In Parashas Vaeschanan, the Torah teaches us the mitzvah of Kriyas Shema, of which the pasuk writes: vedibarta bom, you shall speak them.

Chazal derive from the word bom (them) that there is a distinction between Kriyas Shema and prayer (Yoma 19b), which Rashi understands to mean a difference in how the two are recited. While Kriyas Shema must be said aloud, prayer must be said silently (see, however, Haamek She’elah on She’ilta 143, who interprets the matter differently).

The halachah of ensuring that one’s voice is audible is an important law of Kriyas Shema and prayer, and it raises a number of questions. Is the obligation personal, depending on a person’s own hearing ability? What indeed is the difference between prayer and Kriyas Shema? What are the laws of somebody who is deaf or hard-of-hearing?

We will seek to clarify the issue in the present article.

A Law of Speaking or a Law of Hearing?

The Mishnah (Berachos 15a) quotes a dispute among Tana’im concerning the question of somebody who read Kriyas Shema without hearing his own words: According to the first opinion (identified by the Gemara as Rabbi Yehuda), he fulfills his obligation; according to Rabbi Yosi, he does not.

There is room to refine the principle behind the obligation to ensure that one hears one’s own reading, which is derived from the word shema. Does this imply an obligation to hear the words of the Shema, an obligation that is essentially separate from the obligation to read the Shema? Or is this obligation a condition of the reading: A reading that is not heard by the reader lacks an essential element, and according to Rabbi Yosi is insufficient to fulfill the mitzvah?

These alternatives have an important halachic ramification with regard to reading the Shema on behalf of others: Can a person read the Shema on behalf of others who can hear his reading, if he cannot hear his own reading?

If the requirement for an audible reading is an additional halachah, separate from the halachic status of the reading itself, then others will fulfill their obligation by hearing the reading even if the reader himself (according to Rabbi Yosi) will not. If, however, the halachah considers the reading to be deficient, it follows that others hearing the reading cannot fulfill their obligation unless the reader reads in a way that he also fulfills his own obligation.

Reading of the Megillah by the Deaf

The Gemara in Berachos (15b) provides us with an indication that the halachah of an audible reading is a condition of the reading itself, rather than a separate obligation to  hear.

The Gemara mentions the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, according to which the precept of reading in a voice audible to the reader himself is only lechatchilah. Post factum, even if Kriyas Shema was read in an inaudible voice, the reader fulfilled the mitzvah.

The Gemara explains that according to this opinion, the halachah in a different Mishnah (Megillah 19b), that people who hear the reading of the Megillah from a deaf person do not fulfill their obligation, should also be understood as a lechatchilah principle. Although the Megillah should not be read by a deaf person, if a deaf person reads the Megillah, the congregation fulfill the mitzvah.

If the halachah of hearing one’s own reading of the Shema is separate from the reading of the Shema, it is hard to understand why the deaf person’s inability to hear his own reading should have any effect on other listeners. Since the reader’s deafness has no effect on the reading itself, why should others refrain from hearing a deaf person’s reading?

So the fact that a deaf person should not read the Shema for others lechatchilah, proves that a reading of the Shema that is inaudible to the reader is a deficient reading. Because a reading that is not heard by the reader only qualifies on a bedieved level, it follows that one should not lechatchilah fulfill one’s obligation by hearing a deaf person’s reading.

This interpretation is stated in Kovetz He’aros (Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, no. 48), who explains the halachic status of a deaf person who can speak but cannot hear. Although he is obligated in all the mitzvos, his reading is considered deficient (because he cannot hear it), and therefore his reading should not be relied on lechatchilah to fulfill the mitzvah.

Reading Aloud on a Lechatchilah Level

In a practical sense, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 62:3) rules that a person reading Kriyas Shema should read loud enough for him to hear his words. However, if he does not do so, he nonetheless fulfills the mitzvah.

The Shulchan Aruch (185:2; 206:3) rules similarly concerning birkas ha-mazon and concerning other berachos: one should say the berachah loud enough to hear it, but if one fails to do so, the berachah is valid bedieved.

According to the Ra’avad (cited by the Mishnah Berurah 62:4), the halachah of saying the words out loud on a lechatchilah level is a Torah law. This is a fairly novel approach, because the vast majority of Torah requirements (with some exceptions for Kodshim) are absolute. Failure to fulfill a Torah requirement usually invalidates the mitzvah completely.

Other Rishonim indeed dispute the Ra’avad’s opinion, maintaining that the halachah of reading out loud is rabbinic (see Tosafos, Berachos 15a). This approach is mentioned by the Bach (62:3, s.v. vetzarich).

Laws of the Hard of Hearing and Noisy Backgrounds

As noted, the halachah follows the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda, according to which one should lechatchilah recite the words of the Shema loud enough to hear them. A deaf person who speaks but cannot hear, should not read the Shema for others lechatchilah, yet he can do so bedieved.

Based on the understanding that a reading that cannot be heard by the reader himself is inherently deficient, the Shevus Yaakov (Vol. 2, no. 33) writes that the same principle applies to somebody who is hard of hearing. Although he is of course obligated to read the Shema, if he cannot hear himself (i.e. he does not shout the words) his reading will fulfill the mitzvah only bedieved.

The Avnei Nezer (Orach Chaim 439:3) rules that the same halachah is true of somebody who stops up his ears with his fingers. Because he does not hear his own reading, the reading is only valid on a bedieved level, and others should not fulfill their mitzvah with his reading.

The Netziv (Ha’amek She’elah 143:6) writes that an obligation to ensure that a person hears himself above background noise applies only to Kriyas Shema. For prayer, one only need pray in a voice that is loud enough to be heard by the person praying in ideal (quiet) conditions. There is no need, according to the Netziv, to daven louder in a noisy environment.

The Laws of Audible Prayer—the Shemoneh Esrei

Concerning the halachah of praying out loud—meaning loud enough to be heard by the person praying—we seem to find a contradiction between two sources.

The Tosefta (Berachos 3:9) writes that a person should not raise his voice in prayer, deriving this from the prayer of Chanah, who “spoke upon her heart” (I Shmuel Chap. 1). The silent prayer of Chanah indicates that there is no need for a person to hear his own prayer. It is sufficient to say the prayer inaudibly. This source is mentioned by the Tur (Orach Chaim 101).

However, the Yerushalmi (Berachos 2:9) writes that somebody who prayed without hearing his own prayer has fulfilled the mitzvah, implying that he has done so only bedieved, and lechatchilah one should hear one’s own prayer.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 101:2) rules that a person should ensure that his prayer is audible to himself. The Biur Ha-Gra explains that the source is from the above ruling of the Yerushalmi.

The Netziv resolves the sources based on his above-mentioned approach: For prayer, there is no obligation to actually hear one’s voice. It is sufficient to pray loud enough so that one would hear were it not for the background noise.

However, the simple interpretation of the Tosefta is that there is no minimum loudness for one’s prayer, and even if the prayer can’t be heard at all it is valid, provided the words are actually enunciated.

Silent Prayers?

It is noteworthy that in spite of the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch, some authorities (in particular those most influenced by Kabbalah) rule that it is better to pray quietly, in a way that one cannot even hear one’s own prayer (see Ben Ish Chai, Mishpatim, Year One, Halachah 1).

Yet, the ruling of the Ben Ish Chai (and others) is based on a particular interpretation of the Zohar, but the Magen Avraham (cited by the Mishnah Berurah 101:5) writes that the Zohar is not conclusive about this point. In fact, the Vilna Gaon writes that even according to the Zohar, a person should ensure that he hears his own prayer, in line with the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch (citing the Maharik).

Therefore, the principle halachah is that one should pray loud enough to hear one’s own prayer. However, if one fails to do this, the mitzvah is still fulfilled, and there is no need to pray again—provided the words were articulated.

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