The ancient nations regarded blindness as the lowest degradation that could be inflicted upon man; hence gouging out the eyes of an enemy was a form of national retaliation. The Philistines bored out the eyes of Samson, and the king of Babylon blinded Zedekiah. Nahash the Ammonite demanded as a condition of surrender that he should thrust out the right eye of every man of Jabesh-gilead, as a reproach upon all Israel (I Sam. xi. 2).

In the Bible.

The blind, together with cripples and lepers, were outcasts of society and kept quarantined outside the town limits; they became paupers and a menace to passers-by. When David besieged the Jebusites at Jerusalem, the blind and crippled mendicants were so numerous that he was compelled to take stringent measures against them (II Sam. v. 6). In the eyes of the ancient Hebrews the maimed, and especially the blind, were thought to possess a debased character. Balaam, the prophet of the Gentiles, according to Talmudic tradition, was lame and blind of one eye (Sanh. 105a). The blindness of Isaac is said to have been the cause of Rebekah's action in transferring the blessing from Esau to Jacob, as she considered herself better able to judge the merits and demerits of her two sons (Yalḳ.). Jacob would not marry Leah because she had "tender eyes." On this account the Talmud says that a bride whose eyes are beautiful needs no further examination (Ta'an. 24a).

To counteract the prevailing notion that bodily ailments and defects are the punishment of sin, special legislation was provided for the protection of the blind and afflicted: "Thou shalt not . . . put a stumblingblock before the blind" (Lev. xix. 14). "Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way" (Deut. xxvii. 17).

The Talmud compares the blind, the leper, the childless, and the pauper to the dead (Ned. 64b), quoting from Lamentations (iii. 6): "He hath set me in dark places as they that be dead of old."

Respect for the Blind.

Judah ha-Nasi is the first person mentioned in rabbinic literature who helped to remove the stigma of the blind. It is related that he and R. Ḥiyya, while traveling, came to a certain town and inquired whether there were any learned man whom they could honor by a visit. The townsmen directed them to a blind scholar. R. Ḥiyya said to the prince, "Do not disgrace thy excellence. Let me visit him." Judah insisted, however, and went with him. When they were about to leave, the blind man gratefully acknowledged the visit, saying: "Ye have honored by your audience one who is seen but sees not. Ye shall be blessed and acceptable before One who sees but is invisible" (Ḥag. 5b). R. Abba b. Jacob offered a high seat in his house to a blind visitor, which action caused the people to believe the latter a great man and secured for him an honorable position. He bestowed the above-mentioned blessing upon R. Abba (Yer. Peah, end, ch. viii.). R. Hoshaiah the Great, engaged for his son a blind teacher with whom he dined daily. On one occasion, when visitors were at the house, the teacher was not invited to the table. R. Hoshaiah apologized afterward for the omission, saying he did not wish to embarrass or disgrace him before the assembly; whereupon the blind teacher rejoined, "May thy apology be acceptable before the Invisible" (ib.). For euphemistic reasons the Talmud calls a blind man ("a man of abundant light").

The blind are exempt from all religious duties. They may perform any religious service for themselves, but can not be a proxy for others. Thus a blind man when saying the eighteen benedictions need not face the Temple of Jerusalem (the east), being unable to distinguish the points of the compass, but he shall direct his heart toward his Father in heaven (Ber. 29a). Yet he must not utter His name in vain. R. Judah would not permit him to say the benediction before the Shema': "Blessed be the Lord who formed light and created darkness," inasmuch as the blind derives no benefit from light. The "wise men" differ, however, claiming that the light indirectly benefits the blind. R. Yosé (the tannaite) could not understand an apparently illogical passage in Deuteronomy: "And thou shalt grope at noon-day as the blind gropeth in darkness" (xxviii. 29); until he chanced to meet a blind man who was walking at night with a lantern in hand, and who explained that the lantern was of great service to him, to enable passers-by to guide and protect him from obstacles and pitfalls (Meg. 24b).

R. Joseph, who was blind, said that at one time he would have welcomed one who could assure him that R. Judah was right in the statement that the blind were exempt from the performance of religious duties; for in that case he (R. Joseph), who, although blind, performed these duties, would deserve a greater recompense than one who was not blind. Hearing R. Johanan, however, assert that "one who performs his prescribed duties is greater than a volunteer," Joseph said that he would offer a banquet to the rabbis if they could assure him that R. Judah was wrong in his statement.

R. Joseph, and R. Sheshet, another blind Talmudist, hold the opinion that the blind are under obligations to perform all religious duties, and accordingly they recited the Haggadah on Passover eve before the assembled family (Pes. 116b), which was contrary to the decision of R. Aḥa b. Jacob, who excused a blind man from saying the Haggadah (ib.).

Interesting stories are related of the totally blind R. Sheshet, showing his exquisite and instinctive knowledge of his surroundings while the guest of the Chief of the Captivity (Giṭ. 67b), and his remarkable discernment of the approaching Persian king among many legions (Ber. 58a). A blind rabbi was accustomed to cite Mishnaic traditions before Mar Samuel,and on one occasion forgot to provide for the cooking of food on a holiday preceding Saturday (Beẓah 16b), an instance showing that the blind were not entirely free from religious duties.

Obligations and Exemptions.

The authorities differ as to the extent of the exemption, whether from a Mosaic or rabbinic point of view, whether from mandates, or even from prohibitions ("not to do"). The development of customs and laws regulating the blind has abrogated many distinctions, and the tendency of the recent authorities is to remove all disabilities and to give the blind equal religious and civil rights. The gradual emancipation or, rather, the participation of the blind in all matters of religion and law, is shown by the following quotations ranging from the Mosaic law to the latest codes and responsa: A blind priest was not permitted to offer sacrifices on the altar (Lev. xxi. 17), and he was exempt from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem on holidays, this applying even if he were blind only of one eye, for R. Johanan says: "One must see as he is seen" (Mishnah Ḥag. ch. 1, § 1). A blind man who committed unpremeditated homicide was exempt from banishment to a city of refuge, according to R. Judah, who interprets literally the verse, "Seeing him not" (Num. xxxv. 23; see Mak. 9b). Maimonides concurs in this decision, holding that homicide was in this case an unavoidable accident ("Yad," Roẓeaḥ, vi. 14).

The Mishnah prohibits the ordination of a blind justice, although a blind witness is permitted to testify. An exception is noted of a blind justice who was allowed to practise without protest (Sanh. 34b). The Shulḥan 'Aruk prohibits the appointment and practise of a totally blind man as a judge, but tolerates one who is blind only of one eye (Ḥoshen Mishpaṭ, 7, 2). R. Jerucham permits even a totally blind judge to render decisions (Bet Yos. ib.). R. Isaac Lampronti rules that the defendant can claim the right to submit his case before a resident blind justice, on the ground that some authorities raise no objection to such a proceeding. R. Ben Sasson and R. Ben Nehemiah, two blind justices, practised at Venice ("Paḥad Yiẓḥaḳ," Letter Samek, 24b, ed. Lyck, 1866). Lampronti gives as his reason for this decision that nowadays the judge merely follows the precedents established in the various books, and does not render new decisions.

Reciting the Scriptures.

The public reading of the Pentateuch by a blind man is prohibited, as the "words of Holy Writ may not be recited orally" (Meg. 24a). This decision in Shulḥan 'Aruk, Oraḥ Ḥayyim, 53, 14, is reversed by later authorities (Magen Abraham, ib. 139, 104) on the ground that to-day the person who is called up to read the Torah merely repeats mentally the words dictated by the reader. R. Moses Zacuto relates that the rabbis of Poland did not permit a blind man to read the Scriptures. Nevertheless he agreed with other rabbis at Mantua (1678) to allow the blind R. Benjamin Ashkenazi of Prague to read; while at Ferrara such permission was refused to a blind man named Norzi, though an exception was allowed in the case of R. Jacob Lianna, on account of his superior Biblical and Talmudic learning ("Paḥad Yiẓḥaḳ," ib.).

Among blind scholars after Talmudic times may be mentioned R. Judah gaon, of Pumbedita (Sherira's letter in Neubauer, "Med. Jewish Chronicles," ii. 3), the accredited author of "Halakot Gedolot"; Isaac Sagi Nahor ben David, , "the father of the cabala" (end of twelfth century); and R. Abraham Judah Zafig, born blind at Tunis and lived at Jerusalem, author of ("The Eyes of Abraham"), Amsterdam, 1784. The blind R. Joseph b. Azriel ha-Levi Schnitzler is the author of an illustrated commentary on the last nine chapters of Ezekiel explaining the whole plan of the Temple, courts, gates, etc., which he dictated to R. Zarah ha-Levi, the reader of the Hamburg congregation in London (London, 1825). Of modern authors who lost their sight are Salomon Munk, Adolph Neubauer, Joseph Derenbourg, and Abraham M. Luncz.

  • Friedman, Das Blinden-Institute auf der Hohen Warte bei Wien;
  • Geiger, Der Blinde in dem Biblischen und Rabbinischen Schriftthume, in his Jüdische Zeitschrift, xi. 205, Breslau, 1875;
  • Adolph Rosenzweig, Das Auge in Bibel und Talmud, Berlin, 1892;
  • Zangwill, They That Walk in Darkness, ch. v.
G. J. D. E.
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