You may have noticed that in some synagogues, almost all the congregants remain seated during Krias HaTorah; in others, everyone stands. In others still, half the congregation are sitting while the other half are standing.
These divergent practices are in effect the result of the ruling in the Shulchan Aruch that one is not halachically required to stand during Krias HaTorah.1 The Rema adds, however, that that there are those who are scrupulous to stand - as did the Maharam.2 The Mishna Berura3 explains that the Maharam did so only as an added measure of respect, not because his view was that this was a halachic obligation.4 Still, many poskim nonetheless laud the minhag to stand as being commendable.5 On the other hand, the minhag of the Arizal was to sit throughout the entire Krias HaTorah. Thus, following the Arizal, others are scrupulous in sitting attentively.6
The basis for the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch is an episode in Tanach, which relates that on the first Rosh Hashana after the wall of Yerushalayim was rebuilt by the Jews returning from their Babylonian exile, all the people gathered to hear the prophet Ezra read from the Torah. 7
The verse states that as Ezra opened the scroll before the eyes of the people, reading from a platform, all the people stood. The Gemara, however, states that in this context, "standing" signifies being silent - as it does elsewhere in Tanach. 8 It is clear from the Gemara that the reading of the Torah mandates only silent attention, not actual literal standing.
The Ralbag, however, understands that they actually did stand up, if only in order to pay attention and better understand what was being read.9 Ibn Ezra 10 also states that (although the Gemara explains that the people 'stood silent'), it is possible that they actually stood out of respect for the Torah as was the common practice to stand in those days while learning.11 This could be the basis for the stringency of the Maharam.
Standing for the reading of the Asseres Hadibros
Even where the prevalent minhag is to sit during Krias HaTorah, it is customary in many kehillos for all the congregants to stand during the reading of the Asseres Hadibros, be this on Shavuos, when we celebrate the festival of the giving of the Torah, or on the Shabbos of Parshas Yisro and Parshas Vaeschanan.12
We do this in order to more fully feel the momentous nature of this event, to feel, as it were, as if we were re-experiencing the greeting the Divine presence like our ancestors who stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.13 There may, however, actually be a halachic problem with this minhag as we will explain shortly.
The Mishna in Tamid states that there was a public reading of the Ten Commandments by the Kohanim in the Beis Hamikdash along with the daily recital of the Shema.14 The Gemara 15 relates that Sages instituted this practice outside the Temple precinct. However, they soon abolished it because of tar'omos haminim - the arguments of the heretics.
The fear was that the heretics would attempt to convince the unlettered members of our people that the Torah as a whole was false, and that only Asseres Hadibros - which had been heard by all the nation directly from Hashem - were true. Their proof? That the Asseres Hadibros had been singled out for public reading over other portions in the Torah.
Based on this Gemara, the Rashba forbids the recital of the Asseres Hadibros during the morning prayers.16 The Tur, however, rules that it is proper to recite the Asseres Hadibros daily - seemingly contrary to the Gemara.17 The Beis Yosef clarifies that the recitation was abolished in public. In private, however, there is no restriction.18
The Emes Le'Yaakov writes that by standing publicly for the reading of the Asseres Hadibros, we thereby ascribe greater importance to this portion than to others. This effectively strengthens the arguments of the heretics.19 He therefore prohibits the minhag, claiming that this is exactly what the Sages wished to abolish. Other Acharonim, (later halachic authorities) however, differentiate between the two. Here are some of their views:
The Devar Shemuel states that our intention in standing is clearly to feel as though we are actually re-experiencing that awesome event of Kabolas HaTorah.20 Thus there is no problem of tar'omos haminim. According to the Beis Yaakov, 21 this minhag is only permissible on Shavuos, when everyone understands that this is the reason for the minhag. During the rest of the year, though, the minhag should be abolished.22The Chida 23 says that standing on for Aseres HaDibros on Shavuos does not constitute a problem of tar'omos haminim, since we also read other segments of the Torah along with them. It is therefore obvious that we are standing because the commandments revealed to us directly by Hashem at Sinai contained the foundations of the Torah.
He also adds that where it is already customary to stand, it is an obligation for all to stand and no one is allowed to sit, because by doing so, it would look like he is thereby trivialising the event. Furthermore, Chazal issued a general pronouncement that where there is a custom to stand, one may not sit and where the custom is to sit, one may not stand.24 Therefore, with the exception of the Emes Le'Yaakov, the general consensus among Acharonim is that this minhag is permissible and even commendable - at least on Shavuos. Actually, none other than the Rambam had already addressed this issue much earlier in a responsa.25 But, because this responsa was only printed and circulated at a later date, it was not seen by any of the aforementioned Acharonim.
In this responsa, the Rambam, describes the controversy among his contemporaries regarding whether this minhag could lead to tar'omos haminim. One Rabbi held the custom to be problematic, while the other permitted it. The latter supported his case by bringing as proof the existence of this minhag in Bavel. The first Rabbi countered this proof by arguing that the origin of the practice may well have been standing out of respect for the Rosh Yeshiva who has received that aliyah, not because of the importance of what was being read.26 The practice in Bavel cannot therefore be brought as a proof.
The Rambam sided wholly with the first Rabbi, and even sharply criticised the minhag of Bavel. He went as far as to say that the practice of standing for Aseres HaDibros undermines our belief in the validity of the Torah. This is a very grave sin, for one who says that the Torah was not given from Heaven has no portion in the world to come, even if he denies just one verse. It is therefore worthy, says the Rambam, to block any avenues that may lead to such a belief. It was for this reason that the daily recital of the Ten Commandments was abolished.
This raises an interesting question. In light of the fact that the Rambam, who was a Rishon (early halachic authority), prohibited such a practice, should this minhag then be abolished? This is actually a halachic discussion within itself. The Maharik 27 writes that if a responsa from an earlier authority was later found to contradict the opinion of the later poskim, one does not have to listen to the latter because it is possible that they did not know of this earlier opinion. Perhaps, they would have yielded to the ruling of the earlier authority if they would known of it.28 This rule is actually quoted by the Rema in Shulchan Aruch 29 and cited by the Beis Yosef in a separate work on Talmudic principles of law. 30 The Chikrei Lev 31 takes this even further, stating that, since in our times that we have merited having the Torah of Rishonim in print, revealing to us what was hidden in prior generations, any minhag instituted contrary to the views of Rishonim is not binding. For had the later authorities known of the contrary earlier views, they never would have allowed such a practice to begin.
The Rema, however, in quoting the Maharik, does not seem to agree with this. The Maharik said that one is not obligated to listen to the Acharonim, thus implying that one may do so as he wishes. Therefore, where there is an established minhag to stand during the reading of the Ten Commandments, there would be no reason to change, especially given the view of the Chida mentioned earlier.
The practice of Sephardic Jews, however, is still open for debate, especially given that the Rishon involved here is the Rambam. It is well known that prior to the publication of Shulchan Aruch, the prevalent custom of Middle Eastern Jewry was to follow the rulings of the Rambam, even against a majority of dissenting opinions.32 So much so, the Chida 33 writes that in the event that the Shulchan Aruch contradicts something that was later found in the writings of the Rambam, we can safely assume that had he seen it, he would have established the Halacha according to the Rambam.34
HaRav Ovadia Yosef 35 shlita therefore reasons that we should apply this concept to the Chida himself: assuming that had he known of the Rambam's prohibition he would have yielded to it. In light of all this, he rules that for Sephardic Jews, this practice should indeed be abolished.36
Nonetheless, if one is in a shul where everyone is standing, it is not, as the Chida stated, proper to remain seated. In such a case, his advice is to stand up for the Rabbi being honoured with the aliyah immediately after his name is called out. This shows that one is standing out of respect for the rabbi instead of showing of the text being read, and thus sidesteps the problem.37
1.Orach Chaim 146:4
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