Abaye explains that it doesn’t matter whether the person is an adult who is publicly reciting the Shema with rags on or a child who is reading Torah dressed in rags: In either case it is not respectful for the congregation so it should not be done.
According to R. Judah, whose statement was found in the Mishnah, since a blind man does not benefit from light, he cannot recite the Shema publicly because it includes the blessing, “Who creates the light.”
The rabbis argue that people can understand something without directly experiencing it with their senses. The study of the “Chariot” is the mystical study of God through the lens of the first chapter of Ezekiel. People have seen the Chariot in their minds, even if they’ve never actually seen it with their eyes.
Judah responds that the two matters are not comparable. The mystical speculation about God is about understanding—one can have such understanding without actually seeing the Chariot (or God). But the blessing over the Shema is thanking God for benefiting from light. Since this person has not benefited, he should not recite the blessing.
The rabbis who say that a blind man can recite the blessing “Who creates the lights” and with it the whole Shema, point out that a blind person does indeed benefit from the light. R. Yose noticed this when he was out walking on a pitch black night and saw a blind person carrying a torch. Obviously, the torch would not help him see. Nevertheless, he does derive benefit from it, for through its light others can protect him. We all can benefit not just directly from the wonders of the world, but indirectly through the good use that others make of them.
Today’s mishnah teaches that priests who have something distracting on their hands, either a deformation or a discoloring should not lift up their hands because this makes the people look at them and not think about the blessing that they are receiving. The mishnah considers it crucial that the congregation focus not on the external attributes of the priest but the contents of the blessing that they are receiving.
We should note that today people refrain from looking at the priests’ hands when they are reciting the blessing and their hands are also covered with a tallit.
A priest whose hands are deformed should not lift up his hands [to say the priestly blessing].
Rabbi Judah says: also one whose hands are colored with woad or madder should not lift up his hands, because [this makes] the congregation look at him.
According to the Talmud, if the deformity is on hands, feet or face, the Kohen should not go up to do the priestly blessing. This is because people might see the face, hands and even the feet when the Kohen takes off his shoes.
Both spotted and curved hands are considered a distraction and therefore a priest with such hands should not lift up his hands and perform the priestly blessing.
This disqualification is not about deformed hands but about mispronunciations. The people of Haifa, Bet Shean and Tivonim switch their alefs and ayins. Therefore, they should neither perform the priestly blessing, nor should they serve as shaliah tzibbur (pass before the ark). Today Ashkenazim and many Sephardim do not distinguish between the pronunciation (or lack thereof) of these two letters. But in the past neither was silent as it is today. Yemenites and some other Sephardim still pronounce the ayin.
Hiyya and R. Shimon b. Rabbi have an acrid exchange. R. Hiyya tells R. Shimon b. Rabbi that if he had been a Levite and had been around when the Temple still stood, he would not have been able to sing from the platform because he has a “thick” voice, assumedly gravelly and not pleasant.
Shimon b. Rabbi is stung and goes back to tell his father, the great R. Judah Hanasi. R. Judah Hanasi provides his son with an insult to hurl back at R. Hiyya. R. Hiyya evidently confuses his hets with his hehs. Therefore, when saying the verse “I will wait” he will end up saying “vehikiti” which means to strike [God], an unintended blasphemy.
A person’s whose eyes run will also be a distraction to the congregation. But if people are used to looking at him, then he can lift up his hands in the priestly blessing. They will no longer be distracted. This is an important caveat to all that we have learned. Once people get used to each other, their physical differences are no longer distracting. We might even suggest to people—get used to it! I think that this certainly remains true to this day. We naturally look twice at someone who looks very different from most people. But once we get used to his looks, we don’t think about it twice.
Similar to above, people would be distracted by a blind person’s blindness, even if he is blind in only one eye. But if people are used to looking at him, then he may lift up his hands, if he is a priest.
Hands that are discolored from work are a distraction and one with such hands should not perform the priestly blessing. But if most of the men have this occupation and therefore have colored hands, then it is permitted because it will not be as distracting.
Today’s section opens with a mishnah that describes behavior during tefillot that may be considered heretical, or at least to show that the person acting in such a way identifies with a heretical group.
Sections one or two: In the first two sections we learn of people who refuse to pass before the ark (to lead the Amidah) either while wearing colored robes or while wearing shoes. The rabbis suspected that one who demanded to wear white clothes or go barefoot may have had heretical beliefs. Therefore, they said that such a person cannot pass before the ark at all, even in white clothes or barefoot. In other words, wearing white clothes and going barefoot seem to have been valid practices but one who insists upon them is suspected of heresy.
We should note that the groups being described here seem to be taking Temple practice and applying it to the synagogue. In the Temple the priests’ robes were white and they went barefoot. The mishnah may be trying to emphasize that the synagogue is not the Temple and one who insists on dressing in the synagogue as if it were the Temple is potentially a heretic. There also may be a covert battle for leadership in this mishnah between priests and rabbis. Rabbis may be telling priests that when in the synagogue leading the Amidah (as opposed to reciting the priestly blessing) they are functioning as regular Jews and not as priests.
Section three: The boxes of tefillin are supposed to be square. Our mishnah deals with a period of oppression when the Romans prohibited Jews from wearing tefillin. In response someone makes his tefillin round so that the Romans will not notice that he is wearing tefillin. According to the mishnah this attempt is doubly mistaken. The Romans will realize that he is wearing tefillin and therefore it is still dangerous. Secondly, by making his tefillin round he is not fulfilling the mitzvah of tefillin. There is also the idea that tefillin can protect a person from danger. But since these tefillin are not valid they offer no protection from the Roman oppressors.
Section four: The Torah says that you should place tefillin “as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes.” Non-rabbinic groups of Jews (sectarians) interpreted these verses literally; tefillin are put on one’s hands and on the forehead between one’s eyes. The rabbis did not interpret the verses literally—tefillin go on top of one’s head, where the hairline ends, and on one’s arms, next to one’s heart. A person who wears his tefillin between the eyes or on the hand is acting as a heretic. I should note that I have seen many, many instances of people wearing their tefillin to low on their heads. One who wears tefillin between his eyes has not fulfilled his obligation.
Section five: Covering tefillin in gold or wearing them on one’s sleeves is not proper fulfillment of the mitzvah. The mishnah deems this as the practice of “outsiders”—those who have separated from the rabbinic fold.
As I explained in my commentary above, one who acts in such a way is suspected of heresy. However, the Talmud does not identify at all what the particular form of heresy is. In any case, one suspected of heresy cannot serve as a shaliah tzibbur.
The Mishnah says that one who makes his tefillin round has not fulfilled his mitzvah, and moreover, that this is a dangerous practice. The Talmud notes that we have already learned this in another baraita, which states that the halakhah that tefillin must be square goes all the way back to Moses. Rava adds that when the bottom is stitched, it should remain square, as should the diagonal across the box.
Papa resolves that our Mishnah referred to really round tefillin, like the shape of a nut. The other mishnah referred to tefillin that were not quite as round. In either case, the tefillin are disqualified.