Reading religious texts like the Talmud at close distance is likely to explain sky-high rates of nearsightedness among Haredi men, according to the authors of a new peer-reviewed study.
Glasses are far more common among ultra-Orthodox Israelis than in the general population. A 2019 study found that while 30 percent of secular Israeli men are shortsighted, among Haredi men in the sample, that figure rose to 82%. It suggested that close reading may play a part, but didn’t say more on the subject.
“We’ve long been fascinated by how common shortsightedness is among Haredi men, especially after the 2019 study showed it to be so much more widespread than elsewhere,” said Prof. Ariela Gordon Shaag, chair of the optometry department at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem and an author of the new study.
“After all, these are people with similar genetic backgrounds and living in the same place, not two different sets of people at opposite ends of the earth. We wanted to explore possible causes.”
Shaag and her colleagues asked men aged 18 to 33, half Haredim and half non-Haredim, to read from a book, write, and use a tablet. They used electronic devices that monitored how closely they positioned themselves to the page or tablet.
Haredim read at a distance of 37 centimeters from the page, which is 4.5 centimeters closer than non-Haredim. For writing and tablet use, they positioned themselves on average 3.5 centimeters closer.
“It may seem like a small difference but it’s actually significant,” Shaag told The Times of Israel. “This is an exciting finding in the sense it’s actually the first time we have objectively uncovered a difference in the way that Haredi males make use of their sight differently than others.
“Haredi men spend lots of time reading texts with small letters that are close together, like in the Talmud and the commentary of Rashi. This seems to impact reading habits, which in turn have an impact on eyesight.”
She said that her team investigated another possibility, namely that study participants read closely as a result of shortsightedness, as opposed to vice versa. But it found research showing that people who are shortsighted don’t tend to read closer than others.
Shaag said further research is needed to confirm a cause-and-effect relationship between reading habits and eyesight. One element of this, already underway, is an investigation into shortsightedness levels among Haredi women.
In the ultra-Orthodox community, women are less involved in religious study and therefore spend less time reading such texts. Shaag said that if women show more moderate levels of shortsightedness than male counterparts, as expected, it will strengthen her hypothesis.
She added that other factors may contribute to myopia rates too, such as a tendency for Haredi men to spend more time indoors than the general population, and she said she hopes to explore the possible impact of time spent outdoors.
Shaag said that if a causative relationship between close reading and shortsightedness is confirmed, it could lead to practical recommendations, like enlarging religious texts or offering them on tablets where text size can be increased. “Improving understanding on the difference in myopia incidence can have significant benefits,” she said.