• 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.

  • Connecting to Judaism under the Chuppa!

    by Rabbi David Brofsky
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    In recent years, I felt a greater desire, and urgency, to contribute to the broader Israeli public. I registered for a course, offered by Tzohar, which trains rabbis to perform weddings for secular (“chiloni”) Israeli couples. These couples would like a Jewish, halakhic, and meaningful wedding ceremony, but are often afraid of, if not turned off to, the Rabbinic establishment. Tzohar trains rabbis not only in the intricacies of the chuppa ve-kiddushin, but also in the special needs, both halakhic and pastoral, of secular couples. I was impressed by the dedication, the professionalism, as well as the attention to halakhic detail, of the Tzohar rabbinic and support staff. This dedication, incidentally, continues after the wedding, and includes feedback, seminars, professional support and halackhic guidance.

    I recently performed a wedding of two non-religious Israelis, who both emigrated from the former Soviet Union over 25 years ago. When I met this couple, a lawyer and a doctor, I explained to them how meaningful it was to participate in their wedding, as the year in which they emigrated, I spent my vacation time from Yeshiva volunteering in Absorption Centers (Merkazei Kelita) which welcomed and helped the recent, and historic, Russian aliyah.

    I met with them, before the meeting, to discuss the details of the wedding, as well as to explain the meaning behind the various segments of the chuppa. They were polite and respectful, but were clearly not looking for too much as far as the ceremony. “Quick and simple”- they requested. As our meeting came to a close, the groom turned to me and explained that it it weren’t for Tzohar, they may not have even agreed to be married, or they might have traveled to Cyprus in order to perform a civil ceremony, as do many secular couples. He was appreciative of Tzohar, of the incredible efficiency and dedication of their rabbinic and office staff, and of their attempt to bridge of gaps between the secular and religious populations.

    As the wedding approached, I thought of simple, yet significant ways to make the ceremony meaningful for the couple, as well as for the guests. I spoke, briefly, about the foundations of a healthy relationship, which we learn from the Jewish people’s relationship with God as forged at Yetziat Mitzraim. Just as the Jewish people began their relationship with God without chametz, without ego and self-centerdness, but rather with sincerity and simplicity, so too their relationship should be built upon the bond between their true and authentic selves. The guests were quiet and attentive, and the couple was clearly moved.

    As I sat down with the groom and his parents, before the ceremony, to finalize the Ketuba, I noticed a tallit in the corner of the room. I had asked him, during our meeting, whether he was interested in wearing a tallit, and saying the Shechiyyanu blessing, during the ceremony, as is common at many Israeli weddings. He declined, without even giving it a thought. Upon noticing the tallit, I inquired whether he intended to wear the tallit at the wedding. His father then told me that his son decided, on his own, that he wanted to don the tallit during the ceremony. As I helped him try on the tallit, which he had clearly never worn, my eyes became teary, as I realized that the ceremony was no longer a technical, legal duty – he had connected, on some level, to the Jewish depth and meaning of the wedding.

    Each year Tzohar performs weddings for thousands of Israeli couples, offering them a meaningful, authentic, and halachic ceremony which they most likely would not have had. I am honored to have joined the ranks of Tzohar’s volunteer rabbis, who bring light, peace, and Torah, to the Israeli population, wedding after wedding.

    Rabbi David Brofsky is a senior faculty member at Midreshet Lindenbaum, the author of “Hilchot Tefilla: A Comprehensive Guide to the Laws of Daily Prayer” and “Hilchot Moadim”, and a member of Irgun Rabbanei Tzohar.