It’s clearly stated in halacha (Jewish law) what is required of an able-bodied person to fulfill hearing- and speech-related Jewish mitzvot. When there is an exception, interpretation of the law is required. Situations where people with disabilities rely upon devices to help them hear and communicate are exceptions.
So said Rabbi Mordechai Shuchatowitz, rav of Agudath Israel of Greenspring and av dayan of the Bais Din of Maryland. At a talk last Wednesday at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC, he explained interpretations of Jewish law pertaining to hearing aids and cochlear implants for the fulfillment of mitzvot on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The program was presented in conjunction with Our Way of the Orthodox Union and the Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education. Our Way also hosted a Shabbaton for the Jewish Deaf community and others on Nov. 1 and Nov. 2 at Suburban Orthodox
Congregation Toras Chaim.
A deaf and mute person is considered a cheresh, Rabbi Schuchatowitz explained, someone who is not functioning on a communicative level
at all and not able to develop mentally and emotionally. Lacking the developmental maturity required, they are exempt from fulfilling commandments such as reciting the Shema, listening to the reading of the Megillah or hearing the shofar.
In the 1860s, the concept of cheresh changed dramatically, and that change was fundamental with regard to interpretation of the Jewish laws. The advent of hand signing and lip reading allowed populations previously considered non-communicative to communicate effectively, to develop mentally and to become
active participants in their communities. This prompted an unprecedented halcahic decision that deaf and mute members who could effectively communicate were now obligated — and perhaps more importantly, able — to participate in Jewish life.
Since then, interpretations of Jewish laws have evolved with advancing technology and therefore can become extremely technical. Many provided by Rabbi Schuchatowitz included wrestling with the combination of the exacting words of Jewish law, technology and the physics of how sound falls upon aural nerves and is generated by mouth and vocal chords. He managed to clearly state them in laymen’s terms. Not surprisingly, at times there are differing
For example, to fulfill hearing the recitation of prayer: If someone needs an aid to hear, it can be considered non-authentic because, as one halachic body claims, a listener must hear the words directly from the person reciting the prayer. If an electronic device is used by sender or receiver it has undergone a mutation (a hearing aid converts sound into an electronic signal) so it’s not truly listening to a person, it’s listening to a machine, therefore it’s not a fulfillment of the Jewish obligation.
Rabbi Schuchatowitz explained another halachic interpretation. Because there is simultaneity of speaker and listener (it’s not a previously recorded sound coming from a machine) it still fulfills the obligation. Because even if the person listening uses a device to hear, the speech organs produce a sound that vibrates the air that is sent toward the ear, and the aural nerves receive the vibrations created by the sound of the speaker’s voice. Therefore even with a hearing aid a person is receiving the prayer sounds directly from the speaker.
Menachem Kovacs and his wife, Sara, attended the event. Sara has worn a cochlear implant for almost 10 years.
“We want to keep current on Jewish law in light of technological advancements,” Kovacs said.
“A cochlear implant has an advantage in this halachic discussion,” said Rabbi Schuchatowitz. “Because the implant doesn’t have a speaker unit and doesn’t have a secondary sound, it takes the original sound and delivers it directly to the aural nerve. Therefore there is no question of hearing a first or secondary sound, and it is acceptable according to all halachic opinions.”
As far as usage on Shabbat or other Jewish holidays, the general advice is as long as the device (implant, hearing aid, etc.) is on and charged, one can continue using it and listening through it. This allowance also applies to those hearing-abled people who speak to the person using a device. They are not breaking a Shabbat commandment by speaking through the device to a person. Once it’s on, it’s OK for all parties to use, explained Rabbi Schuchatowitz.
“Deaf and hard-of-hearing people — and anyone with a disability — are vital parts of the Jewish community,” said Rachel Delman Turniansky, coordinator of special needs programs at the CJE. “When organizations don’t provide access to programs like interpreters, there are members of our community who don’t have opportunities to participate. This affects the whole Jewish community.”
Where To Get Assistance
The Louise D. and Morton J. Macks Center for Jewish Education offers many supports to the Baltimore deaf community, including advocating for programs to be inclusive for anyone with a disability. It also provides funding assistance to organizations for securing interpreters and other resources. For more information, call 410-735-5022.
Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor