Welcome to the first installment of TRADITION Questions, click here to read the series introduction.
What is it? Torahs scrolls are getting smaller. During the course of our lifetime, sifrei Torah have become more compact. While diminutive scrolls may have existed in the past, the number of such scrolls has increased dramatically. This trend is occurring across much of the Jewish world. This miniaturization enables those who are relatively weak to nevertheless hold, as well as lift, a Torah. Suppliers of klaf (parchment) to sofrim report that parchment height for almost all Torah scrolls produced today are 48 cm. or smaller – with many being written at 36 or 24 cm. By contrast, scrolls of just a generation ago were typically 56 cm. and often 64 cm. tall. This constitutes a 15–25% reduction of a Torah’s physical size.
What does it mean? Modern communal and personal uses of sifrei Torah require ever more portability. This is true within synagogues and between synagogues and outside locations. Torahs are regularly transported to houses of mourning, to destination celebrations, and to vacation homes. They are critical accessories for an increasingly democratized and decentralized Jewish life. This change, while facilitating admirable popular contact with Torah scrolls, runs against an important halakha regarding the movement of sifrei Torah. Rav Yosef Karo (Shulhan Arukh O.H. 135:14) writes: “[Regarding] people who are being held in prison, we do not bring a Torah to them, even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.”Rav Moshe Isserles adds in his gloss, quoting the Mordecai (Rosh Hashana 22a): “If he is an important person, then it is always permitted.”
Rabbi Yehiel Michel Epstein (Arukh HaShulhan O.H. 135:30) explains:
It is not in the Torah’s honor for it be transported from place to place unless this is done for the sake of an important person. Therefore, if they are not important, a Torah should not be transported for them, even when they are unable to come to synagogue due to reasons beyond their control, e.g., people in prison and similar situations… Based upon this explanation, we can deduce the impropriety of removing Torah scrolls from synagogues to be read in other locations and returned as many do on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah. Their intentions are to read from the Torah on these days, but whatever reward they would receive for this is lost in their transgression in dishonoring the Torah on these holy days. It is therefore appropriate to protest such activities.
Who isn’t important? Isn’t every person important? Yet, Jewish law seems to understand otherwise.
That one person could be more important than another disturbs the egalitarian ethos of our day. We regularly ignore the eternal reality of social stratification, even as that inequality vigorously persists (and, if we are honest, escalates). The suggestion that we be inconvenienced for the sake of an inanimate object is likewise off-putting. Modernity values the human, and it subjugates the material to meet human needs and wants. Yet, the halakha demands that we venerate the scroll by travelling to meet it – rather than having it travel to meet us. Our failure to do so has created a reality which literally diminishes the Torah’s physical dimensions to meet our needs.
More than any other object in Judaism, the Torah scroll is invested with symbolic meaning. The scroll represents the Judaism that is built upon its blueprint, as well as God who gave it. In shrinking the physical scroll, we shrink Judaism and God to our proportions. Perhaps Judaism asks that we inconvenience ourselves for the sake of the Torah – even if at times that means that we will not hear the Torah reading. Refraining from fulfilling a specific religious obligation (like reading from a Torah scroll in a prison) can achieve a greater religious value in creating greater veneration for the Torah as both a physical object and as a metaphysical ideal.
What questions remain? By what criteria should the idea of an “important person” persist, even if we acknowledge that it cannot become a category so large that it degrades the Torah beneath the human?
To what degree does the shrinking of the physical scroll also relate to its privatization? Are more Torahs being held privately and being lent to institutions as opposed to being donated to them? What does this say about our trust in institutions or those institutions willingness to make demands of us?
In its original context, what did it mean to be an “important person” relative to the Torah?
Closing thought: Avot (6:11) concludes with the words: “Said Rabbi Hanania ben Akashya: It pleased the Holy Blessed One to grant merit to Israel, that is why He gave them Torah and commandments in abundance, as it is said, ‘The Lord was pleased for His righteousness, to make Torah great and glorious’ (Isaiah 42:21).”
The phrase “great” in Hebrew – yagdil – reflects both physical size and ultimate importance. May we follow the Holy Blessed One’s example and make the Torah “big” in our lives and in God’s world.
Chaim Strauchler, an associate editor of TRADITION, is rabbi of Cong. Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck.