The physically handicapped in the mishnah

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WSWB M’SH B: A certain man in Asya was let down by a rope into the sea, and they drew back up only his leg. Sages said, [if the recovered part included] from the knee and above [his wife] may remarry. [If] the recovered part included only from the knee and below she may not remarry”. Why the Mishnah chose to tell of a blind man’s account is unclear. It would seem irrelevant to the law of the Mishnah whether he was blind or deaf or healthy18.

The topic of this chapter in tractate Makot is the question of who goes into exile for killing someone unintentionally. M. Makkot 2:3 reads;“The father goes into exile because of the son, and the son goes into exile because of the father. All go into exile because of an Israelite, and an Israelite goes into exile on their account, except on account of a resident alien. A resident alien goes into exile only on account of another resident alien. “A blind person does not go into exile,” the words of R. Judah. R. Meir says, “he goes into exile.” One who bears enmity (for his victim) does not go into exile. R. Yose B. R. Judah says, “one who bears enmity (for his victim) is put to death, “for he is in the status of one who is an attested danger.” R. Simeon says, “There is one who bears enmity (for the victim) who goes into exile, and there is one who bears enmity who does not go into exile. “This is the governing principle: In any case in which one has the power to say, ‘He killed knowingly,’ he does not go into exile. “And if he has the power to say, ‘He did not kill knowingly,’ lo, this one goes into exile.” Rabbi Judah argues that the blind person goes into exile because the passage in Numbers 35:23 that states “or used a stone, by which a man may die, and without seeing him cast it upon him so that he died…”. From this passage he concluded that to be sent to exile the slayer must be capable of seeing his victim. Rabbi Meir adheres strictly to the governing principle at the conclusion of our Mishnah: if the murder was committed unintentionally, regardless of his physical status, the killer goes to exile.

This Mishnah is a continuation of the chapter discussing the laws that determine if a child is considered a rebellious son. The Rabbis in M. Sanhedrin 8:4 are averse to the idea that the parents will easily be able to testify to their son’s death. The Mishnah states: “[If] his father wanted [to put him to judgment as a rebellious and incorrigible son] but his mother did not want to do so, [if] his father did not want and his mother did want [to put him to judgment], he is not declared a rebellious and incorrigible son – until both of them want [to put him to judgment]. R. Judah says, “ If his mother was unworthy of his father, he is not declared to be a rebellious and incorrigible son.” [If ] one of them was (1) maimed in the hand, (2) lame, (3) dumb, (4) blind, or (5) deaf, he is not declared a rebellious and incorrigible son, since it is said, Then his father and his mother will lay hold of him (Dt. 21:20) – so they are not (1) maimed in their hands; and bring him out – (2) so they are not lame; and they shall say – (3) so they are not dumb; “This is our son” – (4)so they are not blind “He will not obey our voice” – (5) so they are not deaf. They warn him before three [judges] and flog him. [If] he misbehaved again, he is judged before twenty-three [judges]. He is stoned only if there will be present the first three [judges], since it is said, “This, our son – this one who was flogged before you.”[If] he fled before his trial was over, and afterward [while he was a fugitive,] the lower ‘beard’ became full, he is exempt. If after his trial was done he fled, and afterward the lower beard became full, he is liable.” Abrams (1988, 66) points out that the editors of Mishnah made the requirements for the parents' testimony almost as stringent as the laws pertaining to the Priest’s qualifications to officiate in the Temple. She also suggests that there is a possible parallel between the priests' right to bring sacrifices and the act of offering testimony in a case of life and death. Both must be in the most perfectly functioning state possible so that the rite is performed correctly.

Discussing who is permitted to write and transfer a writ of divorce the M. Gittin 2:5 writes: “All are valid for the writing of a writ of divorce, even a deaf-mute, an idiot, or a minor. A woman may write her own writ of divorce, and a man may write his quittance [a receipt for the payment of the marriage contract], for the confirmation of the writ of divorce is solely though its signatures [of the witnesses].

All are valid for delivering a writ of divorce, except for a deaf-mute, an idiot, and a minor, a blind man, and a gentile.” The blind man is included in this list because he lacks the basic qualification to transfer the writ. He must be able to say that the writ that he is delivering was written and signed in his presence, and if he cannot see he cannot testify to this obligation.

The above Mishnayot cited reflect the majority of the discussions in the Mishnah referring to visible physical deformities. It is clear that they shed little light upon how the society in which the Mishnah editors lived perceived these handicapped persons, on whether or not they stigmatized them or even on how the ideal world of the Mishnah accepted them. Alternatively, it can be concluded that the Mishnah perceives these people as rabbinic Jews whose impairment generates specific laws.

While the following Mishnayot are primarily concerned with legal issues, there is an implicit recognition of concern for or protection of the disabled. While the Mishnah in the following case is involved with technical halakhic aspects of the laws of Shabbat, we do find a concern for handicapped as a person. Following a discussion of different classes of persons such as a woman, a child, and men wearing different types of ornaments, the M. Shabbat 6:8: discusses the disabled. “A cripple [lacking one leg] goes forth with his wooden stump, according to [the view] of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Yose prohibits. And if has a receptacle for pads, it is susceptible to the uncleanness. His kneepads are susceptible to uncleanness imparted by pressure [to something upon which a Zab may lie or sit on] they go forth with them on the Sabbath, and they go into a courtyard [Temple courtyard]with them.

His chair and its pads are susceptible to uncleanness imparted by pressure, they do not go out with them on the Sabbath, and they do not go in with them into a courtyard Temple courtyard].

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