“He Cried out to Hashem” –
Kriyas Shema and Prayer in Audible Tones
The pasuk in our parashah, Parashas Va’eira, describes the prayer of Moshe Rabbeinu to Hashem, after Pharaoh agreed to set the Children of Israel free: “Moshe and Aharon departed from Pharaoh; Moshe shouted to Hashem, concerning the matter of the frogs that He had beset upon Pharaoh” (Shemos 8:8).
The Sifsei Chachamim (Shemos 8:6) finds difficulty with the word shouted—a word that is not used in other places to describe the prayers of Moshe to Hashem. Why is that word used here?
The suggested answer is that the many frogs with which Egypt was cursed caused a great clamor. To ensure that Moshe heard his own prayers, in fulfillment of the Talmudic halachah that one who prays must hear his own prayer (Berachos 15a), Moshe had to raise his voice beyond the norm.
The halachah of ensuring that one’s voice is audible to oneself is an important law of prayer, and it raises a number of questions. Is the obligation personal, depending on a person’s own hearing ability? Is there a difference between prayer and Keriyas Shema? What are the laws of somebody who is deaf or hard-of-hearing?
We will seek to clarify the issue and to respond to the questions it raises in the current 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 Keriyas 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 distinct from the obligation to read the Shema? Or is this obligation a condition in a person’s reading: A reading that is not heard by the reader is lacking an essential element, and according to Rabbi Yosi insufficient to fulfill the mitzvah?
This clarification will have an important halachic ramification with regard to reading the Shema on behalf of others.
If the principle of an audible reading is an additional halachah, distinct from the halachic status of the reading itself, it stands to reason that others will fulfill their obligation by hearing the reading even though the reader himself (according to Rabbi Yosi) will not. If, however, the halachah considers the reading itself as being deficient, it follows that others hearing the reading will be no better off than the reader himself.
Reading of the Megillah by the Deaf
The Gemara in Berachos (15b) provides us with an indication that the halachah of an audible reading defines the reading itself, rather than defining a separate obligation of hearing.
The Gemara mentions the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah, according to which the precept of reading in an audible voice (audible to the reader himself) is only lechatchilah. Post factum, even if Keriyas Shema was read in an inaudible voice, the reader fulfills 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.
According to the first rationale suggested above, that the halachah of hearing one’s own reading of the Shema is distinct from the actual 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. If the reading itself is unimpaired by the reader’s deafness, why should others refrain from hearing a deaf person’s reading? ((If the reading of a deaf person is entirely disqualified, it can be suggested that due to his inability to hear, a deaf person is entirely exempt from the obligation of the Megillah (and the Shema). For this reason, others cannot fulfill their obligation with his reading. However, the suggestion of the Gemara whereby this halachah is only on a lechatchilah level rules out this interpretation.))
This proves that a reading of the Shema that is inaudible to the reader is called 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 by the Kovetz Ha’aros (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 Keriyas Shema must read loud enough for him to hear the 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 must 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 laws (with some exceptions for Kodshim) are absolute; failing to fulfill a Torah law 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 must lechatchilah recite the words of the Shema loud enough to hear them. A deaf person who speaks but cannot hear, cannot read the Shema for others on a lechatchilah level, yet he can do so on a bedieved level.
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 will apply to somebody who is hard of hearing. Although he is of course obligated to read the Shema, if he cannot hear himself (he does not shout the words) his reading will fulfill the mitzvah only on a bedieved level.
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 preferably not fulfill the mitzvah with his reading.
These opinions fit well with the interpretation of the Sifsei Chachamim mentioned at the outset, according to which Moshe davened exceptionally loud to ensure that his voice was heard above the racket made by the frogs. Moshe had to do this, to ensure that his prayer will qualify on a lechatchilah level (see below concerning the laws of tefillah).
However, the Netziv (Ha’amek She’elah 143:6) writes that the obligation to ensure that a person hears himself above background noise applies only to Keriyas Shema. For prayer, one only need pray in a voice that is loud enough to be heard (by the person praying) under ideal (quiet) conditions. There is no need, according to the Netziv, to daven louder in a noisy environment.
The Laws of Audible Prayer
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 Channah, 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, and it is sufficient to say the prayer in an inaudible tone.
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 doing so is 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 make one’s voice audible to one’s ears. It is sufficient to pray at a volume that one would hear were it not for the background noise.
However, the simple interpretation of the Tosefta is that there is no minimum volume for one’s prayer, and even if the prayer can’t be heard at all it is valid, provided the words are actually enunciated.
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). According to this ruling, the above-mentioned interpretation of the Sifsei Chachamim (concerning Moshe’s prayer) will of course fall away.
Yet, the ruling of the Ben Ish Chai (and others) is based on a particular interpretation of the Zohar, and the Magen Avraham (cited by the Mishnah Berurah 101:5) writes that there is no proof of the point from the Zohar. 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 from 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.