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For the week ending 14 December 2019 / 16 Kislev 5780

Verses by Heart

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Aviva wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

My family went to my grandparents' house for lunch on Shabbat, and at the table I gave a ‘dvar Torah’ on the portion of the week. I quoted a couple of verses off by heart, but afterwards my dad mentioned that he thought he heard somewhere that one is not supposed to quote from the Torah by heart. I am quite embarrassed about this, in case it is true and I've done the wrong thing in front of Saba [grandfather] and all his guests. Can you please tell me whether this is true or not? Thanks very much.

Dear Aviva,

In a sense, your dad is right, but there's no reason for you to be embarrassed. Here's why:

The Talmud states: "You are not allowed to say Torah verses by heart." However, we find many exceptions to this rule. For example, the Talmud relates that on Yom Kippur the Kohen Gadol used to say the public Torah reading by heart. Other kohanim also had certain verses to say during the Temple service, which they often said by heart. And it's a universal custom that we close our eyes when saying the verse, "Shema Yisrael…."

Obviously, this rule applies only under certain conditions. The commentators offer different explanations for when it applies.

According to many authorities, the prohibition applies only when you are helping other people fulfill a halachic obligation. For example, the public Torah reading cannot be said by heart because there is an obligation for the listeners to hear the Torah.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, the prohibition doesn't apply to a verse which is well known. So, for example, you can say by heart any verse from the daily prayers.

Other authorities maintain that there in no actual prohibition against saying verses by heart. Rather, it's preferable and it's a mitzvahto be strict and read the verses from a book.

One of the great pillars of halacha, Maimonides, does not even mention the prohibition of reciting verses by heart, indicating that he permits it completely. Some explain this as follows: Just as the Sages in the time of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi lifted the ban against writing down the Oral Torah, so too they allowed reciting the Written Torah by heart. Both steps were taken in order to safeguard the Torah and protect it from oblivion.

Ideally, you should look up the verses. But, if that's difficult or is a strain on your audience, you can be lenient, in light of all the various opinions and leniencies, as is the general custom.

It's not always easy to memorize text. Little Johnny was having difficulty memorizing Lincoln's “Gettysburg Address.” His teacher scolded him, "How can it be so difficult? Why, Abraham Lincoln wrote the entire thing while riding to Gettysburg on the back of an envelope." "Wow," Johnny said, "How did such a tall man fit onto the back of an envelope?"

  • Sources: Talmud Gittin 60b; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 49; Ibid., Mishna Berura 9; Aruch Hashulchan 49

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