ARR 101-106


American Reform Responsa

39. Unworthy Man Called to Torah

(Vol. LXII, 1962, pp. 119-124)

QUESTION: At the regular Sabbath service, it is the custom of the congregation to call two men up to recite the blessings over the Torah reading. One Sabbath morning, after the service, an officer of the congregation protested the fact that a certain man had been called up to the Torah that day. He said that the man (who was a lawyer) did not have a good reputation in his professional career. Is it justified to debar a man from being called up to the Torahbecause his character is open to question? Or is his reputation or character irrelevant to his being called to perform this religious function?

ANSWER: The question asked is of considerable importance because the answer given to it might well be applied to various other religious functions for which people are called up to the pulpit. The subject has been discussed sporadically in the literature. Simon ben Zemach Duran (14th-15th century, Tashbets II.261) was asked whether unmarried youths may be prohibited from reading the Torah, either because the honor of the Torah requires only mature married adults to be called or because an unmarried youth could not remain clean minded. He answered that, according to the law, a young man is permitted to be called up to the Torah, and added that even sinners are not forbidden to be called to the Torah; but, nevertheless, if the congregation, in order to make “a fence against evil,” desires to forbid certain groups to come up, the congregation is always permitted to do so.

Duran is cited in a recent volume of responsa, Mispar Hasofer, by Isaac Zvi Sofer (Jerusalem, 1961, Responsum #5), not with regard to the calling up of young unmarried men, but with regard to the more characteristically modern question as to whether a public violator of the Sabbath may be called up to the Torah. Sofer follows the decision of Duran, namely, that whatever be the actual rights of the individual in this matter, the congregation always has the right, as a congregation, to make decisions excluding sinners from being called up. He adds that many Hungarian congregations have long made such a decision as a “fence against evil doers.”

The difficulties involved in this question are reflected in the very wording of the dispute as it was presented to Simon ben Zemach Duran. Some of the disputants considered that what was involved was kevod haTorah (the honor due to the Torah), and therefore the dignity of the service. Other disputants insisted that to come up to the Torah reading was an obligation, a mitzvah, and therefore we have no right to keep a man from his religious duty.

The fact is that the legal literature never clearly defines the true status of this function. For example, is being called up to the Torah to be deemed as a religious duty incumbent upon every Jew, just as praying three times a day is a duty? If it is a duty, then it would not be possible to debar a man from it, and thus prevent him from performing mitzvah. Maimonides says (Hilchot Tefila XIV.6) in a somewhat analogous situation, speaking of a priest who had sinned: “We do not tell a man to add to his sin by neglecting a mitzvah.”

But being called up to the Torah may not be a mitzvah at all. It may be a right that any Jew can claim, and therefore one could protest if he were not called up to the Torah for a long time. There is no doubt that many pious Jews consider this a right which they can demand. A Yemenite, some time ago in Israel, sued the officers of his congregation on the ground that they were prejudiced against him and had not called him up to the Torahfor a long time. He was suing for what he called his rights as a Jew. Certainly many Jews have that feeling, whether or not it is so in the law. Then again, it may be neither a duty on a man’s part, which he may fulfill, nor a right, which he may demand, but a privilege which the congregation confers. In that case, the congregation can bestow that privilege upon whomever it deems worthy and withhold it from whomever it judges unworthy.

Since this basic definition of what the status of the ceremony is (duty, right, or privilege), has not been clarified in the law, the probabilities are that the status is vague, and that it has the nature of all three of these possible classifications. It is necessary, therefore, to see to what extent it partakes of each.

Is it a duty, a mitzvah, incumbent upon every Jew, to be called up to the Torah? When a boy who is to be Bar Mitzvah is called up to the Torah, his father is required to recite the blessing “Baruch shepetarani.” Now, clearly in this case, this is a religious duty incumbent upon the father. How could we possibly prevent him from performing this mitzvah, even if he were a notorious sinner? Yet, even in this case, it is to be observed that it is doubtful whether the blessing is really required. The requirement is found in a note by Isserles in Orach Chayim 225.1, and even he is uncertain about it, and, therefore, suggests that in reciting the blessing, the father should leave out God’s name–a practice which is followed in the case of all blessings of dubious validity, so that God’s name not be recited in vain.

If, then, it is not–broadly speaking–a duty to go up to the Torah, is it a right which a Jew can claim? To some extent this may be so. Certainly a Kohen can count it as his right to be called up to the Torah first. The law frequently discusses who should be called up to the Torah (after the Kohen and the Levite have been called up for the first two portions): a bridegroom in the week of his marriage has precedence over a Bar Mitzvah; next, a father whose child is circumcised that week; then a mourner, on his Yahrzeit. Are all these rights which a man can demand? The most that can be said is that they have become customary rights. The law does not make them firm rights, but a man can well be aggrieved if he is denied them. If, for example, someone gives a large sum of money for the privilege of being called up, the old congregations would certainly call him up, and no one of the categories above would feel that they had a right to dispute.

Certainly, the calling up partakes also of the nature of a privilege, because the congregation often calls up a man in order to honor him. It will call up the rabbi for the third portion, which is the first to which a non-Kohen or non-Levite can be called up. That honor is certainly involved in the Torah reading is clear from the statement in B. Megila 23a, where it is said that while women may be called up as one of the seven on the Sabbath, we do not call up women because of “the dignity of the congregation” (mipenei kevod hatsibur).Thus, the dignity and propriety of the situation involved is a significant consideration.

Is it possible to decide the matter more closely than merely upon the vague fact that being called up to the Torah partakes somewhat of the nature of all three (a duty, a right, or a privilege)? Ephraim Margolies, the famous scholar of Brody (1762-1828), wrote a book dealing specifically with the questions involved in the reading of the Torah (Sha-arei Efrayim, many editions). In section I, paragraph 32, he discusses who should not be called up to the Torah. Most of this discussion is based chiefly upon two passages in the Shulchan Aruch which provide some material analogous to our problem. One, in Orach Chayim 128, deals with sinful priests and their rights to go up to bless the people; and the other, in Yoreh De-a 334 (also Orach Chayim 55.11), speaks of a man who has been put under ban, as to whether he may be included in the Minyan, etc. The implications of these two laws and their bearing on our question about calling an unworthy man up to the Torah have been rather fully explored in an interesting responsa sequence. It is found in Shetei Halechem(331) by Moses Hagiz, a Palestinian rabbi who lived in Amsterdam (1671-1750).

The incident which evoked this series of responsa throws some light on the social conditions of the time. In one of the Sephardic congregations (Amsterdam or London), a man embezzled the money of the Chazan and ran away with the Chazan’s wife. The guilty couple fled to Spain, but, terrified by the Inquisition, they came to London. Meantime, the Chazan, in poverty and anguish, died. The culprit in London was told by the Chacham to make a public confession of guilt. This he did in the synagogue, in the presence of the congregation. Thereafter he was frequently called up to the Torah. One Yom Kippur, the brother of the dead Chazan was in London and saw this man holding the Torah at “Kol Nidrei.” He bitterly protested. He said that this man had not returned the embezzled money or made any attempt to do so; his repentance is, therefore, insincere, and such a scoundrel should not be called up to the Torah.

Although this was a quarrel within the Sephardic community, many Ashkenazic scholars were consulted, as well as the rabbis of Mantua, etc., and among the Ashkenazim were the famous scholars Jacob Reischer of Metz (Shevut Ya-akov) and Jacob Emden of Altona. Between them, they dealt with the implications of the references to the sinful priest in Orach Chayim and the excommunicated man in Yoreh De-a. Most of the opinions were to the effect that since the man had made no attempt to restore what he had stolen, his repentance was incomplete, and therefore he should not be called up to the Torah. This would indicate the feeling, at least on the part of most of the scholars, that a non-repentant sinner should not be called up to the Torah. This opinion is generally based on the Orach Chayim statement that if a Kohen has committed certain crucial sins, such as marrying a divorced woman or willfully defiling himself by contact with the dead, then if he is not repentant, he is not permitted to bless the people.

Two of the scholars–one anonymous and the other Jacob Emden–say that this is a bad analogy. A Kohen, if he repents, may bless the people because blessing the people is a mitzvah, a commandment imposed upon him (“Thus shall ye bless,” Numbers 6:23). Thus, it is clear in the mind of these scholars that being called up to the Torah is not a commandment before which he may not put obstacles. As for the analogy with the law in Yoreh De-a, that a man who is under ban may not be counted in the Minyan, Jacob Emden says that the law clearly states that only the man who has been officially put under ban is debarred. As long as a sinner has not been put officially under ban, he may still be counted in the Minyan. This sinner in London has not been put under ban officially; therefore, he may still be counted in the Minyan. Jacob Emden then adds that being called up to the Torah is less important than being counted in the Minyan. Women and children, although they may not be counted in the Minyan, may nevertheless (according to the Talmud, Megila 23a) be called up to the Torah. So it is conceivable that this wicked man in London could be excluded from the Minyan and yet be called up to the Torah. But Jacob Emden says that since he was not put under ban, and since, anyhow, being called up to the Torah is not as strict a matter as being counted to a Minyan, then it might be a kindness to let him be called to the Torah. This might help him towards righteousness. Besides, he adds, we “must not close the door in the face of the would-be repentant.” In fact, Ephraim Margolies in his handbook says that if it is not definitely proved that a man is a sinner, we ought to allow him to be called up.

Ephraim Margolies, in his handbook, is specific about who should not be called up. A man who is known to have taken bribes should not be called up to read the passage dealing with justice and laws; and a man whose wife neglects the Mikveh, etc., should not be called up to read the passage which deals with these matters. On fast days, a man who is not fasting is not called up to the Torah (Sha-arei Efrayim 1.17). The commentator Sabbatai Lifschitz (Sha-arei Rachamim) bases an explanation of these selective restrictions upon the Peri Megadim (Joseph Teomim) to Orach Chayim 141, end of paragraph 8, in which he indicates that such a man would be bearing false witness to the passage being read. But in spite of these selective restrictions, where there would be a shocking contrast between the reading from Scripture and the character of the man called up, Margolies concludes that, in the spirit of Jacob Emden: “If we call him up and some indignant worshiper scolds him, the embarrassment may lead the sinner to full repentance.” The commentary in Sha-arei Rachamim to this passage in Margolies adds another leniency as follows: Although it is not permissible to call a blind man to the Torah, nevertheless, we do call up blind people and illiterates because (they do not read the Torah and) we rely upon the reading by the official reader. Thus, he continues, we can call up sinners who should not be permitted to read the Torah(themselves) because nowadays we count on the reading by the official reader.

We may, therefore, conclude as follows: While it is not clear in the law whether being called up is a duty, a right, or a privilege, the ceremony clearly partakes of each of these. A man of dubious reputation should not be called up for certain specific passages, where his character contradicts the reading. Nor, of course, should a notoriously evil man, as the one mentioned by Moses Hagiz, be allowed to shame the congregation by being called up to the Torah. But in general, in less heinous offenses, as long as the man has not been excluded or ostracized by the community, we should not “shut the door in his face.” We should always consider the honor of the congregation, yet be lenient and avoid complete exclusion.

Solomon B. Freehof

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.