NRR 20-23



The congregation has introduced a rule that those who are called up to the Torah at the Friday night Torah reading must wear a tallis. A number of members object to the wearing of the tallis when called to the Torah. Does the congregation have the right to establish this rule, and if it does, has the member the right to object to it? (Asked by Isidore Kornzweig, Santa Barbara, California.)


IT IS NOT clear from the question what was the basis of the member’s objection. Did he object because he feels that as a Reform Jew he does not believe in these ceremonials, or did he object as a traditional Jew because the tallis is not to be worn at night? This indefiniteness goes further: It is not clear on the basis of Jewish law whether the congregation has the right to make this regulation, nor is it clear whether a member has the right to object, once the regulation has been made.

First, as to the right of the congregation in this matter: Of course, as has already been noted in the letter of inquiry, it is contrary to traditional practice to have the Torah reading on Friday night. The Torah is read in the morning on Sabbaths and holidays and Mondays and Thursdays, and also in the afternoon on Saturdays. Reform introduced the Friday evening Torah reading because Friday evening was the best-attended service. (By the way, the late Friday evening service, i.e., after dark, is itself a reform; traditionally the service should be at sunset.) However, this new custom of Friday evening Torah reading has by now become established in Reform and is not entirely unjustified even from the legal point of view (see the discussion in Modern Reform Responsa, pp. 14 ff.).

But now, to this (by-now-established) custom of reading the Torah on Friday night, this congregation proposes an additional change to require the tallis to be worn by those who are called up to the Torah. This, too, is against the established custom. The tallis is not to be worn at night (see the rule given in Orach Chayim 18:1 that night is not the time for the fringed garment). Of course the cantor wears the tallis more often than the people. He wears it whenever he officiates, but the people wear the tallis only in the morning and also for Musaf. Also, the people wear the tallis on Yom Kippur night, but even so, according to the rule, the tallis must be put on and the blessing recited before dark.

Therefore the question arises whether a congregation may add another observance which, too, is contrary to an established custom. Perhaps the justification is that the congregation considers that the wearing of the tallis at the Torah reading adds to the dignity of the service, and that motive is considered by the law as an important one. Much is allowed for the sake of kovode ha-tzibbur.

Now the other half of the problem is this: Has the member the right to object to being compelled to wear a tallis if called up to the Torah? I think it is clear that he would have had the right to object to the adoption of the custom when it was debated at the temple meeting, but can he object once the ruling has been adopted? The answer to that question depends on whether a member has the right to be called up to the Torah. Is being called up to the Torah a right that a member can demand or is it, perhaps, amitzvah that he must fulfill, or is it just a privilege which the congregation confers upon a member? All these matters are discussed fully in Current Reform Responsa, pp. 62 ff. (a responsum which also appeared in the CCAR Yearbook, Vol. 72).

Naturally, if it is only a privilege conferred upon a member to be called to the Torah, then the congregation has the right to deny the privilege if it feels that the man coming to the Torah without the tallis impairs the dignity of the service. The Talmud has a strong precedent for the denial of the right to come up to the Torah, in order by this denial to maintain the kovode ha-tzibbur, the dignity of the congregation. The Talmud in Megillah 23a says that a woman has the right to be called up to the Torah on the Sabbath, but we do not do it because of the “dignity of the congregation.” This is given as a law in Orach Chayim 282:3.

If, therefore, the calling to the Torah is only a privilege, then the congregation has the right to withhold this privilege for the sake of the dignity of the service. But suppose it is a duty or a right, then the congregation would not have the prerogative of denying the man his rights. (In the responsum mentioned, a case is cited of a Yemenite Jew in Israel who actually sued the congregation for his “right” to be called to the Torah, which had been denied him.) One might say that to a certain limited extent it is a right and a duty to be called to the Torah, but only with regard to the following limits: A Kohen by tradition has the right to be called first to the Torah and a Levite second. If they are the only Kohen or Levite in the shul on the Sabbath, they have the right to demand to be called up. This right, of course, would not apply in a Reform congregation, since Reform has abolished the distinction between Kohen, Levite, and Israelite. But there still remain the following rights: a man to be called up on Yahrzeit; a prospective bridegroom to be called up before his marriage; and a father at the naming of a child or at a son’s Bar Mitzvah.

These established rights give us a way out of the dilemmas caused by the fact that in general the rights of the congregation in this matter and the right of the member are not absolutely definite in the law. The decision arrived at perhaps should be as follows: If a member has, for example, a child Bar Mitzvah, at which time he has the right and the duty to come up to the Torah, he should be permitted under these circumstances to come, whether he wears a tallis or not, since the congregation has no right to prevent him from fulfilling a religious duty. But under all other and ordinary circumstances, the congregation, for the dignity of the service (kovode ha-tzibbur), has the right to insist on the observance of its rules in this matter.