A Bar Mitzvah Ceremony for Retarded Children

(OH 282:3)

Is it permissible to hold a bar/bat mitzvah ceremony for the retarded?

There are two ways of addressing this question: may a retarded person be called to the Torah? Or: is a retarded person a “bar mitzvah” in the halakhic sense of being obligated to observe all of the mitzvot? We shall deal with the broader question because it includes the narrower question.

Technically speaking, the designation retarded is based primarily on intelligence tests: a child who scores one standard deviation below the norm is defined as retarded. Thus, retardation is determined by the average intelligence of a given society and may therefore differ from one society to another and from one historical period to another. In practice, a retarded person is one who functions less effectively than most people in his society. According to the halakhah, minors are not obligated to perform mitzvoth. Obligation to perform mitzvoth begins at age 12 and one day for females and age 13 and one day for males (Mishnah Avot 5:21, Niddah 45b in the Mishnah). There are two categories of Jews who are exempt from performing mitzvoth: a deaf-mute and a “shoteh”. In order to answer our question, we must define the term shoteh. According to Hagigah 3b a shoteh is a person who goes out alone at night, sleeps in the cemetery or tears his clothing. Another beraita says (ibid. 4a): “Who is a shoteh? He who destroys everything given to him”. The Shulhan Arukh rules: A shoteh is “one whose mind becomes deranged and whose thoughts are constantly confused and disturbed: (Hoshen Mishpat 35:8). So too in Tosefta Terumot 1:3 we learn about a shoteh who is sometimes healthy and sometimes ill. Thus a shoteh refers to someone who is insane, not retarded.

But if a retarded person is not a shoteh, what is the halakhic term for the retarded? Maimonides uses the word “peti” or simpleton to describe those “who do not understand things which contradict each other and who do not understand things the way other people do… such people are included among the shotim” (Hilkhot Edut 9:10). Thus for the purpose of testimony, he includes the peti under the rubric of shoteh, but in other respects a peti is not like a shoteh and is obligated to perform all mitzvot (R. Joshua Falk, Sefer Me’irat Einayim to Hoshen Mishpat ibid.). Many modern rabbis concur (R. Simchah Bunim Sofer, R. Mosheh Feinstein, R. Chaim Pinchass Sheinberg, R. Shelomo Zalman Auerbach, and R. Eliezer Waldenberg). Therefore, a retarded child who has reached the age of obligation who is able to study and recite the Torah blessings to God is a “bar mitzvah” and may therefore have an Aliyah and a bar mitzvah ceremony.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer
Approved Unanimously 5750