The physically handicapped in the mishnah


blind man recites the Shema and translates. R. Judah says , "



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blind man recites the Shema and translates. R. Judah says , "whoever in his entire life has never seen light does not recite the Shema.” Rabbi Judah’s concern is not the person but his handicap. How can you relate to something you have never seen?

The M. Terumot 1:6 discusses who may not offer heave offerings, but states that if such are made they are accepted after the fact. “Five [sorts of people] may not separate heave offering, but if they separate heave offering, that which they have separated is [valid] heave offering. Mute, a drunkard, a naked person, a blind person, and a person who has had a nocturnal emission may not separate heave offering. But if [any of these individuals] separated heave offering, that which they separated is [valid] have offering”. The explanation for the mute is the same as for the drunkard and the naked person. Since they cannot or are not permitted to recite the required blessing, they should refrain from offering the offering, but if they have done so is acceptable. The blind person is grouped together with the drunkard who cannot choose from the choice of his crop, a requirement for the heave offering.

The tractate Hagigah commences with the discussion of who is obligated and who is exempt from the mitzvah of going up to the Jerusalem temple on the three festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Succot. M. Hagigah 1:1 “All are liable for an appearance offering [before the Lord] (Ex. 23:14, Dt. 16:16) except for deaf-mute, and idiot, a minor, one without pronounced sexual characteristics, one who exhibits the sexual trait of both sexes, woman, slaves who have not been freed, the lame, the blind, the sick, the old, and one who cannot go up on foot.” The exemption for the lame is based upon a homiletic interpretation of the biblical word regalim (times) (Exodus 23:14) modifying it to read raglayim (feet). From this the Rabbis conclude that the pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount was to be made on foot, which could not be done by a lame person. The blind man’s exemption is derived from the passage in Deuteronomy 31:11 “When all Israel comes to appear [to be seen] (leraot)”. Just as they are coming to be seen, so too they must have the capability to see the Temple and its grandeur.

Based upon Turner (1967), Judith Abrams (1988, pp126-130) suggests that in Rabbinic literature the disabled could be categorized as an (using Turner’s terminology) “interstructural situation”. This means that due to their handicap they at times are precluded from full participation in specific rituals, at other times they are considered only liminal (not in and not out or, in Turner's words, "betwixt and between") and, lastly, there are instances when they are stigmatized and totally excluded from participation in the community. If the total body of early Rabbinic literature is examined, Abrams' assertion is correct. The disabled are in a interstructural situation. But our issue is Mishnah ∫ one highly structured and systematic document, with a message its redactors either implicitly or explicitly wish to convey. Thus, as Eilberg –Schwartz (1986, 193) points out, they have a need to place their laws into neat categories or to classify things. If we were discussing the deaf-mute, fool and minor who because of the inability to comprehend the mitzvoth are precluded from ritual and law, this would be a category. But the cases of visibly physically disabled persons who are obligated by all the laws and are no different from other members of the rabbinic community do not represent an issue of comprehension or understanding of the laws, rituals, and intent. Their physical problems, whether blindness, lameness or any other disability, only compromised their participation a very specific ritual which their physical disability prevented them from performing. This is virtually tantamount to an individual suffering from diarrhea who could not pray because of constantly being physically unclean. The disabled are full and fully included members of the rabbinic society, not liminal individuals, and not stigmatized by the community. It is interesting to point out how radically the utopian society of the Rabbis differs from societies of antiquity, such as Plato’s ideal world which ordains death24. for the unhealthy. In fact, as we have discussed in one classification of the handicapped in the Mishnah, even though stigmatization may be considered as in the case of marriage – here, too, the rabbis show their concern and protection for these individuals.

Abrams 1988, p. 153) correctly summarizes the Mishnah editors' view of the of the handicapped when she writes, “In this way, the Mishnah innovatively considered disabilities and redefined perfection. Perfection no longer means ‘zero defects’, as it did in the priestly literature (although traces of that attitude can still be found). Instead, perfection is identified with intellectual functioning and communicative abilities. In rabbinic literature, these concepts are often related to the term da’at (comprehension). There is almost no action that one can validly perform in the Mishnah’s system without da’at”.

To the Rabbis of the Mishnah, a physical disability would be considered more as a Priest’s blemish than as an abnormality. Thus the redactors of the Mishnah continue to conform to their literary structure and to their agenda of creating an ideal world so that its members could identify with the Jerusalem Temple and its Priests.





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