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Halakhic Status of a Deaf Person who Cannot Speak: Part 1 – Gemara and Rishonim

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on September 5, 2016)
Topics: Disabilities, Halakha & Modernity

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Traditionally, halakha has ruled that a deaf person who could not speak – a cheresh –  is not considered to be a bar da’at – a person of sufficient intelligence and understanding to have standing as an agent or responsible party in halakha.  His status is the same as a minor and a shoteh, a person who has a confused understanding of reality (similar to a schizophrenic). Thus, a cheresh is not obligated in mitzvot, even at the Rabbinic level, cannot discharge other people of their obligation, and cannot count to a minyan or receive an aliyah. The Rabbis did institute a rabbinic marriage for a man or woman who was a cheresh, but was not Biblically binding and did not require a get.  Technically speaking such a person is not even bound by Biblical or Rabbinic prohibitions, and would not be violating halakha where she to not keep Shabbat or kashrut.

Here we look at the background of that halakha in the Talmud, where we will see that there was a range of opinions regarding the status of a cheresh.  We will then see how poskim addressed the issue when they started encountering people who were deaf and mute but obviously quite intelligent and able to communicate.  This became a phenomenon that could not be ignored once schools for the deaf were created.



An important clarification – the designation “cannot speak” in this context does not mean that the person is physically unable to talk, but rather that he cannot talk intelligibly, a phenomenon common among those who are born deaf and who have never learned to modulate their voice properly because they could not hear themselves speaking, a point already noted by Rambam {source 1}.

  1. Rambam, Commentary to Mishna, Terumot 1:1   |    פיה”מ לרמב”ם, תרומות א:א
חרש בלשונינו הוא שאינו שומע, וקראו חכמים עליהם השלום למי שלא שומע ולא מדבר חרש, לפי שסיבת האלמות היא חרשות שנפגע בה הילד במעי אמו וגורמת לו שלא ישמע איך מדברים, וכבר נתבאר זה בספר השאלות הטבעיות, ולפיכך קראו את האלם על שם גורם האלמותCheresh in our usage of the term refers to a person who is deaf, and the Sages used the term cheresh to refer to a person who could neither hear nor speak, because the cause of his muteness was his deafness from the time birth (lit., in his mother’s womb), and it is [deafness] caused him to not hear how other people speak.  This has already been explained in the book “Problems regarding Nature,” and this is the reason why they called a person who was mute [and deaf, a “cheresh”] , because this [the deafness] was the cause of his inability to speak.  


Another note on terminology – the contrast to the cheresh is the pikeach.  This term can either mean a “person who can hear,” or more generally, “a person with full use of his senses and of sound mind.”  In this latter sense he stands in contrast to the cheresh and the shoteh, and anyone who may be of a disqualified status due to a particular disability.  A pikeach has full legal obligations, responsibilities, and status {source 2}.

2. Rambam, Laws of Marriage, 2:26  |   רמב”ם הלכות אישות  ב:כ”ו

חירש וחירשת האמורים בכל מקום הן האילמים שאין שומעין, ואין מדברים; אבל מי שמדבר ואינו שומע, או שומע ואינו מדבר הרי הוא ככל אדם.  ואיש ואישה שהן שלמים בדעתן, ואינן לא חירשים ולא שוטים–נקראין פיקח ופיקחת.The cheresh referred to in law refers to those who cannot hear and cannot speak. However, one who can speak but cannot hear, or one who can hear but cannot speak is like any other person. A man or woman who is complete in their intellect and is not cheresh or shoteh is referred to as a pikeach or pikacheet.


Formalist or Realist-oriented Criteria

Throughout these and later sources, an important question will be whether a person’s categorization is based on “formalistic” criteria, – in this case, the measurable traits that such a person cannot hear and cannot speak, or on “realist-oriented” criteria, an attempt to assess whether the underlying concern is present  – in this case, whether the person has limited intellectual ability.  Halakha as a rule follows formalistic criteria, to enable there to be clear rules to follow and to not require a constant context-based assessment of each case.  Pay attention when going through these sources whether the competing definitions of cheresh are based on different formalistic or realist-oriented criteria..


In the Talmud

The Mishnah {source 3} states that a number of people cannot separate terumah, and begins with the group of 3 that is found throughout the Talmud – the deaf person, the shoteh, and the minor.  These three cannot separate terumah because they are considered to not have da’at, sufficient intelligence to do such a legally meaningful act.  As a rule, halakha does not distinguish on a case-by-case basis, but deals with the status of a class of people.  Thus, it would not matter how intelligent a particular minor or deaf person was – the status is based on the assessment of the entire class.  It should be remembered that this ruling came at a time when deaf people were considered uneducable and often institutionalized or worse.

3. Mishnah Terumot, 1:1-2   |    משנה תרומות פרק א

[א] חמשה, לא יתרומו; ואם תרמו, אין תרומתן תרומה:  החרש, והשוטה, והקטן, והתורם את שאינו שלו, והנוכרי…

[ב] חרש המדבר ואינו שומע, לא יתרום; ואם תרם, תרומתו תרומה.  חירש שדיברו בו חכמים בכל מקום–שאינו שומע, ולא מדבר.

1] There are five who cannot separate terumah: A cheresh, a shoteh, a minor, one who tries to separate terumah that is not his own, and a non-Jew…

2] A cheresh who can speak but not hear should not separate terumah (because he cannot hear the blessing that he is making), but if he does, it is valid. The cheresh of which the rabbis speak is one who cannot hear and cannot speak.


The Tosefta which parallels the Mishna records a debate about the status of the deaf person {source 4}.  Notice the three different opinions cited here.  What do you think is behind R. Shimon ben Gamliel’s distinction between a person who is deaf from birth and one who becomes so later in life?

4. Tosefta Terumot 1:1  |   תוספתא תרומות א:א

רבי יהודה אומר חרש שתרם תרומתו תרומה, אמר רבי יהודה מעשה בבניו של רבי יוחנן בן גודגודא שהיו חרשים והיו כל טהרות של ירושלים נעשים על גבם, אמרו לו שם ראיה שהטהרות אין צריכות מחשבה ונעשות על גבי חרש שוטה וקטן, תרומה ומעשרות צריכים מחשבה.  

ר’ יצחק אומר משום ר’ אלעזר תרומת חרש לא תצא לחולין מפני שספק ספק יש בו דעת ספק אין בו דעת… רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר איזה הוא חרש כל שהיה חרש מתחילתו, אבל פקח ונתחרש הוא כותב והם מקיימים על ידיו.

Rabbi Yehuda says: A cheresh who took terumah, the terumah is valid.  Said Rabbi Yehuda: “There was a case with the children of Rabbi Yochanan Gudgeda, who were chereshim and all the pure foods in Jerusalem were handled by them.”  They responded to him: “From there you bring a proof? Purity of foods does not require machshava (halakhically meaningful thought), and it can be done via a cheresh, shoteh, and a minor.  Terumot and ma’asrot require machshava.”

R. Yitzchak says in the name of R. Elazar: The terumah of a cheresh should not be treated as unsanctified food because it is a doubt: perhaps he has da’at, intellect, perhaps he does not have da’at

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Who is a cheresh?  Anyone who was born deaf.  But someone who was born hearing and became deaf, he can write (a gett, other versions: “he can take terumah”) and others can validate it for him.

In the Tosefta, Rabbi Yehudah gives a deaf person full legal status. R. Yitzchak gives him a questionable status – perhaps his acts are legally binding.  This sounds like a status that applies to the entire class and is not case-specific.  However, once he is open to a doubt about the status and intelligence of a cheresh, it is possible that he would be prepared to judge a person on a case-by-case basis.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel distinguishes between congenital deafness and one that develops later in life.  Perhaps he believes there to be different causes, with the first indicating a mental or intellectual deficiency.  More likely, the difference here is due to the fact that a person who was born hearing had the opportunity to hear and be educated.  It is not clear if this is also because such a person may know how to talk in a way that is intelligible to people with hearing.  (In other words, is the reality that he is educated enough, or must he satisfy a formalistic criteria that he be able to talk).

As to the status of such a person – the final phrase “other people validate it for him,” is somewhat vague, and might indicate that such a person’s status is that of doubt, to be determined on a case-by-case basis, although this might mean something else altogether (see {source 8}).



The Gemara Chagigah {source 5}  clarifies the meaning of the term cheresh and describes his status as a person who is not a ben da’at, one of intellect.  Exactly what this means in the case of the cheresh will be explored below {source 7}.

5. Babylonian Talmud, Chagigah 2a, 2b  |   (:בבלי, חגיגה (ב., ב

משנה. כל חייבים בראיה חוץ מחרש שוטה וקטן…

[ב:] קתני חרש דומיא דשוטה וקטן, מה שוטה וקטן דלאו בני דעה נינהו, אף חרש דלאו בר דעה הוא, וקא משמע לן כדתנן, חרש שדברו חכמים בכל מקום שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר, הא מדבר ואינו שומע שומע ואינו מדבר חייב תנינא להא דתנו רבנן המדבר ואינו שומע זהו חרש שומע ואינו מדבר הו אלם וזה וזה הרי הן כפקחין לכל דבריהם

Mishnah. All are bound to appear [at the Temple on the pilgrimage festivals], except a cheresh, a shoteh and a minor…

[2b] Our Mishnah speaks of a cheresh similarly as of the shoteh and minor: just as the shoteh and minor are not “people of intellect”, so cheresh is one who is not a “person of intellect.” This teaches us in accordance with that which we have learnt: ‘Wherever the Sages speak of cheresh, [it means] one who can neither hear nor speak. This [would imply] that he who can speak but not hear, hear but not speak is obligated. We have [thus] learnt that which our Rabbis taught. One who can speak but not hear is termed cheresh: one who can hear but not speak is termed ilem [mute]; both of these are deemed sensible in all that relates to them…

Notice that Rashi {source 6} states that this status assignment was based on a Rabbinic assumption (based on assessment? tradition?) regarding the intellect of the cheresh.  Also notice that he states, like Rambam above, that the reason that a cheresh cannot speak is because, never having been able to hear, he never learned how.  What does this suggest regarding someone who became deaf later in life?  Recall the position of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel above {source 4}.

6. Rashi (ad. loc.), s.v. Cheresh  |    רש”י שם ד”ה חרש

חרש שדברו בו חכמים בכל מקום שהשוו אותו לשוטה לפוטרו, לא דברו אלא במי שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר, הכי קים להו לרבנן דמי שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר דלאו בני דעה נינהו

מדבר ואינו שומע – תחילתו היה פקח עד שלמד לדבר, ואחר כך נתחרש.

“The cheresh that the Sages spoke of in all places” –  whom they equated his status with that of a shoteh to exempt him, they only spoke about one who cannot hear and not speak – this is what the Rabbis took as established fact, that someone who cannot hear and not speak is not a person of intellect.

“One who can speak and not hear [is not in the category of cheresh] – at birth he was a pikeach until he learned to speak, and afterwards he became a cheresh.


The Mishna in Yevamot {source 7} records that there is a Rabbinic institution of marriage for a cheresh, and because of its rabbinic nature, no gett is needed to terminate it.  The Gemara goes on to cite Rav Chiya bar Ashi, who seems to rule like Rabbi Eliezer in the Tosefta {source 4} that a cheresh has a questionable full legal status, but in the end rejects this.   

7. Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 112b. 113a   |    (.בבלי, יבמות (קיב:, קיג

משנה. חרש שנשא פקחת ופיקח שנשא חרשת אם רצה להוציא יוציא ואם רצה לקיים יקיים, כשם שהוא כונס ברמיזה כך הוא מוציא ברמיזה…

[קיג.] אמר רב חייא בר אשי אמר שמואל אשת חרש אין חייבים עליה אשם תלוי… הוא דאמר כרבי אליעזר דתניא ר’ יצחק אומר משום רבי אליעזר תרומת חרש לא תצא לחולין מפני שהוא ספק, אי סבירא ליה כרבי אליעזר אשם תלוי נמי ליחייב, בעינן חתיכה משתי חתיכות וליכא…

בעא רב אשי מאי טעמא דרבי אליעזר מיפשט פשיטא ליה דחרש דעתא קלישתא הוא ומיהו מספקא ליה אי דעתא צילותא אי לאו דעתא צילותא ולעולם חדא דעתא הוא, או דלמא פשיטא ליה דדעתיה קלישתא ולאו דעתא צילותא הוא, והכא היינו טעמא כייון דעתים חלים עתים שוטה… מאי תיקו.

Mishna. A cheresh who married a woman who is a pekach or a man who is a pkeach who married a chereshet may, if he wishes to divorce her, do so; and if he wishes to retain her he may also do so. As he marries [the woman] by gestures, so he divorces her by gestures.

[113a] R. Hiyya bar Ashi stated in the name of Samuel: For [unwitting intercourse with] the wife of a deaf man no asham talui [sin offering for a doubtful sin] is incurred.… [Perhaps] he holds the same view as R. Eleazar. For it was taught: R. Yitzchak stated in the name of R. Eleazar that the terumah of a deaf man must not be treated as unsanctified, because its validity is a matter of doubt. But if he is of the same opinion as R. Eleazar, an asham talui also should be incurred! — No, for there we need [that the offense should be similar to that of eating] one of two available pieces [of meat], and such is not the case (i.e., his status is in doubt, but there are not two women, one married and one unmarried)…

R. Ashi asked: What is R. Eleazar’s reason? Is he positive that the mind of a cheresh is weak but in doubt whether that mind is clear or not clear, though [in either case] it is always in the same condition, or is it possible that he has no doubt that the [cherhesh’s] mind is weak and that it is not clear, but [his doubt] here is due to this reason: Because [the deaf man] may sometimes be in a normal state and sometimes in a state of shoteh?… What then is the decision? — This remains undecided.

At the end of this passage is an interesting speculation regarding the intelligence of a cheresh and the doubtful status that Rabbi Eliezer assigns him.  Notice two different ways of framing intelligence – high versus low intelligence and a clear versus a cloudy understanding.  A person with low intelligence would be considered to have da’at, but not one whose understanding is cloudy.  This passage provides an insight into how the Rabbis understood the intelligence of the cheresh.  It also indicates that the key issue – at least for R. Eliezer – is level of intelligence and clarity of understanding, and not the bare fact that the person is deaf and cannot speak intelligibly.  This raises obvious questions as to whether the category could be reassessed once it was realized that deaf people have normal intelligence.

In the following passage in Gittin {source 8}, Rav Kahana states that a cheresh would be considered a person of full legal standing if he could communicate through writing.  This can be understood in two ways – either (1) the writing is a sign that he has intelligence (the realist-oriented approach) or (2) the writing is considered to be a form of speaking (the formalist approach).  Either way, this position would have tremendous implications nowadays – it would take almost every deaf person out of the category of cheresh.  How does the discussion develop?  What is the halakhic conclusion regarding this position?

8.   Bavli, Gittin 71a-b   |    (:בבלי, גיטין (עא.-עא

אמר רב כהנא אמר רב חרש שיכול לדבר מתוך הכתב כותבין ונותנין גט לאשתו…

אמר רבי זירא אי קשיא לי הא קשיא לי דתניא אם לא יגיד פרט לאלם שאינו יכול להגיד אמאי הא יכול להגיד מתוך הכתב אמר ליה אביי עדות קאמרת שאני עדות דרחמנא אמר מפיהם ולא מפי כתבם…

מיתיבי חרש לא הלכו בו אחר רמיזותיו ואחר קפיצותיו ואחר כתב ידו אלא במטלטלין אבל לא לגיטין

תנאי היא דתניא אמר רבן שמעון בן גמליאל במה דברים אמורים בחרש מעיקרו אבל פיקח ונתחרש הוא כותב והן חותמין …

[עא:] אמר רבי יוחנן חלוקין עליו חביריו על רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אמר אביי אף אנן נמי תנינא נישטת לא יוציא נתחרש הוא או נשתטה לא יוציא עולמית מאי עולמית לאו אף על גב דיכול לדבר מתוך הכתב אמר רב פפא אי לאו דאשמועינן רבי יוחנן הוה אמינא רבן שמעון בן גמליאל לפרושי טעמא דתנא קמא הוא דאתא ומאי עולמית אף על גב דחזינא ליה דחריף

R. Kahana said in the name of Rav: If a cheresh can signify his meaning by writing, a gett may be written and given to his wife…

R. Zera said: If I do find any difficulty [in R. Kahana’s remark] it is this, that it has been taught: “‘If he does not report [his testimony, he will bear his sin]’ – this excludes a mute who cannot speak [from delivering testimony in court.]”. Now why should this be, seeing that [according to R. Kahana] he can speak by writing? — Abaye replied to him: You are discussing testimony, and testimony comes under a different rule, because the All-Merciful has said that it must be “from their mouths” and not from their writing.

[The following] was then raised in objection, [we taught:]: “The directions of a cheresh given by gestures, by movements, and by writing are to be followed only in regard to the transfer of chattel, but not to deliver a gett”! [so how can Rav Kahana say differently]?

This matter is actually a difference of opinion on this point between Tannaim, as it has been taught: “R. Shimon b. Gamliel says: This is the case only with one who was a deaf from the outset, but one who was originally a pikeach and became deaf after marriage can write a gett for himself which others can sign…” [and Rav Kahana holds in accordance with this position].

[71b] R. Yochanan said: R. Simeon b. Gamliel’s colleagues argued against him. Abaye said: We have also learnt to the same effect: “If the wife became a shotah, he cannot divorce her. If he became cheresh or a shoteh, he can never put her away.” What is meant by ‘never’? Surely it means, even if he can signify his intention in writing? — R. Papa said: But for the statement of R. Yochanan, I would have said that R. Shimon b. Gamliel intended only to explain the statement of the previous Tanna, and that ‘never’ means, even though we see that he is intelligent.

The Gemara connects Rav Kehana’s position, that a deaf person who can communicate through writing has full legal status, with that of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel in the Tosefta, who distinguishes between a person born deaf and one who becomes deaf later in life.  It is not clear which of these is more significant – the ability to write, or not having been born deaf, or a combination of the two.  If the only relevant criteria was the ability to communicate through writing, and were this to include also sign-language, and were we to rule like Rav Kehana, this would allow one to rule that nowadays the status of cheresh would be almost non-existent.

The Gemara concludes, however, by assigning this position to a minority position that argues with the dominant one that rules that every cheresh, even if he is born hearing and even if he can communicate through writing, and even if he is clearly intelligent, has a status of not being a person of da’at.

The conclusion of this Gemara would seem to close off any possibility to reassess the cheresh nowadays, since the Gemara recognizes that a cheresh could be intelligent and still applies the same status to him.  On a formalistic level, it does not consider writing a form of speech, and it would seem that sign language would be no different (although a case could be made that it is more like speech – it is more direct than writing and it employs body language, which writing does not).  Still, when there is a realization that a deaf person having intelligence is not the exception, but true of the whole class, there is a compelling reason (and moral imperative) to try to find a halakhic way to redefine the class.


In the Rishonim and Shulkhan Arukh

Rambam {source 9} rules like the conclusion of the Gemara Gittin, that a deaf person does not have legal standing even if he became deaf later in life, and even if he can gesture and communicate through writing, and even if he clearly is intelligent.

9. Rambam, Laws of Divorce, 2:17   |    רמב”ם הלכות גירושין ב:י”ז

מי שנשא אישה כשהוא פיקח, ונתחרש, ואין צריך לומר, נשתטה אינו מוציא לעולם, עד שיבריא; ואין סומכין על רמיזת החירש, ולא על כתבו, ואף על פי שדעתו נכונה ומיושבת…One who married a woman when he was a pikeach and then became a cheresh and certainly if he became a shoteh, is unable to divorce her until he is healed. And we do not rely on the signaling of the cheresh nor on his writing, even though his mind is fine and clear.


We cite here two passages in Shulkhan Arukh {sources 10 and 11} to illustrate some of the implications of the status of a cheresh.  He cannot count towards a minyan {source 10}, and he is not obligated in mitzvot, and therefore he can be used to help a person get around a Shabbat problem, by having him do the violation {source 11}.  There is however an opinion that one cannot directly cause him to do a violation, so this slightly mitigates the degree of total exclusion from the halakhic system.

10. Shulkhan Aukh, Orah Hayyim, 55:8   |    ‘שו”ע אורח חיים ס’ נה סע’ ח

חרש המדבר ואינו שומע, או שומע ואינו מדבר, הן כפקחין ומצטרפים. אבל מי שאינו שומע ואינו מדבר, הרי הוא כשוטה וקטן.A cheresh who can speak and not hear, or [someone] who can hear and not speak, have that same status as a pikeach (someone with all his senses), and they count towards a minyan.  But someone who cannot hear and cannot speak, is like a person who is a shoteh and like a minor [and cannot count towards a minyan].

11. Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 266   |   שו”ע אורח חיים ס’ רס”ו

[ג] היה עמו חמורו וחרש שוטה וקטן, יניחנו על החמור ולא יתננה לאחד מאלו.

[ד] היה עמו חרש ושוטה, יתננו לשוטה לפי שאין לו דעת כלל.

[ה] שוטה וקטן, יתננו לשוטה שהקטן יבא לכלל דעת. חרש וקטן, יתננו למי שירצה.

[ו] וי”א שכשנותנו לאחד מאלו מניחו עליו כשהוא מהלך ונוטלו ממנו כשהוא עומד

משנה ברורה שם ס”ק יד

והטעם כדי שלא יעשו החש”ו איסור דאורייתא על ידו ואף על פי שאינו מצווה על שביתתם… מ”מ הרי אסור להאכילם איסור בידים וכדלקמן בסימן שמ”ג לענין קטן וה”ה לחרש ושוטה כמו שנתבאר שם:

[3] If he (a person caught outside the eruv, with his wallet on him, when Shabbat began) had with him his donkey, a cheresh, a shoteh and a minor, he should place his wallet on the donkey and not give it to one of the others.

[4] If he had with him just a cheresh and a shoteh, he should give it to the shoteh, for the shoteh has not da’at at all.

[5] If he had with him a shoteh and a minor, he should give it to the shoteh, because the minor would eventually become a person of da’at (and legally obligated).  If he had with him a cheresh and a minor, he should give it to whomever he chooses.

[6] There are those that say that when he gives it to one of these people, he should place it on them when they are walking and take it off of them before they stand (so they are not doing a full act of carrying).


Mishne Brurah, ad. loc., no. 14

The reason is to prevent the cheresh, shoteh or minor from transgressing a Biblical prohibition due to him.  Although he is not commanded to ensure that they rest on Shabbat… nevertheless, it is forbidden to feed them prohibited food (and by extension, cause them to transgress any prohibition directly,] as is discussed later in siman 343 regarding a minor, and the same is true when it comes to a cheresh and shoteh, as discussed there.


We have seen that there are opinions of Tanaaim and Amoraim that would have allowed for a reassessment of a deaf person’s status, but that halakha rejected these opinions and rules categorically that a deaf person is not a person of legal standing.  In part 2, we will see how some poskim did reassess this status when it became clear that deaf people were fully intelligent and fully capable.