A Good Read!
Rabbi Yehuda bar Nachmani taught: One verse says, “G‑dsaid to Moshe, ‘Write these words for yourself,’ and the same verse continues, ‘for according (“al pi,” which literally means “by mouth”) to these words I have formed a covenant with you and with the Jewish People.’” (Shemot 34:27) This teaches that the Oral Torah is not permitted to be “said” in writing, and that the Written Torah is not permitted to be said by heart.
This well-known teaching on our daf is the source of much discussion throughout the ages by the Rishonim and Poskim. Perhaps the most discussed question is how we may say the first verse of the Shema while covering our eyes and obviously not reading it from a Sefer Torah or even a Siddur. (In addition, this mitzvah is referred to in the Mishna and in halacha terminology as “Kriat Shema” — reading the Shema — and not as “Amirat Shema,” which would mean “saying the Shema,” and imply that it is said by heart.)
A number of reasons are offered by the commentaries for the need to read verses from the Written Law, and not say them from memory. One is that one might make a mistake if it is not read from a Sefer Torah or a sefer. Accordingly, if the verse is one that is is oft-recited and is fluent in the mouths of people, there is no worry that it will be said incorrectly if done so by heart. (Tur, Orach Chaim 49)
Another reason for the need to read verses from a sefer and not just say them by heart is that there are special meanings conveyed by the form of the letters in lashon hakodesh. Therefore it is important to see the words that one is saying, to (hopefully) see and gain greater depth in Torah. As we are taught, “The letters of (of the holy Hebrew language) impart wisdom.” (Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 49)
Another reason to read verses from a Sefer Torah is that in case a Sefer Torah is present and open, another person who sees a verse said there by heart should not wrongly think that this verse is not written in the Sefer Torah. Although one might think that this concern would apply only if a Sefer Torah is present, a “blanket ban” was made to not allow saying verses by heart even without a Sefer Torah present. (Kol Bo)
Aside from the “fluency-factor” mentioned by the Tur as a reason to allow saying verses by heart, other factors and reasons are found in our sources. One is that since the prohibition is of Rabbinical origin (the Torah cited in the Gemara is an asmachta “hint”), the Rabbis decided not to forbid saying verses by heart when it will dishonor the congregation. For example, if a rabbi is giving a lecture and quoting a number of verses, it would be awkward and time-consuming to read each verse from the appropriate written source, and lead to a discomfort to the attendees of the Torah lesson. (It is important to note that other reasons and factors are found in numerous Rishonim and Poskim, especially in Berachot 9a, Yoma 70a and Gittin 60b — besides in our sugya.)
Tosefot on our daf also asks why we may say verses of praise (i.e. Psalms and many such verses in the prayer services) by heart instead of only from a sefer. Tosefot answers that the requirement to read from a sefer is only when the speaker intends to help other listeners fulfill their obligation in the mitzvah. In this case the one saying the verses of the Written Torah should be careful to read them and not just say them by heart. The reason for this distinction — that saying them by heart for oneself is sufficient, while saying them by heart for others is not — is not explained by Tosefot. Perhaps it also is rooted in the concept of honoring the congregation. The speaker leaves no doubt that the words read are not in any way incorrect since they are read from within the text.
Years ago I had the merit to attend an inspiring lecture by the Gaon HaRav Simcha Wasserman, zatzal, who was teaching Gemara at the Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem and serving as the mashgiach ruchani (spiritual advisor, as well as a general mentor). The subject of the talk was the Oral Law and its role. He offered a metaphor. Imagine you are in an important lecture at an academic institution and want to be able to remember everything that was taught in the class. What would you do (before the proliferation of ubiquitous recording devices)? Take careful written notes, of course! So it is with the Written and Oral aspects of the Torah. Certainly the Torah is one. But whereas the Oral Torah is “the Lecture,” the Written Torah is “the Lecture-notes.”
- Temura 14b