Reciting Prayers by Heart

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By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Although not widely known, it is actually forbidden to recite or even quote scriptural passages by heart. It is permissible, however, to quote those passages with which people are very familiar, such as the Shema, and the like.[1] Some authorities consider one who recites scripture by heart to be transgressing a Biblical prohibition.[2] Praising God by means of Scriptural passages, however, is permitted even when done from memory.[3]

We are taught that the intention of this halacha was to safeguard the exalted status and character of the written Torah.[4] It demonstrates dignity and reverence to only quote scripture from an open text rather than from memory. It is also important to realize that making a mistake when quoting passages from memory that have halachic implications can lead to disastrous results. Some suggest that this halacha was designed to ensure that the public Torah readings in the synagogue are read entirely from the Torah scroll and not by heart.[5]

In spite of the above, one will readily observe that many individuals seem to be negligent in properly observing this halacha. All manner of texts and passages are regularly recited by heart and even utilized in the course of everyday conversation.  Though this may seem to be in violation of the halacha, there are actually a number of justifications for this widespread practice. It is said that today’s layman is far more educated than in times gone by and is therefore unlikely to err when quoting routine passages. Indeed, as was mentioned above, it is permitted to recite scripture that one is familiar with from memory.

It is also permitted to recite from memory scriptural passages that are used in the course of the liturgy.[6] One who is stuck in the dark or cannot read without eyeglasses which are currently unavailable may recite scripture or prayers from memory as well.[7] Those who are blind need not concern themselves with this halacha.[8] Some authorities contend that the prohibition was only instituted on reciting portions of the actual Torah text by heart; however, reciting sections from the rest of the Tanach is of no concern.[9] 

Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the prohibition on quoting scripture by heart was only intended to apply in the context of a mitzva. As such, one should not be allowed to recite prayers by heart when a Siddur is available, especially when it involves discharging the obligations of others, such as when reciting Kiddush or Havdala on behalf of a number of people.[10

Further to the view that enactment was intended to prevent the public Torah reading from ever being carried out from memory,[11]some extend this idea and only prohibit reciting scripture from memory when doing so with their cantillation.[12] Other authorities suggest that it is only when quoting verses out loud that one must read them from a text, but when whispering or in private conversation there would be no problem in doing so.[13] 

There are a number of authorities who feel that the prohibition on quoting scripture by heart only applies when quoting an entire verse. According to this view, individual words or catch phrases from scripture would be permissible to recite from memory.[14] Others broaden this idea and permit one to recite up to three verses from memory before one would be required to use an open text.[15] It is also permitted for one not fluent in certain sections of scripture to quote those sections to an individual who is familiar and would be able to point out any possible errors that one may make.[16] 

As mentioned earlier, common custom today is not to be overly concerned with reciting Scripture by heart, and there is sufficient support for this practice.[17] Indeed, rabbis often quote extensive pieces of Torah from memory during the course of a lecture or sermon.[18] That being said, one should certainly make the effort to use an open text whenever possible, especially when quoting those parts of scripture with which most people are unfamiliar.


[1] O.C. 49:1, 53:14, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 1:6

[2] Kaf Hachaim 49:2

[3] Minchat Asher;Ki Tissa

[4] Gittin 60b

[5] Piskei Teshuvot 49:1, Rambam Tefilla 12:8

[6] Piskei Teshuvot 49:1, Mishna Berura 49:6

[7] Piskei Teshuvot 49:note 19

[8] Mishna Berura 49:1, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 1:6

[9] Tosfot;Temura 14b

[10] Beit Yosef 49, Mishna Berura 49:2,6

[11] Rambam Tefilla 12:8

[12] Kol Bo cited in Piskei Teshuvot 49:1

[13] Kol Bo cited in Piskei Teshuvot 49:1

[14] Magen Avraham O.C. 143:4

[15] Piskei Teshuvot 49:note 1

[16] Chavot Ya’ir 175 cited in Piskei Teshuvot 49:1

[17] Minchat Asher;Ki Tissa

[18] Mishna Berura 49:3

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

7 comments

  1. Since the Torah She b’al peh was once always recited from memory and the Mishnah (too a small extent) and the gemara (to a much greater extant) and the various Tannaitic midrashim (to an even greater extent) cite Tanach all the time, what did they do in the period before these works were written? Do we imagine that every Amora dragged around a wagon full of klaffim and interrupted his drasha to roll a scroll every time he wanted to cite a passuk?

  2. That really is a good kashe!

    Could be that the gazeira came after this time……or chazal knew the Minchat Asher quoted in footnote 17. 😉

    Ari Enkin

  3. I thought the source for the basic prohibition was the same gemara in Gittin about not writing Torah she’ba’al peh (eis la’asos.) That would imply that the prohibition is d’oraita, although perhaps not applicable to citing isolated p’sukkim whether in t’filla or drashot. It is very clear that in the time of the Tannaim t’fillah was always ba’al peh (thus R. Elazar ben Chisma needed to be taught it, and the mishna about being m’sader t’filla beforehand, etc.) and at least Sh’ma and Ashrei were regular parts of the t’filla so there are clearly limits to the prohibition.

  4. “It is said that today’s layman is far more educated than in times gone by and is therefore unlikely to err when quoting routine passages.”

    1. The halacha was not just for laymen. Also, many knew the torah better back then as can be seen from their kerias hatorah. They didn’t used to have a baal koreah, but whoever was called up to the torah would read. Many of the other heterim might work though. However, I have heard rabbis misquoting pesukim in speeches, so people should be more careful.

    2. The title of the article mentions prayers. According to the gemara, prayers (berachos) must be recited by heart, since they are part of torah sheBal peh. The gemara says one who writes berachos it is as if he burnt them. Maybe some people can really on “es l’asos” and use siddurim, but a person should try to pray by heart if he can.

  5. Why take the trouble to paint in the tefillin shel yad, but not the shel rosh?

  6. I’m gonna answer my own question, he hasn’t put the shel rosh on yet, as evidenced by the fact that he hasn’t wound round the fingers yet either.

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