May 26, 2003 – Number 16
Laws Relating to the Torah II
There are many superstitions about how one is supposed to care for and handle a Torah. I hope to dispel some of these myths.
First of all, there are many people still today who feel that one must be very careful in handling a Torah Scroll. That if a scroll should drop on the floor than you have to fast for a month (!) A very intense diet to be sure. Actually there is no such thing as a month long fast in Judaism. Even if you allow that the fast would be only by day (and you could eat at night) it still would not make any sense. The actual rule is that when a Torah scroll is accidently dropped or falls onto the floor, it is the obligation of everyone who is present in the room at that time to make a contribution to Tzedaka. Thus whatever “evil decree” caused the Torah to fall can be corrected by Tzedaka and acts of kindness.
For many years there were people who claimed that a woman could not have an aliyah nor touch a Torah for fear that they might be menstruating and the impurity that is attached to this condition would transfer to the Torah. Since it is not proper to ask a woman about this condition, than all women are forbidden to touch a Torah. This is also a myth. The truth is that a Torah scroll is by definition impure (Tamei) as are all “holy” books. According to the Sages, this was to prevent one from making the leap from studying a sacred text to making the scroll the object of worship. Note that when we take the Torah from the ark, we turn and bow to the now empty ark. A reminder that it is the holy presence of G-d that we praise, not the actual scrolls of Torah. The Torah has the capacity to transfer its impurity to human beings. This is why many people do not touch a Torah scroll directly, but use a Tallit or Siddur to touch the Torah. Some say this is unnecessary since the Torah Mantle provides enough of a barrier to prevent us from touching the scroll. This is also one of the reasons that we use a “yad” to point in the text. (The other reason is to prevent the oils in our hands from ruining the letters on the parchment.)
The Sages of the Talmud agreed that there is actually no reason at all why women should not be called to the Torah for an Aliyah but the custom was not to call them lest they embarrass a man who did not know the blessings (illiteracy was a big problem in ancient days). Conservative Jews no longer hold by this stringency and we do call women to the Torah for an Aliyah.
Many people believe that if a Torah has one letter missing or wrong, than the whole Torah is “pasul” or not useable. This is somewhat true. The Rabbis teach that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah to correspond to the 600,000 people who made up the Jewish people when they left Egypt. Since no Jew was left behind, we can not use a Torah that is missing a letter. We can carry the example even further, The script used in a Torah has little decorative “crowns” on some of the letters. Even if a “crown” is missing the Torah can not be used. (Rabbi Akiva was said to have learned “heaps and heaps” of laws from these crowns but if he did they are not recorded anywhere.) A Torah with this kind of a defect can not be used at a service. The universal indicator of a “pasul” Torah is where the tie that holds the scroll together is not under the mantle but outside the mantle.
But a Torah scroll can be fixed. If there is a hole in the parchment, a letter has rubbed off, or been smeared, or is no longer readable, these are all repairable. A Sofer (Scribe) can scratch off a letter and rewrite it to fix the Torah. Holes can be patched. A ripped parchment can be removed and only that “page” replaced. Similarly a scroll from a mezuzah or from Tephillin, can also be repaired. It is important to have a Torah repaired as soon as possible. It is not proper to have a “pasul” Torah in a place where it may be used. This led to an issue with the Holocaust Torah Scrolls that came into congregations through the offices of the Westminster Synagogue in England. These scrolls come from the synagogues destroyed by Nazi Germany. The Nazis wanted the scrolls for a museum about the “vanished race” of Jews. When they came to our community, there was a discussion if a synagogue could harbor permanently a “pasul” Torah. However, we could not fix the scroll since the ownership of all the scrolls remains with the Westminster synagogue. We only have the scroll on permanent loan from England.
Finally, a Torah scroll is always treated with respect. It is the source of all Jewish Law. We therefore stand when we see the Torah, and kiss it reverentially when it passes by. We are commanded to bring honor to the Torah and it is a big mitzvah to study its words, and not just to read them.
Next Week : Jewish Attitudes Toward Death.