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1594: Noach 4 Cheshvan 5776 17/10/2015

Question: In many synagogues, the Bima, the platform for reading the Torah, is higher than the floor. Often people who have trouble walking are not able to climb onto the Bima without help, and in some cases they are not able to go up to the Bima at all. When a handicapped man is called to the Torah, are we allowed to put a small table next to the Bima for the Torah scroll and read the Torah from there?


Moving a Torah Scroll to Show Respect for a Person

The Mishna describes the way the High Priest read the Torah on Yom Kippur:

"The High Priest would come to read... The Chazzan of the community took the Torah scroll and gave it to the head of the community, who gave it to the deputy, who gave it to the High Priest. The High Priest stood up, took hold of it, and read from the Torah" [Yoma 7:1].

The Talmud Yerushalmi questions this Mishna. How can we bring the Torah scroll to the High Priest, instead of having him go to the place where the Torah is? The answer is:

"Since they are great men, the Torah is lifted up through them."

That is, since these are great people, the Torah becomes more exalted even when it is brought to them. Based on this approach, the Mordechai writes that a Torah scroll should not be brought to a prison in order to read for the prisoners, because a Torah scroll should only be moved for especially exalted people (Rosh Hashanah 710).

The Talmud Yerushalmi does add that a Torah can also be moved in honor of the Reish Galuta (the head of the Diaspora), since traditionally he is a descendant of King David. Based on this, the Or Zarua concludes that if a Torah can be moved to show respect for the Reish Galuta, it stands to reason that it can also be moved for a person who is not able to leave his home. (Volume 1, Keriyat Shema 9).

Based on the approach of the Or Zarua, we can say that in any case when the Torah is to be moved not as a sign of disrespect but to fill a need there will not be any problem. This implies that taking a Torah off the main Bima to a nearby table is permitted. However, the Shulchan Aruch is stringent, based on the opinion of the Mordechai (Orach Chaim 135:14), and the same is implied by the RAMA (ibid). We therefore cannot rely on the opinion of the Or Zarua for our purpose.

Other Reasons to be Lenient

Even though the Shulchan Aruch seems to prohibit putting the Torah on a small table next to the Bima, we can suggest some reasons why this may be permitted after all.

(1) The sources we looked at above all seem to involve removing a Torah scroll from the synagogue. However, in our case we want to move the Torah around inside the synagogue. Many rabbis allow a lenient approach of moving a Torah from one room to another within the synagogue building (see: Tzitz Eliezer 17:12; Yavia Omer 9, Orach Chaim 15). And we can assume that even those who are stringent will allow moving the Torah from one place to another within the same room.

(2) In our case we indeed want to move the Torah closer to the person, but the one who has been called up to the Torah is also expending a great effort and comes towards the Torah scroll. Perhaps because of this we can indeed be lenient. (This might be compared to the common custom where the chazzan carries the Torah scroll to all the congregants so that they can kiss it, even though this substantially increases the route of the Torah when it is taken from the Holy Ark to the Bima.)

(3) From the words of the Talmud Yerushalmi quoted above, we might be able to derive a principle: Whenever moving the Torah scroll will result in a showing of greater respect for the Torah, it is permitted to move it. If, as in our case, the person called to the Torah is handicapped and finds it hard to move, and the congregation is interested in calling him to the Torah, such a move can bring the Torah and its values to a more exalted state, because it is clear to every observer that the Torah cares for a person who is handicapped and can be moved for his benefit (this opinion might differ from one congregation to another and from place to place).

(4) The RAMA rules (Orach Chaim 139:3) that even though the one called to the Torah must read together with the reader (because if he does not his blessings will have been recited in vain), it is possible to call one who is blind or ignorant, even though this is not a good practice. Biur Halacha explains (141) that the reason is that "if they are never called at all great shame will be caused, and this may also lead to disputes." From this we can perhaps also reach some conclusions in our case: If a refusal to move the Torah from the Bima means that a handicapped person will never be called to the Torah, thereby shaming him and possibly leading to controversy, we should take a lenient approach and do whatever we can so that the man will be called to the Torah.

Summary and Conclusions

In practice , the best solution is to take the needs of the handicapped people into account in the planning stages of the synagogue, such that the entire area will be accessible for all the members of the community. It is a great mitzva to do this.

In places where this cannot be done, the Torah can be removed from the Bima and placed on a shelf or a table next to it, so that the person will be able to approach it and be called to the Torah. If it is known in advance that a handicapped person will be called up, the best option is to read the whole portion from the shelf or the table.

If this is not possible, the Torah can be brought down to a table near the Bima, as noted, before the handicapped person is called. It is also best to read the section for the next person called up from the table too. This shows very little disrespect for the Torah scroll, since it is being moved for more than one reader. It also shows consideration for the handicapped person, since he is not the only person who does not rise up to the Bima.

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