Shabbat Parashat Va'eira| 5767
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Question: I work in a special ed. setting, where the following halachic issues arise. May one answer Amen to the beracha of a mentally disabled (= medi)child, who is not expected to ever be obligated in mitzvot? When teaching them berachot, can one pronounce Hashem’s name? Is there a point to teach them mitzvot if they will never be obligated in them?
Answer: We cannot discuss which mental handicaps cause people to have which halachic standing; such determinations are too complicated and individual for this forum. Rather, we will use the term “medi”for whoever it is that meets your halachic assumptions. We will touch on the laws regarding a cheresh and a shoteh (loosely translated as deaf-mute and lunatic, respectively) and a child, who are often bunched together as those who are exempt from mitzvot (Rosh Hashana 29a). We will not deal with your questions in an exhaustive manner, but we hope to add perspective and give some guidelines.
It is inaccurate to say that the Torah’s laws do not apply to those who are exempt from mitzvot. For example, it is forbidden to feed non-kosher food to a child (Yevamot 114a), a cheresh or a shoteh (Chatam Sofer (I, 83)). Rather, they are personally exempt from responsibility for mitzvot because they lack the level of understanding that such commitment requires (see Pri Megadim’s Peticha Kollelet 2:1). Since people who are exempt from a mitzva receive reward for fulfilling it (Bava Kamma 87a), one might posit that there is intrinsic value in the medi performing mitzvot. However, the medi is worse off than one with a local exemption because his actions lack the level of cognitive intent that others have (see Chulin 12b).
On the other hand, although a minor also lacks full intent (ibid.), he is instructed to perform mitzvot he is capable of (Sukka 42a); furthermore, he does so with berachot to which we answer Amen (Shulchan Aruch, OC 215:3). (It is forbidden to answer Amen to an unauthorized beracha-ibid.:5). A possible explanation is that since there is a mandate to train him to perform mitzvot (chinuch), his mitzvot and berachot have halachic standing. In contrast, the mitzvot and berachot of one whose prognosis is that he will never be obligated in mitzvot (and he thus apparently lack the laws of chinuch- see Encyclopedia Talmudit, XVI, 169) would lack such standing. However, a different possibility is that the mitzvot and berachot of anyone who is capable of carrying them out with a basic understanding of He who commands and what He commands is significant.
A test case is a child under “the age of chinuch” (see Rivash 451) who is able to make a beracha with reasonable understanding. The Mishna Berura (215:16) and Yabia Omer (II, OC 13) say that one should not answer Amen. However, Rav Bakshi (Binyan Av I, 8) notes that most people answer Amen to pre-schoolers’ berachot and substantiates the approach that the child’s basic understanding of what he is doing makes this appropriate. He mentions that the same is likely true for a cheresh and shoteh.Rav Sh. Z. Orbach is reported to have answered Ame, without the “n,” in an inconspicuous manner (Halichot Shlomo 22:20).
Rav Orbach has two important ideas that enable one to teach and respond to berachot of medi. First, he says that at least many of them should not be compared to a shoteh, whose problem are psychological, or to a cheresh, who has a specific condition the Torah addresses. Rather, medi is analogous to a child. One of bar mitzva age who is on the level of pe’utot (an average six year old or so) is obligated in mitzvot, although he is not culpable like others (Minchat Shlomo 34). (Thus, one should train them even as children- Nishmat Avraham V, pg. 80 in Rav Feinstein’s name). He is also quoted as saying that one can use Hashem’s Name in teaching severely medi (but not answer Amen)because it is of value to enable them to fit into their surroundings as much as possible (Halichot Shlomo 22:(70)).
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