Disabilities and Special Needs

In contrast to their religious and social standing in most ancient societies, those with disabilities have historically been welcomed as full members of the Jewish community. Those with disabilities – although their limitations are recognized– are generally included in all ritual, personal, and communal obligations. Indeed, the entire community is responsible for and required to assist those with special needs, not merely the individual’s family.[1] We will examine some of the halachot relevant for those with special needs.

While those with special physical needs are obligated to observe Shabbat like everyone else, there are a number of halachic leniencies to make their Shabbat more enjoyable. For example, according to most authorities, one who is unable to walk may use a wheelchair, cane, crutches, and the like outdoors on Shabbat, even in a place that has no eruv.[2] This is because halacha views such walking aids as a substitute for or extension of the body. So too, one may ask a non-Jew to push one’s wheelchair in a place where there is no eruv.[3] One who can walk, albeit with difficulty, should not use such devices on Shabbat in a place where there is no eruv.

One who is blind is required to light Shabbat candles, and is even required to recite Kiddush Levana.[4] Although a blind person is permitted to light the Chanuka candles, it is best for him to discharge the mitzva by participating in someone else’s lighting wherever possible.[5] A guide dog may be taken into a synagogue.[6]

Hearing aids may be worn on Shabbat as long as they are turned on before Shabbat. Some authorities even consider them to be an article of clothing.[7] Most authorities forbid the use of a microphone on Shabbat, ruling that it is a violation of a number of serious prohibitions.[8] There is much discussion, however, whether a microphone may be used on weekdays in the performance of mitzvot, such as when leading services or reading the Megilla. The issue revolves around whether the sound that is produced by a microphone is considered to be the original sound or a mechanical reproduction. Rav Moshe Feinstein argues that since the sound that emanates from the microphone is a direct and immediate result of the speaker, it is considered like regular speech and not an echo. He thus rules, albeit hesitantly, that one may indeed use a microphone in the performance of mitzvot, with the exception of Shema and Birkat Hamazon.[9] On the other hand, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach argues that since a microphone converts the sound waves into an electrical signal and then produces a new sound, one cannot fulfill such mitzvot through a microphone.[10]

Those with special needs generally have the same rights and obligations with regard to marriage and procreation as everyone else. Nevertheless, if one’s disability makes childcare exceptionally challenging, then one is not required to have children. A husband may help his disabled wife with her immersion in a mikva.[11] A man who is unable to wear tefillin on his left arm should wear it on his right arm.[12] One who is attached to a catheter must cover it and the collection bag when reciting prayers. Anyone who is mentally competent may be counted for a minyan and may serve as a witness in a beit din. One who is uses a wheelchair is not obliged to stand when normally required during the synagogue service or recitation of certain prayers.[13] One who is both unable to hear and unable to speak is exempt from most mitzvot.[14]

[1] Chatam Sofer, YD 76.

[2] Igrot Moshe, OC 4:90.

[3] Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 34:27. See also Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau, “Disability and Judaism: Society’s Influence on Halacha,” Jewish Dis/Ability Unite, January 28, 2010, https://jewishdisabilityunite.wordpress.com/2010/01/28/disability-and-judaism-societys-influence-on-halacha-rabbi-dr-benjamin-lau/.

[4] Mishna Berura 420:1.

[5] Aruch Hashulchan, OC 675:5.

[6] Igrot Moshe, OC 1:45. See Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau, “Access of People with Guide Dogs to the Western Wall Prayer Plaza,” March 2013, http://en.idi.org.il/media/2346754/Lau-Guide-Dogs-Responsum.pdf, and Rabbi Howard Jachter, “Halachic Perspectives on Pets,” Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 23 (spring 1992), http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/english/halacha/jachter_1.htm, at length.

[7] Tzitz Eliezer 6:6:6; Igrot Moshe, OC 4:85; Minchat Yitzchak 1:37, 2:17, 112; Har Tzvi, OC 173; Chelkat Yaakov 3:186; Yabia Omer 1:19; Shemirat Shabbat K’hilchata 34:28.

[8] See Rabbi Yisrael Rozen, “Microphones and Amplifiers on Shabbat,” The Zomet Institute, http://www.zomet.org.il/eng/?CategoryID=198&ArticleID=283, at length.

[9] Igrot Moshe, OC 2:108, 4:91:4.

[10] Minchat Shlomo 1:9. See also Yechave Da’at 3:54 and Yabia Omer 1:19:18.

[11] Rema, YD 195:16.

[12] Igrot Moshe, OC 1:8, 9.

[13] OC 94:6.

[14] For an exhaustive treatment of this issue, see the article on deafness in Schlesinger Institute for Medical Halachic Research at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics (Hebrew), http://www.medethics.org.il/website/index.php/he/research/encyclopedia/2012-03-05-10-08-22/133-2012-03-07-09-17-72.

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 (9 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel, and a popular lecturer at a number of yeshivot, synagogues, and seminaries.