In Parashas Vayigash we find Yosef telling his brothers, who are about to return to their father, “Do not become agitated on the way” (Bereishis 45:24). Ibn Ezra explains the simple meaning of the words: “Do not be angry with one another” as concerning the sale of Yosef.
However, Chazal note additional interpretations of those words. According to one interpretation, as mentioned by Rashi (citing Taanis 10b), the meaning is: “Do not occupy yourselves in halacha, lest the way enrage you.” One must be careful about studying Torah while journeying, for immersion in Torah study can cause a person to lose his composure.
Although the Torah states explicitly (in the first paragraph of the Shema) that we must study Torah even as we travel, the Mishnah Berurah (110:20) notes a distinction between regular Torah study and studying in depth. While we must be sure to occupy ourselves in Torah even while on a journey, we should refrain from Torah study in depth, since a deep absorption in Torah can cause a person to lose his way.
Citing the Magen Avraham, the Mishnah Berurah adds that if somebody else is doing the driving, it stands to reason that it is permitted even to study in depth. Although a driver should refrain from doing so, a passenger immersed in Torah study does not threaten the journey.
The mention of this halacha brings us to some additional halachos pertaining to the study of Torah, or to reading the Shema (which is also a form of Torah study) while on the way. Is it permitted to recite the Shema while walking or while driving? Can one learn Torah on the subway, while exposed to immodesty? Is there a difference between speaking words of Torah and merely thinking them?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
Kerias Shema While Walking
In the first paragraph of the Shema we read in Devarim (6:7): “And you shall teach them to your sons and speak of them—when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up.”
The Mishnah (Berachos 1:3) derives from the Pasuk the position in which we should recite the Shema. According to Beis Shammai, the morning Shema must be recited standing, while the evening Shema must be said sitting. Beis Hillel, however, maintain that one can recite the Shema in any position, citing the words “and when you walk on the way.”
It emerges from the Mishnah that one can recite the Shema even when walking. However, the Gemara (Berachos 13b) notes (in the name of Rav Nosson, citing Rav Yehuda) that one must stand still for the first part of the Shema, until the words al levavecha. According to Rabbi Yochanan, the entire first paragraph of the Shema should be recited while standing still.
The reason for this, as the Gemara discusses in the same place (and as Rashi states), is that the first part of the Shema requires special intent—special kavanah, as appropriate for accepting the yoke of heaven. Tosafos explain that although according to the basic halacha one may recite the Shema even while walking (as Beis Hillel rule), it is best to stand still for the first part of the Shema.
Rishonim (see Rashba, Berachos 13b) note that according to the halachic ruling that emerges from the rest of the Talmudic passage, the special intent required at the beginning of Shema applies only to the first Pasuk, and not to the rest of the first paragraph. This will also change the halachic ruling concerning standing still, which applies only to the part of Shema requiring special kavanah.
In line with this assertion, the Shulchan Aruch (63:3) rules that one must stand still for the first Pasuk of the Shema but following this one may continue walking. The Mishnah Berurah (11) adds that the Baruch Shem declaration is included in the first Pasuk, and that some are stringent to stand still until the words al levavecha.
The Mishnah Berurah (9) also echoes the words of Tosafos, explaining that according to the basic halacha it is permitted to recite the Shema while walking. Although it is correct to stand still, one who recites the Shema while walking does not need to repeat his recitation.
Kerias Shema While Driving
Another halacha in connection with Kerias Shema is that it is forbidden to engage in one’s work while reciting the first paragraph of the Shema (Berachos 16a). Elsewhere, we find that it is even forbidden to motion to others while reciting the first paragraph of the Shema—a halacha that the Shulchan Aruch rules (63:6). The Mishnah Berurah  notes that some are stringent even for the second paragraph but writes that one can certainly be lenient to motion to others for the purpose of a mitzvah.
Rabbeinu Yonah (Berachos 16a) explains that involvement in communication during Shema, and likewise occupation in any form of labor while reciting the Shema, renders the recitation aray—temporary or casual—since the Shema is not being recited without concurrent activity. Aside from the special kavanah requirement of the first Pasuk of the Shema, this requirement applies to the whole first paragraph.
Based on this requirement, it seems obvious that one should refrain from reciting the Shema while driving (see Piskei Teshuvah 63:3), since one must concentrate on the road while driving to a far greater extent than when walking. This echoes the ruling of the Mishnah Berurah (63:10), who writes that there is a dispute concerning reciting the Shema while riding on an animal, and that it is correct to be stringent in this matter.
Note that there are additional halachos concerning davening while traveling, which we will please G-d address in a future article.
The Sacred Camp
The Torah tells us (in the context of wartime) that we must be wary of defiling the sanctity of the Jewish camp: “For Hashem your G-d walks in the midst of your camp, to deliver you, and to give up your enemies before you; therefore your camp shall be holy, that He should see no nakedness among you, and turn away from you” (Devarim 23:15).
Chazal understand this instruction to refer not only to the military camp, but also to one’s spiritual surroundings all the time. From the instruction that there should be “no nakedness among you” Chazal derive that one must not recite the Shema while naked, or in front of nakedness (Berachos 25b). The Gemara likewise derives from the instruction to maintain the holiness of the camp that one must not recite Shema in the presence of excrement, in a bathhouse or bathroom (Shabbos 150a) or near an unpleasant odor (Sifrei).
These halachos apply not only to reciting the Shema, but also to the recitation of any davar shebikdusha—any words of Torah or Torah teaching.
Thus, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 75:1) rules that it is forbidden to recite the Shema when one can see immodestly dressed women (referring to areas of the body that should be covered). Based on this instruction, there there will generally be a problem of reciting Shema or speaking words of Torah on the New York subway (certainly in the summer), or in areas where there is a high likelihood or encountering immodestly dressed women.
The Shulchan Aruch (75:6) permits one to recite Shema if one closes his eyes, so that immodesty will not be seen. However, later commentaries (such as the Magen Avraham 9; Taz 2; Mishnah Berurah 29) require a person to actually turn away, and rule that merely closing one’s eyes is insufficient.
According to the Chazon Ish (Orach Chaim 16:7) it is enough to merely avert one’s glance, without turning one’s body (this is also supported by Shut Tzitz Eliezer 15:11, who cites other authorities who ruled similarly). Therefore, one may speak words of Torah even when he is riding the New York subway in the summer. Rav Eliashev ruled that it is better to say the words of Torah out loud when learning even in the presence of improperly dressed woman. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Beyitzchok Yekorai) also ruled that studying Torah is more lenient than reciting Kriyas Shema. For practical rulings on Torah study in the presence of immodestly dressed women, see further below.
Note that there is a distinction in this matter between men and women. Based on a ruling of the Rosh, the Rema (Orach Chaim 75:1) maintains that the principle applies to women in front of immodestly dressed women just like it applies to men in front of women. The Rashba, however, is lenient in this matter and rules that women are permitted to recite Shema (and other devarim shebikdusha) even when exposed to immodesty (with the exception of full nudity). Later authorities concur with this lenient ruling (see Mishnah Berurah 75:8; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 5:16), and maintain that even the Rosh is lenient for women.
Distancing from Filth
The prohibition of reciting Shema and other devarim shebikdusha in proximity to filth—specifically, to excrement—is in one sense more lenient than that of immodesty. In the case of excrement, it is enough to merely “cover that which comes from you.” Thus, it is permitted to recite the Shema in the presence of covered excrement, even if it is enclosed in glass and visible, as long as there is no odor (Berachos 25a; Shulchan Aruch 76:1).
This means that it is permitted to recite the Shema or to learn Torah in the presence of a child wearing a dirty diaper, or a garbage pail containing dirty diapers, provided the waste itself is not exposed and no foul odor escapes. This is often the case for somebody on a journey: he might encounter covered waste but is less likely to encounter waste itself.
However, one must not recite the Shema or learn Torah while walking through an area where there is a bad odor. The Mishnah (Berachos 22b) equates certain other foul odors with excrement, and one must not recite Shema, learn Torah or make other berachos near sewage or other foul-smelling materials.
It is noteworthy that the Biur Halacha (introduction to 79:10) explains that reciting the Shema in the presence of foul-smelling waste (including garbage or a rotting animal corpse) is a Torah prohibition, since one’s spiritual camp is no longer holy (see Mishna Berurah 79:29).
In such cases, one must distance oneself four amos (approximately two meters) from behind and the sides of the smell, or until the source is out of one’s sight if in front of the person.
Speaking and Thinking
The halachos that we have discussed up until now pertaining to the recitation of the Shema refer to somebody who is speaking words of Torah. But what about somebody who is not speaking Torah words, but only thinking them? Is this also forbidden in the circumstances mentioned above, or is thinking different from speaking?
The Gemara (Shabbos 150a) distinguishes in this matter between thinking Torah thoughts in filthy surroundings and thinking Torah thoughts when exposed to immodesty (except for full nudity). While it is forbidden to think Torah thoughts in filthy surroundings, it is permitted to do so in the presence of immodesty. This follows Rashi’s interpretation, which explains that only reciting Torah is prohibited in the presence of nakedness, while thought is permitted (see also Ran).
Thus, while it is forbidden to recite Torah words in the presence of an immodestly dressed woman, it is permitted to think Torah thoughts, or to read from a sefer without saying the words. The Magen Avraham (85:2) notes this ruling, and it is confirmed by the Machatzis Hashekel (ad loc.) and by the Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 74:2. 85:2).
Thus, it is permitted to think Torah thoughts or to read a Torah sefer on the subway or bus, but not when walking through filthy areas where there is a foul odor.
Even concerning speaking words of Torah out loud, the Mishnah Berurah (75:1) writes that where there is no option of turning away, one can be lenient to speak words of Torah in the presence of immodest women, provided one does not directly see them. Both Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l distinguished for this matter between recitation of the Shema itself, which is more stringent, and other Torah study, for which one can be lenient.
An explicit Pasuk in the Torah instructs us to engage in Torah study specifically while traveling. Chazal apply this directly to reciting the Shema, with a set of relevant halachos, but it applies also to regular Torah study. As the Mishnah teaches in Pirkei Avos (3:5, 3:9) one who goes on a journey without engaging in Torah study is committing a severe offense.
It is important to note that not all situations and places are appropriate for Torah study, and certainly not for recitation of the Shema. There are circumstances in which it is forbidden to speak (or to think) Torah words (and thoughts), and one must be aware of this on his journeys.