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Shabbat Parashat R'ei | 5768

One in a Wheelchair Serving as Chazan

Ask the Rabbi

Question: Is a person in a wheelchair allowed to be a chazan?
Answer: There are two main issues to discuss in this regard.
The Magen Avraham (53:8), in discussing the qualification of a person to be a chazan, cites the Maharshal who says that one who is a ba’al mum (one who has a physical blemish) is qualified to serve as a chazan. However, the Magen Avraham cites the Zohar as saying that a ba’al mum should not serve as a chazan, and the Magen Avraham relates to this the concept that one would not make a presentation before a king in a manner that looks blemished. He compares the situation to the prohibition of a kohen who is a ba’al mum doing service in the Beit Hamikdash. We note that in that context, even if the blemish is a passing one, he may not serve (Rambam, Bi’at Hamikdash 6:1). As far as accepted halacha, the Mishna Berura (53:13) prefers the opinion that a ba’al mum may serve as a chazan, saying only that it might be preferable if someone else can do so (see also Ishei Yisrael 14:6).
An important distinction likely applies. The Binyan Tzion (5) points out that the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 53:14) allows a blind person to be a chazan, even though he is certainly a ba’al mum. He says that the Magen Avraham was likely talking about appointing a permanent chazan, whereas the Shulchan Aruch was discussing having a blind man daven occasionally. (This distinction runs through a large part of the laws of a chazan.)
Another issue is that one is required to stand during significant sections of tefilla, most prominently, Shemoneh Esrei (Shulchan Aruch, OC 94:4). The halacha is that one who is incapable at the moment to stand can daven seated (ibid.). One can look at it in two manners. One is that this is not an ideal tefilla but that davening seated is better than not davening at all. The other possibility is that since the issue is to act in a manner that shows and/or contributes to standing in awe before Hashem (see Taz, OC 94:4), one who is doing his best is fine in this regard (Rav Batzri, Techumin, vol. IV). According to the second approach, the fact that the one who is davening on behalf of the congregation is doing his best means that there is no problem for the community even though they could have found a chazan who could have stood (ibid.).
The Rambam (Megilla 2:7) says that one can read Megillat Esther seated but should not do so when reading for the public because of their honor (k’vod hatzibbur). Rav Batzri (ibid.) says that in our case also, the congregation has the right to say that it is beneath their dignity to have a chazan who is not able to stand, as is normal and preferred. However, he says that they would be sinning if they took such a stand toward someone whose feeling they should have compassion, as Hashem does.
Let us now translate the halachic indications into general instructions. If one has been injured and will be in a wheelchair for a matter of weeks or months, he and the gabbaim would probably do well to wait until he recuperates to return him into the rotation of chazanim. Although physical impediments, such as getting a sefer Torah to and from the bimah, can be easily overcome, the preferences we have seen above and the regrettable possibility that people may stare or comment make it better to wait for a more opportune time. On the other hand, if a yahrtzeit or aveilut comes up they should not be excluded when halacha allows them to be chazan. If they are permanently (or for a long time) in need of a wheelchair, people should get used to including them in all activities that make them feel included in a normal life, as their personalities demand and halacha allows. They should be allowed to be chazanim under these circumstances, certainly, as is almost always the case, when we are talking about one who is not a full-time chazan (or was previously appointed as chazan- see Ishei Yisrael, ibid.).
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