Standing for a Torah Scholar During Keriyat Shema

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

by R. Gidon Rothstein

10 Nisan: Tzitz Eliezer on Standing for a Torah Scholar During Keriyat Shema

As days get closer to major holidays, such as Pesach, it’s still true (and interesting to me) that I can find responsa that have nothing to do with that topic. On the tenth of Nisan 5738 (1978), for example, Tzitz Eliezer 14;10 responded to a question about standing up for Torah scholars. It is ordinarily a Torah commandment to do so, but the questioner wondered whether being in the middle of Shema would be enough of an osek be-mitzvah, of already being involved in a prior mitzvah, to be considered patur min ha-mitzvah, exempt from the current mitzvah that arose.

Shema and Torah Study

Our first instinct might be to agree with that logic, since we generally assume (such as in Orach Chayyim 67) that reciting Shema is a Biblical obligation.  On the other hand, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 244;11 codifies Abbaye (in Kiddushin 33b)’s negative reaction to a Torah scholar who fails to stand up for his teacher because he was involved in his study. If Torah study is not osek be-mitzvah, involved in one mitzvah, enough to exempt the student from the need to demonstrate honor for Torah scholars, why would recitation of Shema be any different?

Torah Study Doesn’t Exempt From All Other Mitzvot

The answer depends on why we are required to interrupt our Torah study to stand for a teacher. Commentators onShulchan Aruch offer two reasons, which then affect the application to Shema.

Aruch HaShulchan relates it to a broader principle, that we always interrupt Torah study for a mitzvah overet, a mitzvah whose time is passing, such that we will not be able to perform that mitzvah once we’re done studying Torah.

That’s a specific halachah about Torah study, however (I believe many answers have been given as to why Torah study is not included in the principle of osek be-mitzvah patur min hamitzvah, being involved in a mitzvah exempts from other mitzvot, but Tzitz Eliezer doesn’t elaborate).

Levush seems to have seen it differently. In his view, standing up for a teacher or other scholar isn’t a meaningful interruption of Torah study (because he can get right back to it). That seems to say that the exemption of being involved in a mitzvah is that the new activity will take away from the old one. Where it doesn’t, such as a brief interruption of learning to show honor for a passing scholar, there’s no reason not to do the second mitzvah as well.

For Levush, if stopping would in fact interrupt one’s study—such as if the person is in the middle of a delicate train of thought, likely to flee forever if interrupted—that person would not have to stand for a Torah scholar passing by (Tzitz Eliezer notes that Sefer HaMakneh to Kiddushin says that explicitly). Applied to Shema, that logic seems to say that we can interrupt Shema if it’s not going to interfere with our concentration and focus (just like with Torah study).

Maybe It’s Both

Then Tzitz Eliezer questions his conclusions, since Levush and HaMakneh might have meant to include Aruch HaShulchan’s reasoning in their own [for all that he lived later than they did, the idea that we interrupt Torah study for all passing opportunities for mitzvot preceded all of them; it makes sense that Levush and Sefer HaMakneh would have included that in their thinking].

In this way of looking at it, the reason we interrupt Torah study when that won’t ruin our train of thought is that Torah study is already interruptable for worthy reasons, so this is just one more (he has to assume that they didn’t mention the issue of stopping for mitzvah overet, a passing opportunity to perform a mitzvah, because it was the obvious underpinning). If that’s true, then they might have agreed that we do not interrupt Shema even when it won’t hurt.

What About Hashem’s Honor?

Part of the reasoning behind standing for a teacher or Torah scholar while studying was that we didn’t want to seem to honor Torah itself more than those who study it (for many reasons, such as that they’re the ones who bring Torah into the world). That reasoning doesn’t apply to Shema, though, and indeed might cut the other way.

Tzitz Eliezer notes that Chid”a in Birchei Yosef to Yoreh De’ah quoted a letter from a certain kadosh, holy one, who held that one does not stand up for Torah scholars throughout prayers (not just during Shema) because during prayer we are addressing Hashem, and it’s inappropriate to give honor to the student (any human being) while honoring the master (in this case, Hashem, who taught us the Torah).

Kabbalistically, all of the liturgy is a “need” of Hashem’s, so this kadosh (I think this word is usually applied to those known for mystical leanings) held that it should not be interrupted; supporting his view is the Midrashic claim that Ya’akov did not kiss Yosef at their reunion (Bereshit 46;29 speaks of Yosef falling on his father’s neck; Rashi reports the idea that Ya’akov did not, because he was saying Shema), showing that saying Shema was too important to interrupt even to greet his long-lost son.

(He rejects a possible counter-source, that Avraham asked Hashem to wait while he welcomed the angels he thought were ordinary guests, by saying that Avraham wasn’t in the middle of Shema at the time. That seems to say that accepting the Kingship of Hashem is less interruptable than interacting with Hashem Himself, as it were, for reasons he does not clarify).

When It Will Insult

Birkei Yosef himself had disagreed, but Tzitz Eliezer is unconvinced by his claims. He therefore stakes out a middle position between the kadosh and Chid”a. Since the introductory parts of the liturgy—what we call pesukei de-zimrah—aren’t Biblically mandated, one would stand for a teacher or Torah scholar. In the middle of Shema the person should stay seated, especially since that’s what’s called a shev ve-al ta’aseh, a refraining from action. Better to passively allow an event to happen than to actively involve oneself in what might be the wrong way.

That’s despite the fact that Shema can be interrupted so as not to insult another. There’s a whole discussion—accepted as halachah le-ma’aseh, to be acted on—about the standards that permit responding to others’ queries either between chapters of Shema (bein haperakim) or within those chapters (be-emtza haperek). One of the standards is kavod, honor, which allows us to reply to a person even while we’re in the middle of a chapter and, when we’re between chapters, to initiate greeting such a person. Why wouldn’t that imply that we can stand as well?

Tzitz Eliezer argues that that whole discussion is only for cases where the other person will be offended by the failure to respond (or, apparently, to initiate a greeting). If that were true here, he agrees with Chid”a that the same standards should apply. The question he was entertaining was whether one should stand for one’s Torah teacher in the middle of Shema even if that teacher will not react adversely, fully understands that the student’s apparent apathy is only because he is in the middle of Shema.

There, Tzitz Eliezer holds, the factor of the greater honor we owe Hashem and of the fact that we’re already involved in a Biblically mandated mitzvah exempts us from showing the ordinary honor we would be obligated to show our teacher or a Torah scholar in general.

For him, noting a teacher or Torah scholar’s presence during Shema is a matter of whether the teacher will be insulted, and perhaps whether standing constitutes a meaningful interruption (with all that to think about, it seems likely that the Torah scholar’s will almost necessarily be that kind of interruption, as the person considers whether or not to stand. Such are the complications of halachah).

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply