Essays Print
Yad Eliezer: Halakhot for Lefties by Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn
Yad Eliezer: Halakhot for Lefties by Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn

Volume 4 , Issue 3

The most striking difference between a right-handed and left-handed person with regard to his observance of Torah and mitzvos, is the way he puts on his tefillin she! yad ? tefillin for the arm. The right-hander binds his tefillin on his left arm, whereas the left-hander binds his tefillin on his right arm.

With the bar mitzvah of my son Eliezer Yaakov approaching, I realized that because he is left-handed, he would be putting on his tefillin differently than I do. But through our discussions, it became apparent that tefillin was not the only mitzvah he would be doing differently. Although there are many mitzvos (and minhagim ? customs) that we would perform identically, there would still be other mitzvos (and minhagim) that we would not perform in the same way.

This article discusses some of the differences and similarities in halakhos and minhagim between right and left-handers.1

In Tanach, the left-handed person is not referred to as a left-hander, but rather as one whose power in his right hand is constricted' or literally closed off. In Shoftim (3:15), the shofet - judge - Ehud, who killed the unsuspecting Eglon, King of Moav, by surprising him with his left- handedness as he drew his sword from his right side, is referred to as hair yad yimino, - "a man whose [power in his] right hand was constricted." Later in Shoftim(20:16), reference is made to 700 warriors of the tribe of Binyamin as "men whose [power in their] right hands was constricted."

A similar term of Itair was also used by King David in his prayer to Hashem - v' al tetar alai baer peaha -"Do not let the pit [of exile] close its mouth over me." (Tehillim 69:16).

Thus, Chazal's term for the left-hander, Itar Yad, actually refers to a person who has constricted power in his right hand and more power in his left hand. However, if a person has equal power in both hands, he conducts himself in matters of halakha as a righthander (see Orach Chaim 27:6 - hereinafter, O.C. and Mishnah Brurah 25 - hereinafter, M.B.).

Generally speaking, one is considered a left-hander in halakha if most of his power is in his left hand and he does most of his work using his left hand (e.g. cutting food, lifting heavy objects, throwing items, etc.). (See O.C. 27:6 and M.B. 23 and Rashi, Menachos 37a).

There are those (See O.C. 27:6), however, who disagree with the definition as stated above with regard to putting on tefillin. Their view is that regardless of which hand has more power, the arm on which one puts his tefillin is determined solely by the hand with which one writes. Incidentally, writing is a determining factor for the left-hander only with regard to the laws of tefillin and its related laws. (See Biyur Halakha, O.C. 27:6 and Shaarey Tshuva O.C. 651:10).

Why is the writing factor considered unique to tefillin? Because of the juxtaposition of two verses in the shema. It says: U' kishartem 1'os al yadecha -"[And you shall] bind them (tefillin) as a sign upon your arm..." (Deuteronomy 6:8) which is followed by U' chitavtem al mezuzos beisecha - "And write them (the first two parshios of shema) on the doorposts of your home." (ibid. 6:9) The Gemorah (Menachos 37a) interprets the proximity of "binding" and "writing" to mean that the hand with which one writes, is the same hand with which one binds his tefillin. Thus a left-hander who writes with his left hand would bind his tefillin with that same hand, meaning that he would bind (the straps of the tefillin) on his right arm.

Others disagree and feel that the hand with which one writes is not a determining factor with regard to putting on tefillin. Those authorities believe that the only determining factor is the ?weaker hand.? A right-hander who considers his left hand weaker puts tefillin on his left arm; a left- hander who considers his right hand the weaker one, puts tefillin on his right arm. This is all because the Torah has a unique spelling of the word `hand' in the portion describing the mitzvah of tefillin. The Torah writes (Exodus 13:16) V' hayah !'os al yadchah -"And it shall be a sign on your hand..." The word for hand, yadchah, is spelled with the letter heh at the end, instead of the usual, with a chof. The Gemorah (Menachos ibid.) understands the former to be a combination of two words ? yad caiah meaning, ?the weaker hand.? (See O.C. 27:6).

Still others, (see Menachos 36b) derive proof that tefillin must be placed on the left hand from various passages which indicate that when the word yad is used in Tanach, it refers to the left hand. And because the Torah (Exodus 13:16) writes V' hayah 1'os al yadchah "and it [tefillin] shall be a sign on your hand..." it is considered meaning the left hand.

Finally, The Ramah (O.C. 27:6) writes that [with regard to the mitzvah of tefillin] it is the custom to follow the writing factor. (See Biyur Halacha O.C. 27)

Now that we have explored how one determines if he is to be considered left- handed for the purposes of Jewish law, we will first look at a few customs and laws in which a left-handed person follows observances differently from a right-handed person.

BRACHOS ? Blessings

When a person recites a bracha - blessing - on food he is about to eat, it is proper for him to hold the food he is blessing. The left-hander holds the food in his left hand. The same is true when a left-hander is holding any dvar mitzvah - object of a mitzvah - that he is about to utilize. As he recites the bracha he should hold the item in his left hand. (For example: besamim (spices) during the havdalah service - the service held at the end of the Sabbath, the cup of kiddush wine on Friday night, and the Chanukah [Shamash] candle) (O.C. 206:4 and M.B. 18; also O.C. 296:6 and M.B. 29,30,31, also Kuntros Ish Itair n.38).

BIRCHAS HAMAZON ? Grace After Meals

There are those who hold that a left- hander should hold the Kos Shel Bracha - cup of blessing - with his left hand when he leads the birchat hamazon- Grace After Meals (O.C. 183:5).


The Ba'er? Haiteiv (Even HaEzer 26:1) writes that a chassan - groom - customarily holds the ring in his right hand and places it on the kallah's - bride's - right index finger. However, from the Tshuvos MaHaram of Mintz (109), it would seem that a left-handed groom should, indeed, give the ring with his left hand, and that a left-handed bride should receive the ring on her left index finger (See Kuntros Ish Itair, n.69, and Ba'er Moshe vol. 2:2).

The Debrecener Rav (Ba'er Moshe, ibid.) adds, that if the bride is left-handed, but wears her ring on her right hand, then the groom should place the ring on her right hand.


At the completion of the Shemoneh Esrei, the left-hander should begin taking his three steps backwards with his right foot. He begins his retreat with his weaker foot, to show that it is not pleasant for him to part with the presence of Hashem. (M.B. 123:13 and Biyur Halacha)


Upon finishing his prayers, a left-hander removes his tefillin (shel rosh) with his right hand, for by using his weaker hand he shows that he is not interested in taking them off swiftly. (O.C. 28:2 and M.B. 6) (See SHEMONEH ESREI, above).


Care should be taken when returning one's tefillin to its pouch, that the tefillinare properly positioned so that the next time he removes his tefillin he will touch the tefillin shel yad first. One must put on his tefillin shel yad before he puts on his tefillin shel rush because the mitzvah of shel yad is written in the Torah before the mitzvah of shel rosh - U' kishartem 1'os al yadecha v' hayu notafos bein ainecha - "And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm and between your eyes." (Deuteronomy 6:8) (O.C. 25 and M.B. 17). Thus, if one, in error, touches his shel rosh first, he would then have to "bypass" this mitzvah for the moment and he would violate the teaching of Ein mavirin al ha' mitzvos - "One may not bypass a mitzvah that has come his way." (Pesachim 64b) It is for this reason that the right-hander should place his tefillin shel yad on the right side of his tefillin pouch so that as he extends his hand into the pouch the next morning, he will automatically extend it to the right side and will touch his shel yad first. Similarly, the left-hander should place his shel yad on the left side of his tefillin pouch so that when he reaches into the pouch he will automatically touch them first (See O.C. 28:2 and M.B. 7, 8 and Kuntros Ish Itair n. 13).


When reciting tachanun during minchah, both right-handers and left-handers lay their heads down on their left arms, with the face turned slightly to the right. This is done because of the respect one must pay to Hashem who is considered as being on man's right side, in accord with the verse, "Hashem is your shadow, at your right side." (Psalms 121:5) However during shacharis - the morningprayer, since tefillin are worn, the right-hander who has the retzuos (straps) of the tefillin bound on his left arm, lays his head on his right arm, the hand without the tcfillin, while the left-hander who has the retzuos of his tefillin on his right arm rests his head on his left arm, his arm without the tefillin (See O.C. 131:1 and M.B. 4). [This is done as a measure of respect for the retzuos of tefillin so as not to be seemingly resting on them].

There are also laws and customs which everyone does with his left hand or towards his left side.


Both right-handers and left-handers lean on their left sides [when partaking of food] during the seder (O.C. 472:3, and M.B. 473:71). (Except when eating manor - bitter herbs - see, however M.S. 475:14). This is to avoid the danger of food's getting into the wind pipe (trachea) rather than the food pipe (esophagus). (The food pipe is on the right side, and by leaning on the right side, the valve above the food pipe could close causing the food to go into the wind pipe instead) (M.B. 472:11) (See, also Rashi, Taan is 5b)

Actually it is difficult for the left-hand?er to eat when he leans on his left side, for he must then cat with his right hand. This is usually awkward and uncomfortable and is certainly not a symbol of "freedom" at the seder for the left-hander. Thus, one may think that the left-hander should lean on his right side, allowing him to cat comfortably with his left hand. However, the health problem of causing danger to oneself (with food in the windpipe) is adhered to more stringently than the halakhic problem of not feeling "freedom." Therefore, both left and right-handers lean on their left sides. (M.B. ibid.).

TZITZIS ? Fringes

During the recitation ofshema both right-handers and left-handers hold their tzitzis in their left hands (between the fourth and fifth fingers) against the heart to symbolically refer to the verse in she ma: V' hayu ha' devarim ha' eile ... al livavecha ? "And these words shall be ... on your heart." When one reaches the recitation of the portion on tzitzis itself, the left-hander then takes hold of the tzitzis also with his right hand (O.C. 24:2 and M.B. 4,5). (See Yalkut Shemoni on Tehillim 35 n. 723, King David held his tzitzis in his left hand when he recited the Shema).


After one has taken three steps back at the conclusion of the shemoneh esrei, he bows three times to Hashem. He first bows to his left side. This is because when one is praying the shemoneh esrei, it is as if Hashem is standing opposite him. Thus, by bowing to one's left side, he is actually bowing to Hashem's right. It isfor this reason that both right-handers and left- handers bow first to their left sides (See M.B. 123:4).


The Shulkhan Aruch (O.C. 139:4) writes that when one recites the blessing at the Torah reading, he should turn his head to his left The Mishnah Brurah (n.19) explains that this is because it is as though he is turning to the right side of Hashem (who is considered standing opposite him). Some hold, however, that one should merely close his eyes and not turn his head (M.B. ibid.).


When rending clothes upon seeing the destroyed cities of Yehuda and Jerusalem, one rends his clothes on the left side because that is where the heart is located (O.C. 561:4 and M.B. 12). Thus, there is no difference between right-handers or left-handers.

Finally, there are laws and customs that everyone does with either the right hand or towards the right side.


It is a custom to put one's hand over his eyes when reciting the first verse of the shema, in order to avoid gazing at anything that may disrupt his concentration (O.C. 61:5). The Mishnah Brurah (ibid. n.17) writes that this is done with the right hand. Rav Chaim Kanicvsky (Kuntros Ish Itair, n.19) notes that since the use of the right hand in this instance is because of kabbalistic reasons, there should be no difference between right and left-handed people.


It is better, if possible, to blow the shofar from the right side of one's mouth (O.C. 585:2). This is to thwart the Satan, for as the Mishnah Brurah (n. 7) writes, the Satan stands at the right side of man to prosecute him. This is based on a verse in Zechariah (3:1), "And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him."

The Chofetz Chaim adds (Biyur Halacha) that he heard, in the name of Rav Mayer Simcha HaKohain (the Ohr Somayach), that one should blow the shofar from the right side of his mouth because of the verse in Judges 7:20 which speaks of the warriors in the war of Klal Yisroel led by Gidon against Midyan, ? "they carried their torches in their left hand, and in their right hand their Shofros??

The Chofetz Chaim notes in his Shar HaTzion (ibid. 18) that although the Magen Abraham cites a reason why a left- hander should blow the shofar from the left side of his mouth (as he makes a connection between shofar and tefillin), the reason is inconclusive. Therefore, both right- handed and left-handed people should blow the shofar from the right side of the mouth.


The Ramah writes that during havdalah one should look at the nails of his right hand as he holds the cup of wine in his left hand. (O.C. 298:3) One needs to benefit from enough light during havdalah so that he can differentiate between one coin and another. Chazal considered that amount of light to be similar to that which one would need to differentiate between which part of the finger is flesh and which is nail; thus one looks at his nails during havdalah (M.B. n.9).

Additionally, looking at the nails is an omen for blessing (siman brocha) since the nails are constantly growing. (M.B. ibid.) Ray Chaim Kanievsky (Kuntros Ish Itair n. 45) cites the Darkei Moshe (O.C. 298:2), who notes that for kabbalistic reasons, one looks at the nails of his right hand. Therefore, writes Rav Chaim, both right and left-handers act in the same way. (One also looks at the palms ofhis hands, for in the various lines of the palm, are omens for blessing, M.B. 298:9).


One should place hisChanukah menorah on the left side of his doorway so that the mezuzah on the door is on the right and the Chanukah menorah is on the left. In this way, he is surrounded by mitzvos (O.C. 671:7 and M.B. 33). However, if there is no mezuzah on the right side of the doorway, (if one is in a hotel, or the mezuzah is being inspected), then the menorah is placed on the right side. This is because the right side is always considered more prominent. Additionally, there will be more "publicity of the miracle," because most people naturally turn to look at things on their right. (M.B. 34) Rav Chaim Kanievsky assumes that these halakhos are the same for both right and left-handers (Kuntros Ish Hair, n. 56).


On the first night of Chanukah, the candle (or oil) to be lit is placed at the right end of the menorah. On the second night, one adds a candle to the left of the first one; on the third night he adds another to the left of the second one, etc. With regard to lighting the candles, however, the order is reversed. On the first night the candle on the extreme right is lit, on the second night and subsequent nights, one kindles the added candle and then kindles the rest, moving from left to right (O.C. 676:5). This is based on the teaching in Yoma 58b, Khol pinot sh' atah poneh lah? y' heh aela derekh yamin, ? "When one has the option to turn in either direction, he should turn towards the right." (M.B. n.10). The Mishnah Brurah cautions, though, that one should stand towards the left side of the menorah as he lights the candles so that he does not have to bypass the candles on his right to begin lighting. (See "TEFELLIN POUCH" above for a similar circumstance)

The Taz (676:6), however, feels that one lights the candles going from right to left. His reasoning is also based on the teaching of Chol pinot... (see, above) He explains that by starting to light the candle at the extreme right, one has indeed abided by the teaching of Chol pinot... Why, he asks, should one start by lighting from the left (on the third night, for example, the third candle) and make his way to the right, and in that manner fulfill Chol pinot? He should start by lighting the candle at the right, for that, too, fulfills Chol pinot. He continues by saying that the point where one begins lighting has more significance than where one finishes lighting, and thus it is proper to begin lighting on the right. (See also Biyur I lalacha, O.C. 676)


On Friday night, when The Minchas Elazar, the Munkatcher Rebbe, Rav Chaim Elazar Shapiro, turned to face the rear of the shill to recite the section of baui b'shalom, he would turn to the left (i.e., from east to west via north). When he turned to face the front of theshul again, he also turned towards the left (i.e., west to east via south). Interestingly, he turned in this manner because of the teaching, ?Whenever you have an option of turning, turn towards the right! [(Yoma 58b)(Sefer Darkei Chaim V?Sholom)]?

[It would seem that the Rebbe?s understanding was that as one makes an entire circle to turn back to face the direction he originally started from, by constantly turning left, one actually completes this circle by heading towards his right side. In this manner one complies with the teaching of Yoma. (See, Rashi, Zevachim 62b)]


[1]The information in this article is based primarily on the work of Hagoan Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita (the son of the Steipler Rav, zt`l). In Rav Chaim's sefer on the MesechtaKetana -Tetillin, he wrote a kuntros called Ish Itair. Additionally the Debrecener Rav, Rav Moshe Stern shlita, has five responsa in his Tshuvos Ba'er Moshe (Volume 2:1-5) that discuss this topic. He entitles these responsa Kuntros Itair Yad.

Editor's note: This article is taken from a pamphlet on the topic published by the author. Anyone wishing a copy may contact Rabbi Krohn at 718-846-6900.

Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn, is the author of Bris Milah, The Maggid Speaks, and Around the Maggid's Table all published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd.



All Rights Reserved(c) The Jewish Review, Inc., 1987-2011