The gemara in Gittin 60b presents an interesting derasha (derivation of a law from a verse via hermeneutical tools). Rav Yehuda bar Nachmani cites Reish Lakish, who noticed a seeming contradiction between two parts of a verse. In Shemot 34:27, in the wake of the sin of the golden calf and the destruction of the tablets, Hashem tells Moshe first "write for yourself these things," and then says "for according to (al pi) these things I have made a covenant with you and the Children and Israel." Reish Lakish takes the gemara to task – is the Torah supposed to be something that is written, or is it supposed to be something transmitted by word of mouth (the literal meaning of al pi)? He answers that from here we learn that things that are written down may not be recited by heart, and things that are meant to be transmitted orally may not be written down.

This one statement of Reish Lakish contains two separate issues, and we will only cover the first one here. The issue of writing down the Oral Torah is a separate issue that deserves its own Chabura. For now, our focus will be on the scope of this prohibition of reciting the written Torah by heart.

Tosafot, in two places, challenge the limits of this law. In Temurah 14b, they ask how the practice arose for people to recite psalms without the benefit of a written text, given the fact that the Book of Psalms is part of our written Bible? They answer that this law only applies to the Torah itself, but anything from the Prophets or Writings may be recited without a script. However, they then go on to point out that it was also fairly common for people to recite parts of the Torah by heart, specifically Az Yashir and Shema! Thus, they refine the law further and claim that it only applies when a person is reciting something for the purpose of fulfilling someone else's obligation on their behalf. However, if a person is praying for themselves only, they may even recite verses from the Torah by heart.

Despite these limitations, Tosafot elsewhere demonstrate how strong this law can be. In Sotah 39a they note that Rav Sheshet was allowed to discuss halacha while the Torah was being read. Why? Since he was blind and thus was not allowed to read from the Torah due to our law, he was thus freed from his obligation to listen to the reading and was free to do other things.

Stepping back for a moment, we must consider the implications of these statements by Tosafot. The initial distinction, between Torah and the rest of the Bible, seems to cast this law as being related to the sanctity and special nature of the Torah. As it is the direct word of Hashem, we must accord it a certain degree of respect, which includes not treating it in a flighty manner by loosely reciting verses whenever we want. Rather, the verses of the Torah require an extra level of seriousness and studiousness that comes with opening a book and reading it from a written text. On the other hand, the second distinction seems to say that this law is more of a shul related law –either relating to a certain high level of diligence that must accompany prayer or to the more general notions of kavod ha-tzibbur (respect for the congregation).

It is also possible that both of these approaches are correct. Tosafot could be limiting this law to only verse from the Torah, and within those parameters, they limit it to cases of one who is fulfilling another's obligation. As we will see, both aspects are picked up by subsequent commentators and poskim.

Rabbeinu Crescas Vidal, in his comments on Gittin (published in the back of the Mossad HaRav Kook edition of Ritva), explains that the prohibition of reciting verses by heart stems from the fact that since there are many words written without certain letters that are pronounced or the opposite (chaseirot and yeteirot), one who recites the verses by heart may err in such situations. As such, the recitation of verses requires the precision that can only come from seeing the words written out. This view can fit into either of the distinctions by Tosafot, as it simply highlights the underlying premise of this law as being one of accuracy.

The Tur sharpens our view of the issue a bit more. He cites his uncle Rav Chaim who claims that it is permitted to say certain parts of davening by heart, since they are familiar (shagur b'fe) and thus one will not come to make a mistake in reciting them. Rav Chaim does not seem to distinguish between cases where one is praying to himself or one is doing so for others. By contrast, the Tur cites his father, Rosh, who claims that it is forbidden to recite verses by heart when one is praying on behalf of others, but one may do so when praying alone (although we should note that the Bach sees the two views as agreeing with each other). The Beit Yoseif cites the Mordechai in Gittin, who also asks how people began the practice of saying parts of the prayer service by heart. Rabbeinu Tam answers this question along the same lines of Rav Chaim, saying that since everyone knows these parts of davening, there is no worry that they will make a mistake.

Rav Shlomo Min HaHar (Montpelier) gores even further, saying that once a person is allowed to say these verses by heart for the purpose of fulfilling a mitzva, they are allowed to recite those verses by heart whenever they want to. The Yerushalmi claims that the issue is a completely different one, that the only problem is reciting verses by heart when reading from the Torah, lest people think that there is a problem with the Torah. However, there is no problem in doing so in the context of davening (Abudraham agrees). Finally, the Beit Yoseif cites a view that claims that the only problem is when one recites the verses with the proper cantillation notes (trop), but merely saying the words by heart is not a problem. This last opinion seems to be giving some weight not so much to the words themselves as much as to the overall sanctity of the text when it is recited properly and with the correct nuances.

However, the Beit Yoseif also cites some more limiting views. The Kol-Bo claims that certain parts of davening were granted special dispensations to be recited by heart since it was difficult for everyone to have the text in front of them (this is before the advent of the printing press). As such, the principle of "eit la'asot La-Hashem hefeiro Toratecha" – there is a time to act on behalf of Hashem when the principles of the Torah must be put aside or relaxed. Since the option was that people would not recite certain parts of the davening that may actually be Torah-ordained commandments (such as the paragraph about the daily sacrifice and the priestly blessing), it was deemed better for people to at least be able to recite those things by heart.

The view of Rav Chaim leads to another discussion. Are there certain parts of the prayer service that have an official status of being well-known, and thus they may be recited out loud, but nothing else may be, or does "well-known" depend on each individual, and thus there will be some things that some people may say out loud while others may not? The Bach claims that as long as a person knows a verse well, he may say it by heart, regardless of how generally well-known the verse is, and the Shulchan Aruch rules in accordance with this opinion. On the other hand, the Darchei Moshe cites the Or Zarua, who says that only verses that everyone knows well may be said by heart. The Magen Avraham concurs with this position, claiming that the examples cited by the Shulchan Aruch are the specific cases when one may recite verses by heart, but not in other situations. This entire issue seems to focus on the sanctity of the verses – if a verse is so well known that anyone can recite it by heart, perhaps we can forgive the original prohibition and allow one to recite it. However, the debate then becomes to whether or not we can allow an individual to have such a leniency for himself or not.

Later Acharonim offer slightly more nuanced views on this law. The Chavot Yair allows one to recite Psalms by heart, since they are said to arouse the mercies of Hashem and thus are like prayer. The Sha'arei Teshuva picks up on that point and says that if one can recite Psalms by heart, then they certainly can recite psukei d'zimra (the verses of praise said before Shacharit) by heart, as those are said every day and thus are more likely to be well-known. He seems to be assuming the position that our main concern is that one say the words properly, and thus familiarity will serve as a sufficient assurance to this end.

Finally, two leniencies from the past century. The Aruch HaShulchan cites a view from the Tosafot Yeshanim in Yoma, which states that while it is a good thing (mitzva min ha-muvchar) to recite verses from a text, there is no prohibition of not doing so. Even further, he claims that we do not have to be so strict even with a chazzan who is praying on behalf of others, since he is also praying for himself and thus he may be categorized as such. In a different vein, the Mishna Berura allows one to recite verses by heart if he is quoting them in the context of a speech. Since looking each one up would impose an unnecessary burden on those listening (tircha d'tzibura), we have room to be lenient.

Back to Chabura-Net's Home Page