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Kevod ha tzibur – Respect for the Public

Author: Rav Duvdevani of Bet Shemesh, Kislev 5765/Nov 2004

In this talk, Rav Duvdevani examined a major argument against women’s participation in the public reading of the Torah, kevod ha tzibur. What is the meaning and function of the phrase, kevod hatzibur? Can a congregation waive the requirement of kevod ha tzibur?

1. Meaning

In the context of a religious service, tzibur, the public, is taken to mean a congregation consisting of a quorum of ten men, aminyan, in a place of worship. The tzibur represents the whole people, Knesset Israel, the Congregation of Israel.

Kavod is not as readily defined. Kavod is something weighty, of importance and denotes respect, honour and dignity. The dignity of a congregation may affect its code of conduct.

2. Function

The starting point here is a baraita (text contemporary with the Mishna) in Tractate Megilla (23A): ‘All are called to the seven [sections read from the Torah], even a minor, even a woman. Our Sages say: a woman is not called to the Torah mipnei kevod ha tzibur’. This indicates that kevod ha tzibur cancels a right which has just been stated as including women. It would seem to be, as Rav Duvdevani termed it, a technical impediment. If there is no tzibur, there is nothing to prevent women exercising this particular right.

Both the right and the objection are reiterated in the Tosefta (a collection of beraitot) on Tractate Megilla (section 3). The wording here has it that a woman is not brought to read to the community - la rabim.

Rav Duvdevani recalled that the public reading of the Torah fulfils a decision made by Ezra which does not obligate women ( see his earlier talk on women and the public reading of the Torah). The Tosefta text does not give a reason for its statement.

3. Implications

Not all the sources understand kevod ha tzibur in the same way. Maimonides (Hilchot Tefila, 8) states that one should choose someone to lead a service who is outstanding in wisdom or deeds and whose beard marks his seniority mipnei kevod ha tzibur. The dignity of worship, the quality of observance of the commandments are enhanced by the person who leads the congregation in prayer.

This is taken a step further in the Gemara (Tractate Sota 39B), where we read that, at the end of a service, the reader does not remove the cover of the dais mipnei kevod ha tzibur. Rashi comments on this passage to tell us that people used to take the Torah scrolls out of the Synagogue after the service and that the cover on the dais would not be removed immediately so that the congregation would not have to wait around, since this would cause a torach tzibur, trouble for the congregation, - it would be burdensome. Here, the concern is not so much the dignity of the service as concern for the congregants.

Yet another example was the practice of reciting by heart an extra Torah text which, nowadays, we read from a second Sefer Torah. One does not scroll to the extra second passage in public mipnei kevod ha tzibur (Tractate Yoma 70B). Rashi again sees this as being a nuisance because the congregation would have to stand in silence during the scrolling.

If not troubling the congregation is a feature of kevod ha tzibur, this might well apply to calling a woman to the reading of the Torah, since people would have to wait for her to come from the women’s section to the dais (Perush Bet-Chadash, Tur Orach Chayim, 53)

4. Waiving kevod ha tzibur

One might think that if kevod ha tzibur is a matter of avoiding an unnecessary burden (torach ha tzibur), a congregation might decide to waive the respect that is its due in certain circumstances. Is the dignity of the law or concern for the congregation involved? Do they go together?

The answer is that a congregation may not waive the kevod ha tzibur (Perush Bet Chadash, ibid.). A king may not waive the honours due to him on account of his status – he is there by command of the Almighty (Tractate Sota 39B). Neither may a Rav. And, since the congregation, the minyan, represents the whole people, Knesset Israel, it canot behave like private individuals.

Rav Duvdevani repeated that, where there is no formal service, there is no tzibur and the question of kevod ha tzibur does not arise. In support of this, he showed a picture of a scene in 19th century Poland, where a chazanit, a woman leading the service, is seen surrounded by a group of eight other women; the women are dressed most modestly with head coverings and long dresses.