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DEAF-MUTE (Heb. חֵרֵשׁ, heresh), always classed in the Talmud together with the minor and the imbecile as being irresponsible and of no independent will, from which stem all the restrictions and exemptions applying to him, both in law and the performance of mitzvot. They apply only to a deaf-mute, but not to one who is either deaf or dumb (Ter. 1:2). Nevertheless, it was realized that the mental capacity of the deaf-mute was superior to that of the imbecile, and a passage in the Talmud (Shab. 153a) grades the mental capacities of these three in the descending order of minor, deafmute,

and imbecile. In particular a definite relaxation was made in the case of the marriage and divorce of deaf-mutes, as regards marriage both to a normal person and to another deaf-mute (Yev. 14:1). In the discussion of the Gemara of the Babylonian Talmud on this Mishnah, it is laid down that he is of "feeble mind" or "partially normal and partially non compos mentis" (Yev. 113a and b). A marriage in which one of the parties is a ḥeresh is considered to be only of rabbinic validity, and the question of divorce is thus complicated. The details of the manner in which the marriage ceremony and the divorce take place are laid down in great detail, and have been the subject of a special work (Melekhet Ḥeresh, by Ezekiel Ḥefeẓ, 2 vols., 1874–85).

With the successful methods of modern treatment in overcoming the problem of communication with the deaf-mute, the tendency in the past and present centuries has been to remove the stigma of retardation from the deaf-mute in halakhah and to regard him as normal, in addition to the fact that once he has learned to speak he ceases to be the deaf-mute of the Talmud. It is now generally accepted that he may become bar mitzvah and be called up to the reading of the Torah. The subject has been dealt with in a halakhic brochure issued by the bet din of London, where all the relevant halakhic literature is quoted. (L. (A.L.) Grossnass, Publications of the London Beth Din, no. 10., 1963 (Heb.).)

Further Developments in the 1970s

The status of deaf-mutes, according to the halakhah, came to the fore in February 1977 when the district Bet Din of Tel Aviv, by a majority of 2 to 1, refused to accept a deaf-mute woman for conversion on the grounds that, according to the letter of the law, a deaf-mute is regarded as mentally retarded. An appeal had been lodged before the Supreme Bet Din against this decision. The Sephardi chief rabbi, Ovadiah Yosef, submitted a ruling in favor of deaf-mutes being counted in a minyan.

Another event was the first World Congress of Jewish Deaf held in Tel Aviv from July 1–31, 1977, under the auspices of the Association of the Deaf in Israel. The Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, read a paper on "The Jewish Deaf and a New Approach to the Halakhah," in which he pointed out that the Jerusalem Talmud takes a more lenient view of the disabilities of the deaf according to the halakhah than does the Babylonian Talmud, and that this approach should be accepted.

A whole session at the Congress was devoted to papers on "The Religion and Jewish Tradition in the Life of the Jewish Deaf," which covered every aspect of the problem.

The amelioration in the status of the deaf-mute, according to the halakhah, depends upon the established fact that with technological advances in the teaching of deaf-mutes, their "lack of comprehension," which is the basis of their disabilities, can be overcome.

What may be termed the first breakthrough in the attitude previously adopted was given by Simhah Bunim Sofer (1842–1906) in his responsa Shevet Sofer (Even Ha-Ezer No. 21). He disagrees with the restrictive view given by his predecessors and adds: "Indeed I heard from my father, the author of the Responsa Ketav Sofer (Abraham Samuel Benjamin Wolf Sofer; 1815–1871), that after he paid a visit to an institution for deaf-mutes in Vienna, at the request of the authorities, and was thus enabled to see their tuition at first hand, he was so impressed by what he saw and the curriculum and behavior of the children, that he raised the question whether they should not be considered as truly normal and obliged to fulfill the commandments of the Torah. He told me that he instructed their teachers that they should be told to don phylacteries daily since 'their actions are evidence of their mental comprehension.'"

Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef pointed out in his address to the congress, that both the former chief rabbis of Israel – Rabbi I. Herzog and Rabbi Ouziel – held similar views, and concluded that one can rely upon their decision.

Moreover, a distinction is made in halakhah between those who have only one of the two disabilities, deafness or dumbness – who are regarded as normal – on the one hand, and the totally deaf-mute, and the question as to whether the ability of the latter to converse in sign language can be regarded as removing their dumbness.

Nevertheless, some modern authorities maintain that there is a certain mental incapacity in deaf-mutes which prevents them from being regarded as being normal and the problem has been raised as to whether a deaf-mute widow may perform the duty of *halizah despite the fact she is unable able to utter the formula (Deut. 25:7 and 9). The Israeli association has set up a halakhic committee to deal with the question.

In 1977 there appeared two volumes dealing with the deaf. The first, A New Dictionary of Sign Language in English by E. Cohen, L. Namir, and I.M. Schlesinger, professor of psychology at the Hebrew University, uses the Eshkol-Wachmann Movement Notation system and is intended for academics. The second, A Dictionary of Sign Language for the Deaf in Israel by L. Namir, I. Sella, M. Rimor, and I.M. Schlesinger, in Hebrew, is based upon the former work, is intended for field workers, and gives signs for some 1,200 Hebrew words.

In the U.S. there exist several congregations of deaf-mutes in which prayers are recited in sign language. There is every hope that these facts will be taken into consideration and the existing disabilities of deaf-mutes according to halakhah will be removed.

See: *Alphabet, Manual (Deaf); *Penal Law.


Piskei Din shel Batei ha-Din ha-Rabbani'im be-Yisrael, 10:7, 193–209.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]

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