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The Halachic Principles of Tircha De-Tzibura

In a statement that seems most surprising, the Gemara (Berachos 12b) writes that it would be fitting for our reading of Krias Shema to include the passages of Bilam’s blessing found in this week’s parashah. The reason why the section is not included is on account of tircha de-tziburah—”burdening the public.”

The Gemara continues to explain the reason why the passage should be included: because of the verse (Bamidbar 24:9), “Like a lion, Israel crouches and lies down; like a lioness—who dares to arouse her?” Morning and evening, as we come to accept upon ourselves the yoke of Heaven, it is fitting to remind ourselves of how Hashem guards His nation, allowing them the serenity of a lion and a lioness (Rashi). Since it is forbidden to isolate a verse, it would it would have been appropriate to include the entire section of Bilam’s blessings in Krias Shema.

Yet, the passage is not included, because this would impose a burden on the community—tircha de-tzibura. We take the opportunity to discuss the oft-mentioned concept of tircha de-tzibura. What are the parameters of the prohibition, and when might it be permitted to burden the public?

Burdening the Tzibbur

As noted, one source for the concept of tircha de-tzibura is the reading of the passage of Balak in Krias Shema: Chazal wished to enact the reading of the passage as part of krias shema, but the idea was rejected because of the burden it would place on the public.

A further expression of the principle is found with regard to a shaliach tzibbur (cantor) who makes a mistake in his private prayer (such as omitting ya’aleh veyavo). Although in such circumstances an ordinary individual must start his prayer over, the shaliach tzibbur does not (for certain mistakes) begin his prayer again, out of concern for burdening the tzibbur (Berachos 30b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 126:4).

However, the Gemara does not elucidate the essence of the prohibition to burden the tzibbur, or the parameters of the halachah. What principle underlies the concept?

Rolling the Sefer Torah

Two addition sources indicate that the principle underlying the halachah is the “honor of the congregation” (kevod ha-tzibbur). Causing an unnecessary delay strikes at the honor and dignity of the congregation, and is therefore forbidden.

The Mishnah (Yoma 68b) relates that on Yom Kippur the kohen gadol would read two sections from his sefer torah, one from Parashas Acharei Mos, and another from Parashas Emor. A third section, whose location in the Torah is somewhat distant from the former sections, would be read by heart. The Gemara explains that rolling the sefer torah to the relevant location was not an option, “because of the honor of the congregation.”

Although the Gemara mentions the honor of the congregation, the idea clearly refers to the familiar concept tircha de-tzibura—causing the congregation to wait while the sefer torah is rolled. As Rashi explains, the concern was “on account of the congregation’s honor, for they would wait in passive silence [while the Torah was rolled].”

In accordance with the Talmudic dictum, the Rambam (Hilchos Tefillah 12:23) rules that a Sefer Torah must not be rolled during kriyas ha-torah, in order to avoid tircha de-tzibura. Rather, the sefer torah must be prepared before davening, so as not to burden the congregation. If two sections are read from the Torah, a single sefer torah should not be rolled in between readings, but rather two sifrei torah must be prepared in advance. This halachah is similarly ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 144:3).

Public Speaking

An interesting extrapolation from this halachah relates to public speaking.

In principle, it is forbidden to quote Torah verses by heart: Quotations of scriptural verses must be read from a written text.

Based on the practice of the kohen gadol,  the Mishnah Berurah (49:3) suggests that it might be permitted for somebody engaged in public speaking to cite scriptural verses by heart, for looking up each verse would place a burden (of waiting) on the tzibbur.

Torah or Rabbinic Law

Given that the concept of tircha de-tzibura is based on the obligation to respect and honor the congregation—an assumption that emerges from the above Gemara, as well as from other sources in Chazal (see, for instance, Sotah 39b)—does this imply a Torah obligation or a rabbinic enactment?

The basic halachah of affording the congregation due honor appears to be a Torah obligation. Concerning the honor we must afford to other individuals, the Torah instructs us to “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:17). Giving others due honor, as one would desire for oneself, is part of “loving one’s fellow as oneself,” which is clearly a Torah mitzvah (as ruled by the Rambam, De’os 6:3). The honor of a community or congregation is certainly no less weighty than the honor of individuals, and if a Torah mitzvah obligates us to honor our fellow individuals, we can assume that the same mitzvah applies to honoring the public.

Rav Yisrael Algazi (Shalmei Tzibbur p. 2b) thus writes explicitly that the concept of kevod ha-tzibbur involves a Torah mitzvah, and therefore defers rabbinic prohibitions.

Yet, although loving one’s fellow is a Torah mitzvah, the particular manifestations of the concept enacted by the Sages, such as consoling the bereaved, visiting the sick, and so on, are rabbinic in nature (Rambam, Aveil 14:1). The same concept will apply to the specific instances of causing tircha de-tzibura: Although the underlying concept of affording honor to the congregation is a Torah mitzvah, the specific applications mentioned by Chazal (such as not rolling the sefer torah in public) remain rabbinic prohibitions.

A possible Torah source for the specific concept of burdening the public is found in the Talmudic ruling whereby an elderly person should not unduly cause the public to rise before him (where he can take an alternative route). Although there is an obligation for people to rise in respect of the elderly, the Gemara (Kiddushin 32b) extracts from a Torah verse that even the elder must “fear G-d” (as Rashi explains), and avoid placing a burden on the public. This source is suggested by Rabbi Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher, Bamidbar 51) as a Torah basis for the concept of tircha de-tzibura.

Foregoing the Congregation’s Honor

We saw above that when two passages must be read in shul, for instance when Shabbos coincides with Rosh Chodesh, two sifrei torah must be taken out, to avoid burdening the congregation by having to roll one sefer torah between readings. However, where the community only has one sefer torah to read from, the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 144:3) rules that the honor of the congregation is waived, and the people must wait while the sefer torah is rolled.

This halachah seems difficult. On Yom Kippur, the ruling of the Gemara is that rather than rolling the Torah to the appropriate passage (and causing the attendant people to wait) the kohen gadol reads the passage by heart. Surely this should also be done where only one sefer torah is available?

Addressing this question, the Magen Avraham (144:7) explains that in the Temple the entire nation was present, and the people did not forego their honor. In a regular shul, however, where only a small number of people are present, we assume that the congregants forego their honor in order to fulfill the obligation of reading from the Torah. Because of this, it is permitted to roll the Torah between readings.

This explanation, which assumes that the congregation is able to forego its honor, is by no means simple. With regard to the appointment of a minor as shaliach tzibbur, the Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 53, citing from Rosh) writes that the congregation cannot forego its honor. According to this opinion, it follows that the honor of the congregation cannot be compared to the honor of an individual, and the permission of congregants does not help in permitting tircha de-tzibura.

A different approach to the question is suggested by Shut Avnei Nezer (Choshen Mishpat 152), who distinguishes between the kohen gadol’s reading of the Torah on Yom Kippur, and the regular reading of the Torah in shul. Whereas in reading on Yom Kippur the kohen gadol fulfills his own private obligation to read the Torah, the obligation of reading the Torah in shul falls on the entire congregation. Although the kohen gadol does not have the right to roll the Torah in fulfillment of his personal obligation (at the expense of the public’s honor), the collective obligation of reading the Torah justifies waiting while the sefer torah is rolled.

The Wrong Sefer Torah

A noteworthy halachic question is raised when the wrong sefer torah is taken out: Should the Torah be rolled to the correct place (at the expense of tircha de-tzibura), or can the sefer torah be changed for the correct one (although in general, it is forbidden to return a sefer torah after it has been taken out).

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. 2, no. 37) cites a dispute among poskim concerning this matter, and concludes that the gabbai can choose to do as he wishes.

Other Halachos of Tircha De-Tzibura

Another halachah of tircha de-tzibura related to the reading of the Torah relates to the number of people called up on Shabbos. The Be’er Heitev (Orach Chaim 282) cites an enactment of the Maharash of Prague whereby no more than ten men may be called up, the reason being tircha de-tzibura. The Mishnah Berurah (282:5) likewise writes that it is proper to limit the number of people called up, yet adds that where there is a concern for ill-feelings, one need not be too particular about the matter.

In the same spirit, Shut She’elas Ya’avatz (Vol. 1, no. 64) writes that the customary mi she-beirach between aliyos should not be recited, explaining that aside from the halachic problems of making monetary pledges on Shabbos, the mi she-beirach also causes tircha de-tzibura. Yet, although he writes that “praiseworthy is he who annuls this custom,” the Ya’avatz concedes that the custom of reciting mi she-beirach is an ancient tradition, and “if they [the people of Israel] are not prophets, they are children of prophets.”

It is especially noteworthy that we find the concept of tircha de-tzibura applied even to very short periods of time. The Rema (Orach Chaim 139:4) writes that somebody called up to the Torah should not look inside the Torah while reciting the blessing, but rather look sideways. The Mishnah Berurah (139:17) adds that the person called up should not roll the sefer torah closed, because this would be a burden on the congregation. The delay of rolling the Torah, and finding the place after re-opening it, is surely no more than a number of seconds.

A similar principle is stated by the Taz (Orach Chaim 8), who writes that although there is a general obligation for somebody wearing a tallis to check the strings before putting it on, somebody called up to the Torah should not check the strings, because of tircha de-tzibura.

Waiting for the Rabbi to Finish

The Rema (Orach Chaim 124:3) rules that the shaliach tzibbur should not wait (after the silent amidah prayer) for those who pray an especially long prayer—even for the most important members of the community. Likewise, if a minyan has already gathered in shul, the congregation should not wait for important congregants who have not yet arrived, and should begin davening at the appointed time.

However, the Mishnah Berurah (124:13) writes that the custom is nonetheless to wait (after the silent amidah) for the rabbi or community leader to finish davening. The reason for this is “because most people pray quickly, and somebody who prays word by word will be unable to recite kedushah with the congregation. Because these people (who daven fast) are acting improperly, the congregation must wait.” As the Mishnah Berurah continues to note, where the length of the rabbi’s prayer extends beyond a regular “word by word” prayer, the shaliach tzibbur should not wait for him to finish.

Shul Michtav Le-Chizkiahu (Orach Chaim no. 9) discusses the question of a rabbi who davens a long amidah prayer, and doesn’t wish the congregation to wait for him: Is it permitted for the rabbi to signal to the shaliach tzibbur to begin the repetition of the amidah, or even to step backwards and pretend he has finished his own prayer? After a lengthy discussion of whether stepping back or signaling is considered an interruption of the prayer, he concludes that it is permitted for the rabbi to do so (in particular where the congregation are particular about waiting).

This principle is also ruled by the Mishnah Berurah (104:1), who explains that although it is generally prohibited to signal to others during the amidah prayer, “when a dignified person is in the middle of his prayer, and the shaliach tzibbur is waiting for him… and this disturbs his prayer, it is permitted to hint to the shaliach tzibbur to [begin to] pray as usual.”

An added application of tircha de-tzibura can be made with regard to a small minyan of ten or eleven people. In such a setting, it would be wrong for an individual to daven a long amidah prayer, for this will inevitably cause the rest of the minyan to wait for him to finish.

Daily Application

We have seen a number of examples of how the idea of tircha de-tzibura is applied to various situations, and of how halachic authorities are most particular about this principle.

Yet, beyond the mainly “religious settings” discussed by the poskim, it is important that we internalize the idea underlying the halachos, and apply it in regular, everyday situations. Our failure to do this can often be seen at joyous gatherings, such as weddings and brisos, where large numbers of guests are often made to wait lengthy periods of time (well beyond the customary lateness period) for no good reason. This is certainly an infringement of tircha de-tzibura.

The same idea can be applied to public transportation. Causing a full bus to wait (for instance, by parking in prohibited areas and causing delay[*]) is a clear violation of tircha de-tzibura. Certainly, the practice of blocking off intersections by putting alight garbage facilities (as sometimes found in Geulah) must be severely deplored. In a broader context, whenever we come into contact with the public, on the roads, in public gatherings, or in any forum, we must be wary of causing an unnecessary burden.

The prohibition of tircha de-tzibura falls under the category of moral behavior, which all of us should strive to follow. Yet, as we have seen, it goes far beyond this, constituting a prohibition that poskim are much concerned about. Without doubt, it is something that we should be acutely aware of, and seek as far as possible to minimize.


[*] Concerning which has the right of way between a bus and a private car, the Sema (Perishah, Choshen Mishpat 272) writes that the bus, which carries many people, has the right of way, but the Taz (272:13) disputes this.

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