• A Chuppa in Sign Language

    by Rav Zev Rosenfeld
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    For thousands of years, communication with people born without the ability to hear and speak was nearly impossible, and therefore Halacha regarded them as exempt from mitzvot.   In addition, deaf people had a different status when getting married.  In the past few hundred years, communication with the deaf has progressed with the help of sign language, and more recently, with hearing aids and Cochlear Implants.  With this progression, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel recently announced that it regards the deaf person with a high level of communication as a “pikeiach”, and is to be regarded like all hearing Jews regarding mitzvot and their wedding ceremony.

    Shortly after this announcement, I had the unique honor of applying these new halachic guidelines, as I officiated at the weddings of two couples, where both the bride and groom communicate through sign language.

    During our preliminary meetings, where we communicated through a sign language translator, I learned that they are outstanding and bright individuals.  One bride is studying for her Master’s degree in law. Another won many awards while volunteering for the IDF, including the award granted by the President on Yom Ha’atzmaut.  One groom is a personal coach and trainer, helping others reach their goals.  The other served in the Air Force of the IDF.  One couple works in the Holon Children’s Museum, which has an exhibit meant to raise sensitivity toward the hearing impaired.

    There are some unique halachic questions which present themselves in a wedding ceremony for the deaf.   One issue is how to recite berachot on behalf of people that cannot hear.  We generally apply the halachic principle of “Shome’a K’oneh” every time one person recites a beracha for others.  All those who listen with intent and answer “amen”, fulfill their obligation.  However, when the chatan and kallah are deaf, and they do not hear the bracha, how should the berachot be recited?  (Seeing the sign language does not help for the principle of Shome’a K’oneh, as they are not “shome’a”.)  Another issue is how to have the witnesses understand the chatan when he “recited” the traditional “Harei at mekudeshet li…” before giving the bride the ring.  Since the witnesses must understand what the chatan is saying, they are to learn how to say “Harei at …” in sign language.  Before officiating at the weddings, I learned and prepared myself for these and other special halachic issues.

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    The chupah ceremony was translated into sign language by two translators, one for the family members under the chupah, and one for the hundreds of hearing impaired guests in the audience.

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    I feel a sense of “shlichut” in every wedding I perform for Tzohar, as I am bridging the gap between secular Jews and our Jewish tradition.  I feel especially privileged to be a part of the halachic process of redefining the status of these special members of the disabled community.  I am inspired by their determination and motivation to be fully active members of our society, despite their limitations.