By BARUCH FRYDMAN-KOHL
Shavuot is celebrated as the time of the giving of Torah. It marks our theological first day. It celebrates the core encounter of Judaism: the Commanding Presence of the Holy at Sinai. One of the links to that sacred moment is the regular reading of Torah, which enables us to experience in a distant way the point of singularity of our communal relationship with God.
Although the Hebrew letters in the Torah are written in a different form from their original appearance, and the language itself has gone through many stages of development, we still retain one of the earliest forms of a portable text, the scroll. The scroll was one of the first forms of the book.
The Sefer Torah is our symbolic connection to God. The Torah scroll is the most prized possession of the Jewish people. It commands respect and reverence from us and is seen as having a degree of sanctity (kedushah
) unparalleled by any other object. We treat the Torah as if it were the representation of Divine sovereignty. We stand in its presence. We embrace and kiss the Torah. We fast if the Torah falls and we bury it with dignity when it is no longer usable.
The image of the destruction of Torah is painful. A few years ago, when a fire broke out in our synagogue, people rushed to bring our Torah scrolls to safety. One of the ways the Nazis tormented Jews was by cutting the parchment of Torah into shoe liners and requiring Jews to walk upon the sacred letters. In the Holocaust Museum in Washington is an exhibit of the ruin of German synagogues during Kristallnacht; at its center is a partially burned Sefer Torah.
Our tradition teaches that there are 613 commandments (mitzvot) and that the culminating one is the obligation of each Jew to participate in the writing of a Torah. By doing so, we emulate Moshe our Teacher who according to tradition wrote out the first Torah.
In addition, our writing of a Torah enables us to continue the study, teaching, and reading of Torah for future generations. The great legal authority, Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher
(Spain, 1270 -c.1340), notes that the study of Torah elicits many brachot, but the reading of Torah evokes an additional one: God “chose us …and gave us the Torah.” According to a later commentator, the Ba”h, Rabbi Yoel Sirkis (Krakow, 1561-1640), this bracha is recited following the reading of Torah as a blessing of thanksgiving; we are privileged to maintain the revelation of Sinai alive through our actions.
Prior to commencing the project of writing a Torah, a scribe is supposed to indicate that this is being done as a sacred act. Before forming the four letter Name of God (YHVH), the scribe also articulates that this is an act of kiddush hashem, sanctifying the Name of God, and each time the Name is written, it is said aloud. This suggests that the writing of a Torah brings added holiness into this world.
According to many rabbinic authorities, as we fulfil the mitzvah of writing a Torah we also become part owners of the Torah. Through this act we “acquire Torah,” add joy (simcha) and bring holiness (kedusha) to our lives.
The mitzvah of writing a Torah is not an isolated endeavor. It is closely connected to core Jewish beliefs and practices. Writing a Torah serves to:
- Facilitate Torah study and teaching;
- Create an awareness of kedushah/sanctity;
- Situate us symbolically at Sinai;
- Preserve the practice of the Torah tradition;
- Enable us to emulate our Rabbi, Moses.
This is not simply another mitzvah. It is the last of the 613 Mitzvot, the culmination of Torah.
If you are ever given the opportunity to participate in the writing of a Torah – whether offered by your synagogue, another organization, or even a religious group that you usually don’t support, it is meaningful to join this process. It is a deeply moving religious act. Bring friends or loved ones with you to join with the scribe in the inscription of the Torah to share your joy with others and to add holiness to all our lives. Bring a non-Jewish friend to witness a special part of our religious tradition with him or her.
Shavuot is the first day of Torah, celebrating the entry of the divine word into the realm of humanity. Writing a Torah is a human deed that culminates all the commandments. This act enables us to become like God, initiating a process that brings added holiness into our world.
Baruch Frydman-Kohl is Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair in Rabbinics and Rabbi of Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto, Canada. He is a Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute