In the era of COVID-19, minyanim are being formed in compliance with social-distance guidelines. These guidelines may preclude men from being called to the Torah and standing next to the reader. So, the question arises whether it is acceptable to recite the blessings on the Torah from afar.

This is essentially the same as a question posed to me some years ago by a rabbi of a Jewish Old-Age Home:

On Shabbat morning we have an average of fifteen male Jewish residents joining us for services. Many of these men are not quite mobile, and find it challenging to come forward to the bimah to have an aliyah. But we want to give aliyahs to as many as possible!

So we'd like to look at the following options: a) the residents are called out by name by the gabbai, but remain in their places and recite blessings from afar; b) the able-bodied men that are present are given more than one aliyah.


The practice of Torah reading in the early Mishnah era was that a series of seven men would actually read from the Torah. The first of the seven men would say the opening blessing before he would start reading from the Torah, and the last one would recite the closing blessing after he finished the reading of the Torah. A later development was that each honoree says these two blessings, before and after his portion is read. Another significant change is that previously, each man would read his portion aloud. Only when it became evident that many men lacked the confidence to read their portion aloud, it became standard practice to have a set reader, with the honorees only reciting aloud the opening and closing blessings.

The question now arises: What exactly is the nature of the blessings recited by those called up to the Torah? Presumably they have recited the Torah blessings as part of the morning blessings, so what's the need to repeat the same blessing again?

There are two contrasting approaches:

The Rosh1 writes that one called to the Torah should read along in an undertone together with the reader. The blessings he recites are for the privilege of his reading from the Torah in public. It follows that according to the Rosh, one cannot give an aliyah to a man incapable of reading along.

Responsa Mas'at Binyamin2 , however, challenges the rationale of the Rosh: since the congregation cannot hear the reading of the honoree, it seems unconvincing that special blessings are recited for what is really still a private reading.

Instead, the Mas'at Binyamin conceives a novel explanation for our recital of the blessings when called to the Torah:

Imagine a situation where none present – aside for the reader - are able to have an aliyah. The procedure is that the reader himself should have seven aliyahs, and he says the appropriate blessings before and after each reading.3

The blessings recited by those called up to the Torah - posits the Mas'at Binyamin - are actually on behalf of the reader! Accordingly, it is acceptable to call to the Torah one who is unable to read along for whatever reason.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyadi (the Alter Rebbe) sides4 with those who rule that one can receive an aliyah, even if they are unable to read the Torah. However the Responsa Tzemach Tzedek5 defends the Rosh's position, suggesting that the blessings were instituted for one listening to the Torah reading in a manner similar to one reading in public, i.e. that he's standing next to the reader.

Coming back to our question of whether the blessings may be recited by an honoree who is sitting or standing afar: according to the Mas'at Binyamin this is acceptable, whereas according to the Rosh it is imperative that the honoree is able to read from the Sefer Torah along with the reader.

One application of the above debate is whether an aliyah may be given to a blind man: the Rosh would not allow it; the Mas'at Binyamin would.

How are we to rule?

In Shulchan Aruch,6 Rabbi Yosef Karo rules that a blind man cannot be called to the Torah. Even if he is able to recite the parshah by heart, this is to no avail, because the Written Torah may not be read orally.

In the glosses of the Rama, we find a comment in parentheses.7 Quoting Maharil, he writes that nowadays we do give an aliyah to a blind person, much as we give an aliyah to one who is unable to read Hebrew.

The custom recorded by Maharil does not jibe well with the position of the Rosh, but does seem to concur with that of the Mas'at Binyomin.

In summation: Reciting blessings from afar has sound base in tradition, but it is not unanimously accepted.

I pray that by the time this article goes to print, we will see a dramatic turnaround for the good, making all of the above merely a halachic-academic exercise.

Wishing you all to re-accept the Torah on Shavuot in a joyous and meaningful manner.