When Should One Correct the Torah Reader?

In memory of Rabbi Marc Liebhaber z”l Ohev Yisrael, Talmid Hakham, Ba’al Tzedakah on his shloshim.

Question: In some synagogues the Gabbai corrects the Torah reader every time he makes even the slightest error in pronunciation or cantillation, while, in others, the Gabbai only corrects the Torah reader if he/she makes and error which changes the meaning of the text. Which practice is more correct?

Responsum: As is frequently the case, this question represents the tension between two Jewish values. On the one hand, the Torah is considered the word of God and we want to read it in public in as accurate a fashion as possible. According to a story about Rabbi Akiva found in Midrash Tanhuma (Yitro, paragraph 15) and Shemot Rabbah (parashah 40), it is forbidden to read the Torah in public until you review the parashah [Torah portion] once or 2-3 times, and this was codified by the Tur, Shulhan Arukh andArukh Hashulhan (Orah Hayyim 139) and by Rabbi Ephraim Zalman Margaliot (Brody, 1760-1828) in his classic work Sha’arei Ephraim (Gate 3, paragraph 8).

Indeed, “The Aleppo Codex”, which is now the subject of a best-selling book by Matti Friedman, and hundreds of manuscripts of the Masorah show to what extent our ancestors were willing to go to ensure that every letter and vowel and cantillation of the Hebrew Bible were as accurate as is humanly possible.

On the other hand, the Sages were extremely careful not to embarrass a person in public: “He who shames his friend in public… has no place in the World to Come” (Pirkei Avot 3:11); “Anyone who shames his friend in public, it is as if he sheds blood” (Bava Metzia 58b); “It is better for a person to throw himself in a furnace rather than shame his friend in public” (ibid., 59a).

Before we reply, it should be stressed that all of the Talmudic sources and many of the Rishonim (ca. 1000-1500 CE) wrote at a time when each person read their own aliyah; the institution of Torah reader (ba’al koreh, ba’al keriah) is first mentioned in medieval sources and until today it is customary for Yemenite and Iraqi Jews to read their own aliyot.

In general, the poskim (halakhic authorities) who dealt with this issue can be divided into two camps:

I) The Gabbai corrects the Torah reader even if he makes a mistake in one letter.

This is the opinion of many important sources and poskim; they are presented here in chronological order:

1. We read in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 4:5, ed. Vilna fol. 31b; ed.Venice fol. 75b; Ms. Leiden, ed. Sussman, col. 772):

R. Yirmiyah [in the name of] R. Shimon Sara [in the name of] R. Hinena bar Andrei [in the name of] R. Zakkai of Kavul:

If he [the person reading Torah] made a mistake between one word and another word, they make him go back [and repeat it].

Said R. Yirmiyah to R. Zeurah: And do they [actually] do this?

He said to him: are you still on this [=are you still in doubt]? Even if he made a mistake between אם  [if] and ואם [and if] — they make him go back [and repeat it]!

This version of the end of this Yerushalmi passage is also quoted by Rabbi Yosef Karo (d. 1575) in his Kesef Mishneh to the Rambam (Hilkhot Tefillah 12:6) and in his Bet Yosef (to Tur Orah Hayyim 142, s.v. v’harambam) and by R. Yedidyah of Nortzi in hisMinhat Shai on the Torah, p. 11 (quoted by Ratner, p. 93 – see the Bibliography below).

2. However, Rabbi Isaiah D’trani the Younger (Italy, d. 1280) had a different reading of the end of this Yerushalmi passage:

And so it is explained in the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael that one should not be exacting regarding its mistakes [of the Megillah reading], but in the Torah reading, even if he made a mistake between אב  [father] and אם  [mother], such as those that are pronounced differently than they are written (]He is referring to keri u’khetiv, where the Biblical text says one thing (keri) and there is a different word or reading in the margin (ketiv)) they make him go back [and repeat it] – and so it is in the Talmud of Eretz Yisrael. (Piskei Ri’az to Megillah, ed. Jerusalem, 1971, col. 130; also quoted in Shiltei Giborim to the Rif, Megillah, ed. Vilna, fol. 5a)

The editors of Piskei Ri’az (note 13) thought that this reading which appears in all four manuscripts of the Ri’az and in Shiltei Giborim is a scribal error. It is more likely that Rabbi Isaiah had a different reading in the Yerushalmi. Indeed, Rabbi Baer Ratner (p. 94) actually prefers this reading.

3. Inhis Mishneh Torah, Maimonides (Egypt, 1135-1204; Hilkhot Tefillah 12:6) gave the following ruling on our subject:

If he read and made a mistake even in the accuracy of one letter (b’dikduk ot ahat), they make him go back [and repeat it] until he reads it accurately.

The Rambam, as usual, gives no sources for his ruling in theMishneh Torah. Rabbi Yosef Karo (in the two places mentioned above), Hagahot Maimoniyot (ad loc., note Dalet), and Rabbeinu Manoah (ad loc.) give a total of four possible sources for this ruling. Yet it is clear – as Rabbi Yosef Karo says at the end of his comment in the Bet Yosef — that this ruling by Maimonides is based on the Yerushalmi quoted above (source 1).

4. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (Germany, d. 1293) had the same opinion, as reported by his disciple Rabbi Meir Hacohen of Rothenburg (d. 1298) in his Hagahot Maimoniot mentioned above: (I have corrected Hagahot Maimoniot according to an Oxford manuscript quoted by Rabbi Y. Z.  Kahana, Rabbi Meir B”R Barukh… Meirotenburg: Teshuvot Pesakim Uminhagim, Part 1,Jerusalem 1957, pp. 162-163, paragraph 114).

And so I heard from Haram [=Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg] who said [it] in the Yeshivah in his name, but he did not tell us any proof. [And Rabbi Meir Hacohen suggested to him a source inYerushalmi Megillah 4:1, that you make the translator into Aramaic go back to correct a mistake, and how much the more so the Torah] and Maharam agreed to my proof.

In this interesting passage, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg gives a strict ruling like Maimonides, but without a source. His student Rabbi Meir Hacohen was not familiar with the explicit source in theYerushalmi cited above (source 1), but he extrapolated from a similar source regarding corrections in the Targum and Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg agreed to his suggestion.

5. Rabbeinu Manoah of Narbonne(end of 13th century) in his commentary on the Rambam goes one step further than the Rambam. He says that the Torah reader must also differentiate between the sheva na and sheva nah (the vocal sheva and the silent sheva) and between a letter with or without a dagesh. “Rather, he should be swift to read from the Torah accurately without any mistake”.

6. Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 142:1) simply quotes from Maimonides quoted above without the final phrase:

If he read and made a mistake even in the accuracy of one letter (b’dikduk ot ahat), they make him go back [and repeat it].

7. Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai (Israel and Italy, 1724-1806) also ruled according to the Rambam in his book devoted to the laws of the Torah reading (L’david Emet 7:1, ed. Jerusalem, 1986, p. 28):

If he made a mistake even in the accuracy of one letter, even if it does not change the meaning, they make him go back [and repeat it].

The sentence in bold is not from the Rambam; it’s a reaction to the more lenient opinion we shall see below.

8. Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer (Jerusalem, d. 1939) was very strict regarding both the letters and the cantillation, basing himself on the Zohar and other mystical sources (Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 142, paragraphs 1-12).

9. Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who is now Sefardic Chief Rabbi of Israel,  ruled on the basis of the Yerushalmi, Rambam, Rabbi Yosef Karo, and Rabbi Azulay that one must correct even a mistake which does not change the meaning, but one does not correct a mistake in the cantillation  (Yalkut Yosef, Vol. 2, p. 123).

II) The Gabbai only corrects certain types of mistakes and not others.

1. Five Rishonim quote “a midrash” in various ways

The Rishonim are: Rabbeinu Tam (France, d. 1171) in Tosafot, Avodah Zarah 22b, s.v. rigla; Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel (writing in Toledo, 1204), Sefer Hamanhig, ed. Refael, p. 160; Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi (Germany, 1140-1225), Sefer Raaviyah, Berakhot, paragraph 52, ed. Aptowitzer, p. 31 and ed. Deblitzky, Vol. 1, p. 22; Rabbi Yisrael of Krems (Austria, early 14thcentury), Hagahot Asheiri to Shabbat, Chapter 6, paragraph 13; Rabbi Ya’akov Barukh Landau (Germany and Italy, end of 15thcentury), Sefer Ha’agur, ed. Hirshler, paragraph 191, p. 44.

Cf. Sefer Hassidim, ed. Maragaliot, end of paragraph 18, p. 81, who also belongs in this camp of forgiving the errors of cantors and Torah readers on the basis of Song of Songs 2:4. See the lengthy quote and an English translation in Rabbi Rosenberg’s article, pp. 13-14.

From where [=what verse] do we know that a person who reads “Aharon” [as] “Haron” and “Avraham” [as] Avram” has fulfilled his obligation? As it is written [in the Song of Songs 2:4]: “v’diglo alay ahavah” — “and his degel is upon me in love”.

The word “v’diglo” is difficult to understand. Rabbeinu Tam says that it means “me’ilato“, his sacrilege, but earlier in the passage (see note 3) he says that “digla” means a liar. Indeed, Sefer Hamanhig understands it to mean “his lie”. The Ra’aviah adds: “even the degalim in you [are acceptable] to me in love”, which Rabbi Deblitzky in his edition of the Ra’aviah corrects to “dilugim“, skippings. In other words, God accepts our lies/skippings/mistakes with love.

2. Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Lunel (Provence, ca. 1300), Orhot Hayyim, Hilkhot Keriat Sefer Torah, paragraph 18 quotes a passage from “Yerushalmi” — which frequently means an Israeli midrash in medieval Jewish literature — as follows:

From where [=what verse] that the Hazzan of the Synagogue [i.e. the ba’al keriah or Torah reader] who pronounced Moshe as Mishe and Aharon as Ahran, that we do not make him go back [and repeat]? As it is written “v’diglo alay ahavah” – “liglugo alay ahavah” [his stammering is acceptable to me in love].

3. Neither of these midrashim appear in classical midrashim, but a longer version of this midrash appears in Shir Hashirim Rabbah (to 2:4, ed. Vilna, fol. 15a; ed. Dunsky, p. 58) on the verse “Heviani“:

V’diglo alay ahavah“: Rabbi Aha said: an Am Haaretz[ignorant Jew] who reads “ahavah” [love] as “eivah” [hate] and “v’ahavta” [you shall love] as “v’ayavta” [you shall hate] — the Holy One Blessed be He said: “dilugo alay ahavah“, his skipping of words is acceptable to me in love.

Rabbi Yissachar said: a child who reads Moshe as Mashe, Aharon as Aharan [or: Haran], Efron as Efran – The Holy One Blessed be He says: “v’liglugo alay ahavah“, his stammering is acceptable to me in love.

On the one hand, this early midrash has more details than the previous two, but, on the other hand, it does not refer explicitly to reading the Torah in public.

4. Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan of Lunel ruled in his classic workSefer Hamanhig cited in note 3:

If the person reading the Torah or the Hazzan reading it [aloud] makes a mistake, it is good not to correct his mistakes rather than to shame him in public [mei’l’halbin at panav barabbim], because even though he made a mistake, he has fulfilled his obligation to read, as we learn in a midrash [he then quotes source II, 1 above with the comments of Rabbeinu Tam] …but if [he] made a mistake by adding or omitting a letter, or if he read a ד  as a ר or a ר as a ד in a matter which is about God, which is as if he is destroying the world, in such a case “no wisdom, no prudence and no counsel can prevail against the Lord” (Proverbs 21:30), and we must correct him aloud until he returns and reads as is proper and correct.

In other words, Rabbi Abraham of Lunel makes a distinction between two types of mistakes. If the reader says Haron instead of Aharon, we let it go in order not to embarrass the reader and because God accepts such an error in love. But if he adds or omits a letter in a word or sentence connected to God, then we must correct him because “no wisdom, no prudence and no counsel can prevail against the Lord”.

5. Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein (Austria, d. 1460) dealt with our issue in his Pesakim Uketavim, paragraph 181. He was asked regarding a town where there is no one who knows how to read from the Torah exactly and with cantillation, or there is someone who knows how to read, but he did not review the portion. Rabbi Yisrael says that even so, they should read from the Torah. And even though the Rambam said that you must correct every mistake, the Tur [Orah Hayyim 142] quoted Sefer Hamanhig and the midrash which he quoted.

From this it is clear that bishat hadhak, when there is no other choice, they read before the fact in this fashion [i.e. not exactly] and so did I see a number of times before my rabbis and otherGedolim [great Sages] that the readers made mistakes in the cantillation, and also between patah and kamatz, segol andtzeireh, even though they scolded them a little, they did not make them repeat [the verse]…

6. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema, Cracow, d. 1572), in his Ashkenazic glosses to the Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 142:1) turned Rabbi Isserlein’s responsum about a town without a good Torah reader into a more general approach. In reaction to Rabbi Yosef Karo’s strict ruling – following the Rambam – that if the person who read from the Torah made a mistake even in one letter, they make him go back and repeat, the Rema adds the following gloss:

And so is the law for a Hazzan [Torah reader, ba’al keriah] who reads, but this is specifically regarding a mistake which changes the meaning, but if he makes a mistake in the cantillation or in the vowels, one does not make him go back but one scolds him.

7. Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (Poland, 1561-1640) discussed the Rambam versus Sefer Hamanhig in the Ba”h to Tur Orah Hayyim 142. He concludes by saying:

And so is the custom according to the Manhig and not according to the Rambam, but this is after the fact. But before the fact one must look for a cantor [=Torah reader] who is expert in reading.

8. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hacohen (Poland, d. 1933) added in hisMishneh Berurah on the Rema (subparagraph 4) that we do not make him go back, not only when he makes a mistake in the cantillation or vowels, “but also if he added or omitted a letter in a place where the meaning does not change, such as when he reads Aharon as Haron or Mitzrayim as Mitzriyim and the like”. In other words, the Mishneh Berurah goes back to the example given by the midrash quoted in source II, 1 above.

Thus, we basically have two schools of thought. TheYerushalmi/Rambam camp maintain that the gabbaim must correct all mistakes made by a Torah reader, while the Midrash/Sefer Hamanhig camp think that you only correct certain mistakes in verses which relate to God (Sefer Hamanhig) or which change the meaning of the passage (the Rema) (For an attempt to reconcile the two approaches, see Rabbi Aharon Hacohen of Lunel, Orhot Hayyim quoted above in source II, 2, which is discussed by the Bet Yosef to Tur Orah Hayyim 142, s.v. katav hakolbo).

III) Summary and Conclusions

I personally agree with the selective approach to corrections favored by the midrash, Sefer Hamanhig, Rabbi Yisrael Isserlein and the Rema because of the two reasons given by Sefer Hamanhig. Correcting the reader frequently embarrasses the reader and “he who shames his friend in public, it is as if he had spilled his blood”. In addition, the midrash says that God accepts our skipping/lying/stammering with love. Indeed, the phrase “v’yehi na dilugeinu alekha b’ahavah“, “may our skippings be acceptable unto you in love”, was included in the beloved Hineni prayer, which the Hazzan recites before Musaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Finally, I would add that as a veteran Torah reader and gabbai, correcting all mistakes makes the Torah reader more nervous and more flustered and actually causes him to make a lot more mistakes. Therefore, the gabbaim should not correct allmistakes, but only mistakes related to God or which change the actual meaning of the verse. This means that the gabbaim must be proficient in Hebrew grammar so that they know when to correct the Torah reader.

I would like to conclude with two beautiful customs related to our topic.  Rabbi Aharon Hacohen of Lunel (Orhot Hayyim, loc. cit.) writes at the end of his discussion of our topic:

And it is the custom in Spain in most places after the Torah reading on Shabbat for the Hazzan [=Torah reader] to say: “v’hu rahum yekhaper avon” etc., “But He, being merciful, forgave iniquity and would not destroy” (Psalms 78:38), in order to atone for the accidental mistakes in the Torah reading.

Rabbi Yosef Karo says (Tur Bet Yosef to Orah Hayyim 142, s.v.katuv b’orhot hayyim) that this custom is no longer practiced. Even so, the custom emphasizes the point that no Torah reader is perfect and may God forgive us for any mistakes that we might have made.

Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer (op. cit, paragraph 4) adds his own suggestion that it is better to recite the verse “V’y’hee noam“, “May the favor of the Lord, our God, be upon us; let the work of our hands prosper, O prosper the work of our hands” (Psalms 90:17),before reading the Torah so that “if God forbid, there will some mistake, God in His mercy will correct it”.

David Golinkin
26 Marheshvan 5775


Rabbi Menahem Nahum Kahana-Shapira, Otzar Hashe’elot Uteshuvot, Vol. 2,Jerusalem, 1976, pp. 101-102 (lists additional responsa on this topic)

Rabbi Baer Ratner, Ahavat Tziyon V’yerushalayim to Yerushalmi Megillah, Vilna, 1912, pp. 93-94 (anthology of Rishonim related to source I, 1)

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg, “Correcting the Ba’al Koreh” etc.,Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 58 (2009), pp. 5-44 (he cites some later poskim not cited here and deals in detail with practical examples of mistakes “which change the meaning”)