a difference between KT and the daily mitzva of talmud Torah in that the primary focus of the Beit Medrash study is for the sake of the knowledge; therefore, if the two needs of acquiring Torah knowledge and emulating Matan Torah clash, the intellectual need is paramount. This is the reason that when, in the time of R. Gamliel, the two were no longer compatible, the posture that facilitated the ability of the talmidim to pursue the knowledge of Torah was chosen. Prior to R. Gamliel's times it was possible to achieve both goals, but when this was no longer possible, the decision to prefer sitting and concentrating upon the subject matter was enacted. (A similar process may have occurred regarding the takana of Ezra that ba'alei keri should not learn Torah and its subsequent repeal. The original takana was rooted in the idea of awe and respect when man comes into contact with the KBH's Torah, yet was revoked due to the bittul Torah that it caused. See Berakhot 22a and commentaries ad loc.)


The halakha regarding KT that the person who reads from the Torah must stand remained in effect and was not revoked in the time of R. Gamliel, since KT differs from individual talmud Torah in that the emulation of Matan Torah is its major concern and this cannot be overridden by other needs. Thus, the Ba'al Koreh is perceived as fulfilling a symbolic rather than intellectual role, reenacting the Matan Torah event for the local tzibbur in the same manner that the king performs this function for the nation in Hakhel. Though this analysis neatly explains the distinction between the two cases, the possibility remains that the learning element is the more important in KT as well as talmud Torah, but that there is no need to allow the BK or the oleh to sit.  Since only one person must stand for a short period of time, rather than the entire student body for many long hours, the need to overrule the Matan Torah aspect was not as pressing.  Hence, the sugya in Megilla cannot serve as a decisive proof and we must further examine this issue.


The status of the Ba'al Koreh is a subject of debate among Ba'alei HaTosafot (BB 15a s.v. shemona). R. Meshulam apparently perceived the role of the BK as an integral part of the ceremony of KT and not as a solution to the illiteracy (or unfamiliarity with "trop") of the times, while R. Tam was of the opinion that the BK served no other function than a "laining" assistant to the oleh. R. Meshulam's opinion is based upon a passage in the Yerushalmi that compares KT to Matan Torah and the role of the BK to that of Moshe Rabeinu.  R. Tam does not disagree with the comparison to Matan Torah, but only that it does not necessarily include the BK. Thus, R. Meshulam's idea that the BK is a surrogate Moshe Rabeinu is predicated upon the understanding that KT is a reenactment, Hakhel style, of Matan Torah, while R. Tam need not disagree that this is the case, for the oleh, rather than the BK, may perform this role.


The idea of standing during KT was later developed by R. Meir of Rotenburg who extended the principle to the listeners as well. His custom of standing when listening to KT is mentioned by the Rama as a comment on R. Yosef Karo's psak (OC 146:4) that standing is not required and is explained by the commentators as an emulation of Matan Torah (Ba"ch OC 141 s.v. ve-tzarikh, Mishna Berura 146:19).


An opposing viewpoint would seem to be that of the Rambam who ruled that KT can be achieved even without a kosher sefer Torah, presumably since it is of an intellectual and not a ceremonial nature, so that although there is a need for the text itself, the object upon which it is written is unimportant.


The Rav, zt"l, who greatly emphasized this issue, both halakhically and philosophically (it is accorded a prominent place in U'vikashtem Me-sham, with many of the above sources quoted [pp. 227-8], saw this issue as the motivating force behind the various customs regarding the special "trop" of the aseret hadibrot, whether the ta'am elyon or the ta'am tachton, the difference being that the ta'am elyon divides the aseret hadibrot into units of "dibrot" while the ta'am tachton preserves the normal division into psukim. These two different approaches are dependent upon our question: if KT is an attempt to reconstruct the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the appropriate units are the units of the dibrot, for that is how they were pronounced on the mountain. If, however, the aim of KT is the understanding and knowledge of these portions, then the compact, manageable unit of the individual pasuk is much better suited than the longer rambling units of the dibrot.


[The Rav's analysis of this particular case sheds a very interesting light upon the prevalent custom in E. Yisrael nowadays, which is to read in ta'am tachton during the regular cycle of KT, but to use ta'am elyon on Shavout.  The logic of the minhag is that the yearly cycle is designed for learning while KT on Yom tov participates in the experiences of the day.]


It is also reasonable to surmise that these two alternatives are the basis for the difference between the cycle of KT that was customary in Eretz Yisrael as opposed to the Babylonian cycle. Our custom, following in the footsteps of Bnei Bavel, is to have an annual cycle that finishes the Torah every Simchat Torah. Bnei Eretz Yisrael, though, had a cycle that completed the Torah once every three years (although the exact details are a subject of much dispute among scholars, the basic fact of a tri-annual cycle is undisputed). If KT is designed as a learning tool, the three year cycle is much more logical, as it divides the Torah into smaller units that are much easier to digest than the large units of the yearly cycle (as all who engage in serious systematic study of parashat hashavua are well aware). The yearly cycle, though, insists upon completing the Torah every year since it views the role of KT as symbolic and not didactic.


A last case in point that is of considerable significance is the institution of Targum (translation) during KT that was in effect during the time of Chazal. The purpose of the targum, as Rashi already noted (Megilla 21b s.v. ubenavi), is to teach and not to experience, thereby raising the question whether the Targum was intended to complement KT as enhancing the learning element or was its purpose to add an additional element of learning to the experiential aspect of KT. The Chatam Sofer, in the teshuva that we quoted in the shiur in the beginning of the perek, proves that KT must be in Hebrew, since otherwise there would not have been any need for targum, as KT itself could have been read in the vernacular. The logic of this is that Hebrew is necessary for KT because of its ceremonial function that requires the original text, while a secondary apparatus exists to serve the teaching and learning needs.


Interestingly, if we pay attention to the famous halakha of "shenayim mikrah ve-echad targum," it may reflect on the personal level the duality that we have been discussing throughout. Why, after all, must we read the weekly portion twice? Moreover, if there is a need to review the parasha twice, why is a single reading of the targum sufficient?


The answer to both these questions is based upon the double element that we have identified in KT. The reading of the Torah's text fulfils both an experiential and a didactic need, and is therefore required to be read twice – once from the perspective of experiencing Matan Torah and once for the attainment of the knowledge.  Targum, however, has only a single didactic focus and therefore does not need to be read more than once.


It is now time to return to our sugya and the relationship between it and the Gemara in Berakhot. Rav Sheshet's actions presume that KT is a mitzva of talmud torah, thus enabling him to prefer his personal learning program over the public curriculum, commenting that "I am occupied with my [learning] and they are occupied with their [learning]." Since it is a mitzva designed to promote the knowledge of Torah, Rav Sheshet is justified in claiming that his learning needs are not necessarily those of the public.


The premise of our sugya, on the other hand, is that KT is a public ceremony in which the covenant between the KBH and Am Yisrael is renewed and therefore all must pay their undivided attention to the public kria. Private learning, although better suited to the needs of particular individuals, cannot serve as a replacement for the reenactment of Matan Torah. This concept of KT as a ceremonial rather than intellectual event is the reason that our sugya insists upon the participation of all involved, without exception.


Thus, the divergent rulings of the two sugyot reflect differing approaches to the basic idea behind KT. Methodologically speaking, we can accept the fact that there is a disagreement and assume that there indeed is a machloket between the two sugyot that must be decided. Another option, characteristic of the Tosafot and many other Rishonim, is to attempt a reconciliation between the two sugyot by postulating different cases, adopting either of the two options as the primary sugya and its counterpart as an exception due to special circumstances.


An examination of the various answers suggested by the Tosafot to solve this problem will reveal that the first suggestion of the Tosafot in Berakhot assumes that KT is essentially a learning act that can be replaced by other learning, as Rav Sheshet did, provided that one not disturb the tzibbur, which is the concern of the sugya in Sota. Conversely, some of the other answers (e.g. that Rav Sheshet was exempt from KT or that there was a minyan without him, so that the tzibbur could engage in the ceremony of KT without his personal participation) are of the opinion that talmud Torah per se cannot override the requirement of KT. The third possibility, that there is a machloket between the two sugyot is hinted at by Tosafot in our sugya but not elaborated upon.


Sources for next week's shiur:


1. 40a - 40b (until the mishna)

2. Tosafot s.v. al.

3. Berakhot 21b "amar Rav Huna ha-nichnas... ein yachid omer kedusha." 

Rashi s.v. Rav Huna.

Tosafot s.v. ad (until "be-lo amira kelal")

4. Rambam Hilkhot Tefilla 9:3-4. 

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!