I had a very strange experience and I would like to know what halacha thinks.

I was in shul on Shabbos, and an adult with Down Syndrome ripped by opening the box of tissues. I was not going to say anything, but I guess he noticed my disapproval of what he had done. Now I remind you I said nothing. He looks at me with a straight face and says, "Don't worry; I am a Shoteh." Now, I want you realize that he was intelligent enough to read my face and understand what I thought he did was wrong, yet I still want to know: Is he actually correct?


3 Answers 3


It would likely depend on the specific individual, but generally a low functional IQ does not render someone a halachic shoteh ("insane" or "irrational.") I assume that was your question about Down Syndrome was effectively asking about a low IQ.

We have the concept of oness Rachmana patrei, G-d does not hold us accountable for what's truly beyond our control. Hence a person is exempted from mitzva obligations if they lack the cognitive ability needed for their most basic performance. I very much doubt that was the case in the incident you described; and I hope that individual is getting the help he needs (it seems he's crying out for it).

There is the famous, famous responsum of the Chasam Sofer (or was it one of his descendants?) about institutionalizing an individual such that only non-kosher food will be available, with the goal of increasing their ability to function. Rabbi JD Bleich proves conclusively (yutorah mp3 available) that the case concerned a developmentally challenged individual (who is obligated in most mitzvas), not a severely insane one (who is not).

After using the term shoteh (exempt from mitzva obligation) 50-something times in his code, Rambam then writes:

ט,ט [י] הפתיים ביותר שאינן מכירין דברים הסותרין זה את זה, ולא יבינו ענייני הדבר כדרך שמבינין שאר עם הארץ, וכן המבוהלין והנחפזין בדעתם, והמשתגעים בדעתן ביותר--הרי כל אלו בכלל השוטים. ודבר זה, לפי מה שיראה הדיין, שאי אפשר לכוון הדעות בכתב.

The exceedingly simple, who cannot understand that both A and B cannot be true as they conflict with one another, are considered shoteh and therefore disqualified from serving as witnesses ... and such matters must be judged individually by the judge and can't fit an easy written criterion.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein says that for the first 50-something uses of shoteh (which are all about his mitzva obligations in general), Rambam didn't have to define it -- it meant someone who you know it when you see it, someone completely crazy and disconnected from reality. It was only with regards to serving as a witness that the severely developmentally challenged is excluded.

  • 2
    +1. Do you have a citation for Rav Moshe?
    – msh210
    Sep 9, 2011 at 20:03
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    Yes more or less; the Adam HaRishon was R' Moshe's explanation for the nakedness. The "enough intelligence for money" per se doesn't appear there; simply that R' Moshe spent several hours arguing with the fellow and offering him a large sum of money, and felt that he was generally competent. And that some think he was really sane, just pulling this shtick to avoid a divorce ...
    – Shalom
    Sep 11, 2011 at 1:02
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    @Shalom, wow, so according to this, most people would be considered shoteh... ;-)
    – AviD
    Sep 11, 2011 at 5:26
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    @Shalom Can you point to the Chasam Sofer source? and/or J.D. Bleich's discussion of it? The link to yutorah.org doesn't help
    – SAH
    Feb 15, 2015 at 6:47
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    "We have the concept of oness Rachmana patrei, G-d does not hold us accountable for what's truly beyond our control. Hence a person is exempted from mitzva obligations if they lack the cognitive ability needed for their most basic performance." Source connecting shote to ones? The two seem distinct. Even if the former could do a mitsva he is not a bar hiyyuva and can't be motsi others. An ones is a bar hiyyuva.
    – mevaqesh
    Jan 3, 2018 at 13:52

Someone with Downs who cannot understand the mitzvah in question would be a pesi. A shoteh is someone incapable of choosing right over wrong. The Rambam may have blamed that on an inability to comprehend, but more modern psychological theories would attribute it to impulse control, an inability to relate to consequences, and psychiatric rather than intellectual issues.

(I wouldn't use the Rambam's definition, because Aristo got psychology wrong. We no longer think that right vs wrong decisions depend on knowledge. The Rambam clearly did.)

There is a question where pesi fits in to the classical "cheireish, shoteh, veqatan". The better-known idea is that a pesi is a shoteh despite the difference in cause. Someone with Downs knows right from wrong; it's a question of which details of the halakhah he can be taught. R' Herschel Schachter made a strong argument that a pesi is actually a cheireish, even if he is able to both hear and speak. Today's deaf mute is not considered a cheireish because he is educable, thus showing that a cheireish is exempt for reasons of educability. Which someone who has intellectual limitations does as well.

In any case, someone with Downs who can explain that he's a shoteh and thus allegedly exempt isn't really handicapped enough to be exempt from anything.

  • "A shoteh is someone incapable of choosing right over wrong." Source?
    – mevaqesh
    Jan 3, 2018 at 14:44
  • Weird time to ask the question, 2 years after RHS. Next time strike when my memories are clearer and you may get a better answer. But in Chagiga 3a-3b, a shoteh behaves weirdly, but -- unlike how we understand cheireish -- there is no statement that he lacks the facts. Jan 3, 2018 at 22:11
  • Read the post again, you asked me about something in my summary of what R Herschel Schachter taught. 2 years after he taught it, when I forgot the details of his shiur. Another possible source: a chassid shoteh is one who lets a naked woman drown, because... tzeni'us. Shotim make weird decisions. Jan 3, 2018 at 22:14
  • Again, consider editing sources into the post. And clarifying which parts are based on R. Herchel Schachter, and which are not. I had assumed that first line was not based on him.
    – mevaqesh
    Jan 3, 2018 at 22:19

Rabbi Shmuel Singer in his book "A Parent's Guide to Teaching Children Mitzvot: A Halakhic Guide" with the Haskama of Rav Hershel Schechter writes: (on page 143)

Modern poskim agree that if a special child has the potential to achieve the intellectual level of an average six-year-old...
Upon reaching bar or bat mitzvah such a child will be obligated to observe all the mitzvot just as an ordinary Jewish adult must.

his source is (footnote 23 on page 149):

Minchas Shlomo, siman 34 and Tshuvos Hagoen Rav Moshe Feinstein in the booklet Am HaTorah 2.2

so it seems it depends on the degree of potential intelligence of this Down Syndrome individual (society calling him a Shote does not make it so, since they often do so to intelligent individuals)

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