A Hazzan/Shohet with Seizures

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

11 Elul: Hatam Sofer on a Hazzan/Shohet with Seizures and on Choosing Poor to Support

Medical challenges affect patients and families in ways beyond the directly physical. Shu”t Hatam Sofer 2; Yoreh De’ah 7, dated 11 Elul 5528 (1827), addresses a hazzan/shohet in a certain locale [I think this was a common pairing, neither job paying enough to support a family; I knew a man who filled those posts as well as shammes in an out of the way community in the 1990s, so it’s not so distant an arrangement]. He was well-respected, well-qualified, with a nice voice. Unfortunately, he was prone to seizures.

Seizures and Shehitah

The responsum calls it holi ha-nofel, epilepsy, although it also says the seizures came in the mornings, when he had not yet eaten, and the doctors attributed it to a weakness of his heart [I saw a man pass out at morning minyan one time, and he later told me he had been advised to drink some orange juice before coming to shul, to avoid such incidents].

Both jobs were now in peril, and the man had young children to support. Could he serve as a shohet, a ritual slaughterer, when we might not realize he was starting a seizure, thus making the animal or bird non-kosher?  During a seizure, he qualifies as a shoteh, not competent to perform religious acts, and we generally do not accept the shehitah of people who are ‘ittim halim, occasionally fine but occasionally a shoteh, because we doubt we can tell when an episode starts.

The questioner notes Rashi understands the Gemara literally, someone with seizures is inhabited by a demon. Demons come suddenly, with no reason to worry about an advent period—were the person in the throes of a seizure we would see it, and any time he seems fine, he should be able to serve as a shohet. [Rashi’s idea works regardless of the reason—he is saying the person is either in seizure or not, with no in-between.]

Rambam gave a more naturalistic explanation, the periodic problems result from an excess of blood or other humors (pre-modern medicine thought the body balanced four fluids, so Rambam is saying it’s a problem with the balance creating the problems). Such humors cannot go in or out of balance all at once (in general), which should mean we do have to always worry his humors are in the process, even if we cannot yet detect it. Meaning he might not be able to be a shohet.

The Onset of Seizures

Hatam Sofer notes commentators on Rambam and Tur wondered how they did not raise the issue of witnesses to an act by a periodic shoteh being required to make sure the shoteh wasn’t about to enter or was still ending an episode of mental incompetence. He thinks the idea of gradual onset of incompetence explains Ketubbot 20a’s discussion of a shoteh who sold some property. Ran wondered how witnesses could sign off on a sale by a mental incompetent.  Hatam Sofer says Rambam’s idea provides the answer: the shoteh was sometimes incompetent, not always incompetent, and the witnesses failed to notice he was at the onset or completion of an episode.

Hatam Sofer then disputes the characterization of Rashi’s view. A literal demon might still overtake a person only gradually, because Hatam Sofer thinks demons only take over people who have a prior problem; that’s why almost all people who are insane cause damage [I think he means damage is always a matter of demons inhabiting a person, for this view, and people with preexisting mental problems tend to be susceptible to demons. Fully healthy people resist demons more successfully. In addition, I think he is saying a person with mental problems will show those to some extent as the demon enters them, making it more like Rambam’s view of a gradual onset of seizure].

He is saying Rashi, too, might have agreed with Rambam’s worry about undetected onset of an episode. [Note how smoothly he refrains from denying the literal possibility of demons while still subordinating them to the more medical model Rambam offered].

The rabbi writing him had made sure two other ritual slaughterers were always with him, who could verify he had been fine for the entire time he was engaged in killing animals. For birds, the rabbi noted the delay between slaughter and consumption—the meat had to be soaked, salted, and cooked, more than enough time to see if the shohet had any seizures. If he was fine through that time, we would no longer need worry he was in the early stages of an episode when he performed the shehitah. The rabbi had also appointed someone to stay in the man’s house, to be aware of any issues as they arose [the responsum does not mention how they financed all this supervision, but our halachic concern does not touch on that].

Hatam Sofer thinks the steps outlined would work for a man whose attacks could come at any random time. Since this shohet has his problems almost solely in the morning before eating, Hatam Sofer is fully confident they can continue to rely on his shehitah.

Serving as Hazzan

The second question looked at his continued service as hazzan, especially on the High Holidays. The writer thought his problems constituted a sort of blemish, making the man a less-than-desirable representative. Malachi 1;8 complains about the Jews’ bringing sacrifices they would never give as gifts to human rulers, and the community would never send a man prone to seizures as their messenger to a king.

Were he to have a seizure in shul, another worry was the sensitivity of other people, who might become dangerously ill from seeing him rolling on the floor [the responsum does not address the underlying question of who bears the responsibility to accommodate whom; should he have to give up his job because they do not like to see him struggle with an illness, or should they learn to bear the sight of disturbing events, to help this man keep his job?].

The community is split, some insistent on getting rid of him, some wanting to keep him for his pleasant voice, his elevated character and conduct, and to protect his young dependents.

Hazzanim Are Not Kohanim

Hatam Sofer dismisses the implicit comparison to a priest or sacrifice the questioner had made when he raised the issue of a blemish. Were seizures to count as a mum, a disqualifying blemish, for a kohen, hazzanim have none of those rules—a left-handed hazzan is fine, but not a kohen, for a simple example.  He knows the view of Shevut Ya’akov, the hazzan for the High Holidays could not be a man with two wives (such as if the first one became institutionalized, and rabbis allowed him to marry a second wife), because the High Priest on Yom Kippur could not.

Hatam Sofer disagrees, because a hazzan is not a High Priest. Disqualification, in his view, happens only with matters relevant to the job at hand. Rashba thought a man who became extremely old, for one example, could no longer serve on the Sanhedrin. Hatam Sofer says the blemish there is directly relevant to the job—Chazal worried someone of too advanced an age no longer had the necessary compassion for others.

Our hazzan, however, can perform his functions well and beautifully (enough to perform before a king) when he is not having an attack. We know how to avoid an attack as well—on Rosh HaShanah, when he goes to shul before dawn (says Hatam Sofer), he should eat before shul (it’s not yet day, avoiding the problem of eating before praying, because it’s not yet time to pray). If that’s not enough, Hatam Sofer allows him to make kiddush and eat before shofar blowing.

He may be a better representative for the community than others, says Hatam Sofer, because he is broken hearted over his situation, knows the precariousness of his ability to support his family, and Tehillim tells us Hashem is close to the broken-hearted. The community’s compassion for this man, finding a way to work with him and keep him in his job, will itself be a merit for them which they can properly hope will lead Hashem to answer their prayers positively.

Yom Kippur is more of a problem, because he obviously cannot eat, and cannot be the hazzan for Mussaf (as had been his practice). Hatam Sofer suggests switching him to Kol Nidre (apparently, the hazzan did not have the job of hazzanim today, Kol Nidre, Mussaf, and Ne’ilah), and then have him pray in a side room, so as not to interrupt the community’s prayers should he have an episode during the day.

An interesting balance to accommodate divergent needs in a challenging situation.

Money to Which Poor

Nine years later, 11 Elul 5597 (1836), Shu”t Hatam Sofer Kovetz Teshuvot 46, addresses a man from Jerusalem who wanted to know who qualified as a resident of a city for charitable purposes. Halachah gives priority to ‘aniyei irecha, the poor of your city. Hatam Sofer says it takes twelve months to establish residence, and if someone moves away, thirty days back in town to re-establish it. But someone who has lived in a place for a year, and now for the past thirty days, has priority over people born there who moved away. It’s where you live, not where you’re born.

The poor of Israel were known to have priority as well, but in comparison to the poor of other cities, after the charity coffers (personal or communal) have already taken care of the poor from the city itself. He again stresses the irrelevance of birthplace (so if his questioner was born in Europe and had moved to Jerusalem, but wants the people in his birthplace to give him charity as if he were a resident, Hatam Sofer is turning down his request).

More, he thinks someone can qualify as “’aniyei Eretz Yisrael, the poor of Israel” only if he has always lived there, or moved there fully able to support himself and later became impoverished. Poor people who choose to move to Israel, knowing they have no way to support themselves cannot lay claim to the higher call of the “real” poor of Israel.

Hatam Sofer compares it to some people lacking food and others lacking important mitzvot like tefillin; we’d obviously take care of the food needs first. So, too, a Jew who’s going to need our support is trying to fulfill the mitzvah of living in Israel on the backs of the poor who already live there, and on the backs of the poor outside Israel, whom he’s trying to leapfrog by joining the poor who have priority.

We have to support the poor, but the poor cannot try to twist the system to their own advantage.

Two cases of Hatam Sofer weighing competing views and calls on resources, for 11 Elul.

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