The Purpose of Writing a Sefer Torah
The Purpose of Writing a Sefer Torah
Sefer HaChinuch (613) writes:
Among the roots of this mitzvah: For it is known that the way in which men carry out their deeds reflects their degree of preparation for those deeds. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that each and every man of Israel have a sefer Torah at hand from which he can always study, and that it not be necessary for him to seek one at the house of his friend. In this way, he will learn to fear Hashem, and he will know and understand His mitzvos which "are more precious than gold, and even much fine gold" (Psalms 19:11).
Rambam (Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:1) writes:
It is a positive commandment for every man in Israel to write a sefer Torah for himself, as it is written, "And now, write for yourselves this song;" that is, write for yourselves the Torah which has in it this song, for it is forbidden to write the Torah as individual sections.
Beis Yosef (Tur, Yoreh Deah, §270) explains that the 'song' referred to this verse in Shiras Ha'azinu, the song that comprises the major portion of Parshas Ha'azinu (Deuteronomy Ch. 32). However, the verse cannot mean to write only this song, for, as Rambam notes, it is forbidden to write the Torah as individual sections (see Gitten 60a). Perforce we must say that the mitzvah
here is to write the entire Torah, up to and including Shiras Ha'azinu at the Torah's conclusion. This, Bais Yosef says, is the intent of Rambam's words cited above.
Many latter day commentators, among them Chasam Sofer, question this, as they note that the mitzvah of tefillin and mezuzah require us to write individual sections of the Torah. Thus, we see that the prohibition against writing individual sections does not apply when the Torah specifically commands us to record a section. What forces us, then, to say that the mitzvah to record Shiras Ha'azinu means to record the entire Torah?
They clarifiy this mitzvah by explaining the intent of Shiras Ha'azinu. Calling it a song seems strange, since much of it foretells how the Jewish nation will stray from God's service and, as punishment, will be given over into the hands of its enemies. It is, rather, called a song because it tells of the unique Divine Providence that directs the happenings of our people, that God brings us close to Him when we observe His mitzvos and distances Himself from us when our behavior is wanting. The song con¬cludes by foretelling of Israel's ultimate redemption from the hands of its enemies.
Ra'avad (Sefer Ha'Eshkol, vol. II:11) comments that if Shiras Ha'azinu is to be a testimony, we must know that which it is testifying about—the Torah.
Shiras Ha'azinu should inspire its reader to sincere teshuva, repentance. However, its words can only be appreciated when studied in the context of the entire Torah. Only one knowledge-able in Torah can truly comprehend the profound lessons and loving rebuke inherent in the song. Therefore, the mitzvah to record Shiras Ha'azinu must, by definition, require us to record it as part of the entire Torah. (Sefer Binyan Olam, Also, R' Moshe Feinstein in Kol Ram.)
A much discussed opinion regarding the mitzvah is that of the thirteenth century commentator Rabbeinu Asher, commonly known as Rosh (Rashi):
". . . And I say, that surely it is a great mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah. . . but nowadays, that sifrei Torah are written and placed in synagogues for public Torah readings, it is a positive commandment that every Jewish male who is able to, would write chumashim, volumes of Gemora, Mishnah, and their commentaries, to toil over together with his sons. For the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah is in order to study from it, as it is written, "[. . . write for yourselves this song] and teach it to the children of Israel, place it into their mouths." It is through [the study of] Gemora and its commentaries that one comes to know well the meaning of the mitzvos and their laws. Therefore, these are the works that one is commanded to write. . .(Halachos Ketanos to Menachos -1-)
Bais Yosef (Tur, Yoreh Deah, §270) wonders how Rosh can use such reasoning to absolve one from fulfilling the mitzvah in the way which the Torah intended. It would seen that Rosh, rather than state that one should write those works which are commonly used for study, should have instead stated that one should write a Sefer Torah and study from it, as opposed to merely placing it in a synagogue for public readings.
Bais Yosef therefore concludes that surely even in our times, the primary way of fulfilling this mitzvah is through writing a Sefer Torah. Rosh's intent is only to point out that one is also obligated to write or purchase Chumashim, Gemaros, etc., that this, too, is included in the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah, and that this is superior to writing a sefer Torah and using it only for public Torah readings.*
In Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 270:1), R' Yosef Karo (author of Bais Yosef) states as halachah the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah. In the following paragraph, he writes that today it is a mitzvah to write Chumashim, Mishnah, Gemora and their commentaries. Rb. Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah §163) writes that according to Shulchan Aruch, one can fulfill the mitzvah either through writing a sefer Torah or through writing (or buying) Chumashim, Mishnah, Gemora, etc.
Rb. Feinstein notes that many Rishonim (early commentators), as well as such later commentators as Taz, Gra and Sha'agas Aryeh, concur that even today the mitzvah can be fulfilled only through writing a sefer Torah and the fact that the scroll is not studied from does not prevent fulfillment of the mitzvah.
The Chofetz Chaim (Sefer HaMitzvos HaKatzer) in defining the mitzvah as it applies in our day, states that one should write, designate someone else to write, or buy a sefer Torah (see below); and he then cites the opinion of Rosh. The Chofetz Chaim then concludes, "Whoever is able to fulfill both [interpretations]—fortunate is his lot."
R' Feinstein further writes that the vast majority of Jewish men who do not have a sefer Torah written in their lifetime rely on the opinions of Rosh, Bais Yosef and Shach that this mitzvah may be fulfilled today by purchasing Chumashim, Mishnah, Gemora and their commentaries.
A Mitzvah for Itself?
Rambam, Ramban, and Sefer HaChinuch are among those who list the writing of a sefer Torah among the 613 mitzvos, while R' Saadiah Goan and Halachos Gedolos do not list it as such. Maharif explains the latter opinion in accordance with Rosh. Rosh, as cited above, writes that the [primary] purpose of this mitzvah is in order to study from the sefer Torah. Thus, writing a sefer Torah falls within the mitzvah of Torah study and is not a mitzvah in itself.
Buying, Writing, Correcting
R' Yehoshua bar Aba said in the name of R' Gidal who said in the name of Rav: One who purchases a sefer Torah from the market is considered as if he had grabbed a mitzvah from the market. One who writes a sefer Torah, is considered as if he had received it at Mount Sinai. Said Rb Sheshes: One who corrects even one letter is considered as if he had written it [in its entirety]. (Menachos 30a)
Rashi explains that one who purchases a sefer Torah has ful-filled a mitzvah, but one who writes a sefer Torah (or designates an agent to write one for him) has fulfilled a greater mitzvah. Nemukei Yosef, following the opinion of Rashi, says that since purchasing an already completed sefer Torah involves little effort, the Midas Hadin, i.e., prosecuting angels may contend that had the mitzvah entailed effort or difficulty, the person may have abandoned it. However, to write a sefer Torah, or even to hire a scribe to write one, requires much effort. With regard to the latter, if one takes upon himself to procure the necessary materials, then the effort involved is surely great. In any event, overseeing the scribe's progress until the work is completed is in itself a task that can involve physical and mental strain. Therefore, when one under-takes this, the Midas Harachamim, i.e., the angels of mercy contend that just as the person willingly expended effort for the writing of a sefer Torah, so would he have been willing to go out to the Wilderness to receive the Torah. Similarly, one who troubles himself to correct even a single error in a sefer Torah, in all likelihood, stands ready to expend effort to correct even many mistakes. Therefore, says Tur (Yoreh Deah §270), he, too, is con-sidered as if received the Torah at Sinai.
Bach (ibid) explains the phrase 'as if he had grabbed a mitzvah' to mean that bringing a completed sefer Torah is akin to fulfilling a mitzvah that one chanced upon in the market and carried out without any forethought or pursuit. A mitzvah it is, but it cannot compare to a mitzvah that one pursued and expended real effort to fulfill.
However, Rama (Yoreh Deah 270:1) rules that one who pur-chases a sefer Torah that requires no correction has not fulfilled the mitzvah at all. This seems to be the opinion of Rambam who writes, "It is a positive commandment to write a sefer Torah."*
From the wording of Sefer HaChinuch who writes, "that we are commanded that each man of Israel have a sefer Torah," it would seem that, in his opinion, the mitzvah is fulfilled through purchas-ing.
Gra (Yoreh Deah 270:3) agrees with Rashi (Nemukei Yosef and Sefer HaChinuch,) that one can fulfill the mitzvah even by purchasing an error-free Sefer Torah
The Prevalent Custom
There is a widespread custom for one who writes a sefer Torah to invite others to share in this mitzvah by filling in a letter (or letters) in the sefer scroll's final columns. The source of this custom is the Talmudic passage cited above, where correcting a single letter is compared to writing an entire Torah. The source of this custom is to show one's love for a mitzvah.
R' Dovid Cohen (Eidus HaShirab) notes that the participation of others does not detract from the mitzvahbeing done by the one who had commissioned the scribe, for they, like the scribe, act as the person's agents.
Sefer HaChinuch writes that women are exempt from the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah. This seems to be the opinion of Rambam who states, "It is a positive commandment for every man..."
Sha'agas Aryeh(35), however, questions this, for this mitzvah does not fall within the category of time-related mitzvos, from which women are exempt (see Mishnah Kiddushin 1:7).
Maharam Shik (citing later commentators) writes that women are exempt because the verse regarding this mitzvah states, "Write for yourselves... And teach it to the sons** of Israel."
Some suggest that since women may not serve as scribes to write sifrei Torah (Yoreh Deah 281:3) they are likewise not qualified to appoint agents to write on their behalf (Minchas Chinuch, Keses Sofer).
The Chinuch suggests that the mitzvah to write a sefer Torah applies only to those (i.e. men) who are required to study the entire Torah. Women, however, who are only required to study the sections dealing with those mitzvos in which they are obligated, are exempt from this mitzvah. Sefer HaChinuch's wording seems to indicate this explanation: "And it [this mitzvah] applies in all places in all generations—to males, who are obligated in the mitzvah of Torah study".
The later commentators grapple with the question of whether or not this mitzvah can be fulfilled in partnership. Pardes Dovid wonders whether the word "Lochem", [write] for yourselves, requires that each man write his own sefer Torah* As Pardes Dovid writes, it is common practice for members of a synagogue or community to join together in writing a sefer Torah.
In 1933, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky (Rav of Vilna and leader of world Jewry) called on Jews everywhere to participate in the writing of a sefer Torah in memory of the recently deceased Chofetz Chaim. Announcements bearing R' Chaim Ozer's signa¬ture called on every man and woman to participate and "thereby fulfill the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah."
(For further discussion, see Chidushei R' Akiva Eiger and Pischei Teshuvah to Yoreh Deah 270:1; and Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah I § 163.)
Blessing of the Mitzvah
The Acharonim (later commentators) discuss whether or not a blessing should be recited prior to commencing the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah, as is the case with almost all mitzvos. Maharam Shik (Yoreh Deah §254) states that a blessing should be recited. However, many Acharonim disagree. Chasam Sofer (Orach Chaim§52) writes that a blessing is not recited over a mitzvah whose performance takes place over an extended period of time. Others write that a blessing is recited only when one can definitely discharge his obligation to perform a given mitzvah. This is not the case with the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah, for if the sefer Torah were to become lost or destroyed, one would be required to write a new one (Chesed L'Avraham, Orach Chaim §24; and Mach-sheves HaKodesh Vol II §29). Following the majority opinion, the custom today is not to recite a blessing for this mitzvah.
The commentators likewise discuss whether or not the "Shehechianu" blessing should be recited for this mitzvah.* Ben Ish Chai (Parashas Re'eh) writes, "The custom here in our city is that one who brings a new sefer Torah to the beishakneses... dons a new garment, recites a "Shehechianu" and has in mind that the blessing be for (both the garment and) the sefer Torah". Birkei Yosef writes that this is the prevalent custom.
Beautifying the Mitzvah
"This is my God and I shall beautify (i.e. glorify) Him"
(Exodus 15:2)—Beautify yourselves before Him through the mitzvos. Make before Him a beautiful Torah scroll; write it expressly for the purpose of the mitzvah, with quality ink and quill; have it written by an expert scribe and wrap it in beautiful cloths. (Shabbos 133b)
Maharal explains that the way in which God reveals Himself to His people is a reflection of their status at that time. Midrash Tanchuma states that God appeared at the Sea of Reeds (at the time of Exodus) as a warrior, at Sinai as a teacher of Torah, and in the days of Solomon, He revealed Himself "in accordance with the deeds of the people".
When a Jew expends effort to beautify a mitzvah he is, in essence, beautifying himself. Scripture likens Israel to a dove and the mitzvos to its feathers (Psalms 68:14); as the feathers cover the dove, so do the mitzvos adorn those who perform them (see Shabbos 49a).
When a Jew enhances his own soul by performing mitzvos in a beautiful fashion, then God's presence among His people is beautiful and enhanced, as it were. This is my God and 1 will beautify Him.
The Kings Sefer Torah
A side from the mitzvah of Sefer Torah under discussion, there is a mitzvah for a King of Israel to write for himself a second sefer Torah which is to be with him wherever he goes. This is stated explicitly in Deuteronomy (17:18—20):
"And it shall be, when he will sit upon his royal throne, that he shall write this second Torah upon a scroll before [i.e. under the supervision of] the Kohanim and Levi'im. And it [i.e. this Sefer Torah] shall be with him, and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he shall learn to fear Hashem, his God, to safeguard all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to do them. Lest his heart be raised above his brethren, and lest he stray from the commandments right or left. So that the days of his kingdom be lengthened, for him and his descendants within Israel."
Sefer Chinuch (§503) explains: "For the king is under his own jurisdiction, no man will overrule him or castigate him for his [mis] deeds, while by the 'rod of his word' he may punish his people and by 'breath of his lips' he may kill any of his subjects. Therefore, he requires an extensive safeguard and a proper reminder to stand opposite him and upon which he will always look, so that he can subdue his evil inclination and turn his heart toward his Creator. Thus did the Sages teach: When the king goes out to war, the sefer Torah must be with him; when he sits in judgment, it is with him; when he reclines to eat…In summation, the sefer Torah was never removed from before his eyes. . ."
A Scroll To Remember
Rabbi Yisrael Spira, the late Bluzhever Rebbe, was a revered rabbinic figure in Eastern Europe well before the second world war. During his internment at various concentration camps, the Rebbe was guide, father and source of inspiration to thousands.
His last stop during the war was at the Yanowka death camp, where the Bluzhever Rebbe was one of the eleven people that survived among the three thousand inmates.
In Yanowka, on the night of January 13, 1943, a kapo entered the barracks where the Rebbe slept and called for the Rebbe to come forward. Everyone thought that the Rebbe was being singled out for torture, so no one—including the Rebbe—moved. However, the kapo, himself a Jew, assured everyone that he had come only to deliver an important message to the Rebbe. The Rebbe then rose from his bed and came forward. The kapo handed the Rebbe a crumpled envelope which contained a piece of paper on which someone had hurriedly scribbled a note. The note read:
My dear Rabbi Yisrael Spira,
may you enjoy a long and happy life, They have just surrounded the bristle factory in which some 800 of us have been working. We are about to be put to death.
Please, dear Rabbi, if you should be found worthy of being saved, and if you should be able to settle in the Land of Israel, then have a little marker put upon our holy soil as a remembrance for my wife and me. No matter where you will make your new home, perhaps you can have a sefer Torah written in our memory. I am enclosing fifty , American dollars which I hope the messenger with whom I am sending this note will give to you.
I must hurry, because they have already ordered us to remove our clothes.
When I get to the Next World, I will convey your greet¬ings to your holy ancestors and will ask them to intercede on your behalf so that your days may be long and happy.
Aryeh ben Leah Kornblit
P.S. My sister's children are now living with a gentile family named Vasilevsky, near Gredig. Please take them away from there and place them with a Jewish family. Whatever happens, they must remain Jews. My wife, Sheva bas Chaya, was shot yesterday.
An old fifty-dollar bill fell out of the envelope.
From that day and on, the Rebbe carried this letter with him wherever he went. In 1946, at a public gathering in New York, the Rebbe read the letter to the crowd and appealed to everyone to help him fulfill Mr. Kornblit's wish. Though few among those present were well-to-do, virtually everyone responded generously. A sefer Torah was written and placed in the aron hakodesh (ark) of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath. A few days prior to the sefer Torah's dedication, the Rebbe held Mr. Kornblit's letter in his hand and, with tears streaming down his cheeks, said,
"Take note of the spiritual strength God gives his people! Here is a man whose wife was already killed and who himself was about to die. Yet, he found in his heart the strength to think of others—not only his sister's children, but also those whom he would never know, and would hold his sefer Torah in their arms.
"How good is our lot, how beautiful is our heritage!"