By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It happened in New York.
The rabbi was frustrated. Time and again he could not stop the talking during k’rias haTorah. On this particular Shabbos, for some reason, it was worse. He had conceived of a daring plan for dealing with it. This time, instead of shushing the congregation, he approached the bima. Before the next aliyah was called, the rabbi lifted up the Torah and said “V’zos haTorah asher sam Moshe . . .”
He then returned the Torah to the aron and said, “This congregation, due to its talking, doesn’t deserve k’rias haTorah.” He then instructed the shaliach tzibbur to begin Mussaf.
The congregation was in a state of shock. Never before had they seen such a thing. Was it within the rabbi’s purview to do this? Had the rabbi lost his mind? The incident allegedly made its way to Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, who is said to have issued a fascinating ruling.
Before we get to the alleged ruling of Rav Elyashiv (the attribution of which this author is still attempting to verify), let us first understand the nature of the prohibition of talking during the reading of the Torah.
This prohibition is discussed in siman 146 of the Orach Chaim section of Shulchan Aruch and is based upon a Gemara in Sotah 39a:
Said Rabbah bar Rav Huna: Once the Torah-scroll is unrolled, it is forbidden to converse even on matters of halachah; as it states (Nechemiah 8), “And when he opened it, all the people ceased (amdu).” And the word “amdu” signifies nothing else than silence, as it says (Iyov 32), “And I wait because they speak not, because they stand still (amdu) and answer no more.” Rav Zeira said in the name of Rav Chisda: It is derived from here (a different passage in Nechemiah 8), “And the ears of all the people were attentive unto the sefer Torah.”
There is a debate between the Shulchan Aruch and other authorities as to which of these two verses is the authoritative source. The difference manifests in when the prohibition actually begins. According to the Shulchan Aruch, it begins when the reader begins to read. According to the Magen Avraham and the Vilna Gaon, it begins when the Torah is actually opened.
The Three Opinions
There is another issue, as well, regarding the exact nature of this prohibition. It may be understood in one or more of three ways. Each of these explanations can be found in the Rishonim and the Acharonim and may play a role in whether the rabbi was permitted to do what he did. These commentaries deal with the Gemara in Berachos (8a), which states that Rav Sheishes would turn his head and engage in Torah study during the reading of the Torah. How could this be?
Disturbing others. Tosefos (Berachos 8a) answers that the reason for the prohibition is that it disturbs others. When he turns aside and studies quietly, it disturbs no one. Tosefos is of the opinion that there is no individual obligation to hear the Torah, and as long as there are ten others who are following, it may technically be permitted for one individual to study quietly. (It should be noted that this view and this reading of Tosefos is not one that the Mishnah Berurah recommends following.)
Individual obligation. Tosefos also cites the view of Rabbeinu Chananel that Rav Sheishes was an exception because he was uniquely labeled as “Toraso umnaso,” his sole pursuit was that of Torah study—a status that, in the view of many authorities, no longer exists. The Biur Halachah understands this view of Rabbeinu Chananel that the obligation of reading the Torah is an individual obligation, and the prohibition of engaging in other pursuits did not apply to Rav Sheishes. This is in accordance with the view discussed above.
Disrespect for Torah. Finally, there is the view of the Tzlach in Berachos and the Pri Megadim (O.C. 153) that the prohibition is to avoid bizayon haTorah, not giving the Torah reading its proper kavod. This is in accordance with the first view we discussed earlier.
So, what was Rav Elyashiv’s alleged ruling?
Eiruv Tavshilin Analogy
There is a debate in the Gemara in Beitzah (15b) between Shmuel and Rava on one side, versus Rav Ashi on the other side. Was the concept of eiruv tavshilin established for the honor of Shabbos (Rava and Shmuel’s view) or for the honor of the yom tov alone (Rav Ashi’s view)?
The RaN asks on the first view: How can it be, according to this view, that if the eiruv was lost, the rabbis forbade cooking on Shabbos? The whole purpose of the eiruv was to increase the honor of Shabbos. How can one remain with no food on Shabbos?
The RaN responds that it is preferable not to take pleasure in one Shabbos, so that one may partake in pleasures for future Shabbosos. Rav Elyashiv allegedly cited this RaN to justify the rabbi’s actions in negating the reading of the Torah once in order to ensure that it be done properly in the future.
According to the “kavod haTorah” explanation, this ruling fits nicely. According to the other two explanations, one can bring up the following question: Perhaps the case of the RaN is different in that the RaN is explaining the very nature of the rabbinic enactment of the eiruv tavshilin. But who says that we may apply such criteria by ourselves?
Perhaps it may be answered that Rav Yoseph Karo indicates in his Beis Yoseph commentary that technically, the explanation of the prohibition is in accordance with the view of kavod haTorah, although he recommends also following the views of the other opinions, ideally.
Perhaps the alleged ruling of Rav Elyashiv was predicated upon this opinion of the Beis Yoseph, and our question about citing the RaN would thus be removed. This does not mean that the rav would have been beyond his rights in the decision, either. We find that Moshe Rabbeinu, on his own accord, threw down the Luchos. The Gemara informs us that Hashem agreed to this decision.
There is a lesson in all this. We are in the month of Elul, a time when we should be taking particular care in the observance of mitzvos. And it is quite clear that this is a mitzvah that many of us are guilty of having ignored.
But one thing may have piqued our curiosity. What ultimately happened to the shul? It is said that the talking ultimately did stop, and that now one can even hear a pin drop during k’rias haTorah. v
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.