Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5760/2000

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelekh 5760/23 September 2000

The Commandment to Write a Torah Scroll

Dr. Alexander Klein
Department of Mathematics


"Editor's Note: For additional views on this subject, see Prof. Eric Zimmer, Parashat Vayelekh 1998."

The last commandment in the Torah is to write a Torah scroll. Maimonides, following the gemara, ruled on this commandment as follows:[1]
It is positive precept for each and every Jewish man to write himself a Torah scroll, as it is said: “Therefore, write down this poem” (Deut. 31:19), in other words, write yourselves a copy of the Torah containing this poem, since one does not write excerpted passages of the Torah. Even though his fathers may have left him a Torah scroll, it is a commandment to write a scroll of his own; and if he writes it with his own hand it is as if he received it at Mount Sinai. If he does not know to write, others write it for him. Anyone who proofreads a Torah scroll, even a single letter, is considered to have written one in its entirety.
Sefer ha-Hinukh (commandment 613) cites Maimonides and further explains this commandment:
The Lord commanded each and every Jew to have a Torah scroll ready at hand so that he can read it at any time and will not need to go to a neighbor for one, so that he learn to fear the Lord... and even if his fathers left him a scroll, [one should write a new scroll] so that there will be many scrolls, making it possible to lend a scroll to those who cannot afford to buy one, and also in order to read from a new scroll lest people tire of reading from the old scrolls left by previous generations.
Maimonides and, following him, the author of Sefer ha-Hinukh both are of the opinion that one is commanded to write a Torah scroll, and that this commandment applies to every male Jew. According to Sefer ha-Hinukh, the rationale for this commandment is to increase the number of Torah scrolls in order to encourage and make it easier for people to study the Torah.
I would like to address two questions that arise in this regard:
1) How can one deduce from the verse, “Therefore, write down this poem” that it applies to the entire Torah and not simply to Ha’azinu (Deut.32), as Rashi actually interprets the verse, which is in fact entirely (save the last four verses) a poem?
2) How should this commandment actually be performed in our day, when the rationale given for it by Sefer ha-Hinukh--to encourage the production of Bibles-- is no longer relevant?
Maimonides argues that the verse “write down this poem” does not relate to Ha’azinu alone on the grounds that “one does not write excerpted passages of the Torah.” This prohibition is elucidated by him further on (halakhah 14), where he explains that every passage must be given due respect. From this he concludes that the verse is not to be taken at face value, but rather as pertaining to the entire Torah.
The author of Torah Temimah (Deut. 31:19, par. 26) challenges this view of Maimonides:
In my opinion this [argument] is insufficient; for if it had been the intention of the Holy One, blessed be He, that every Jew have a written copy of Ha’azinu, it would not fall under the prohibition against writing excerpts of the Torah, since it is a special commandment, just as the excerpted passages in tefillin and mezuzot are written by themselves.
According to the argument in Torah Temimah, if it were a specific commandment to write out the poem Ha’azinu, the prohibition against writing excerpted passages of the Torah would not apply in this case, just as there is no such prohibition when it comes to writing the passages that are in tefillin and mezuzot. Therefore, he suggests another rationale for this commandment, alongside explanations offered by earlier and later rabbinic authorities.[2]
The objection raised by Torah Temimah can be removed if we understand Maimonides’ rationale differently: we are not dealing here with a commandment pertaining to a specific ritual, such as that of tefillin or mezuzah, but with a commandment whose purpose, according to the continuation of the verse, is to preserve the Torah from generation to generation, so that it never be forgotten by the people of Israel. Accordingly, the prohibition against writing a single excerpted passage of the Torah is understandable, since there is the danger that doing so would detract from the wholeness of the Torah. In other words, if preservation of the Torah is precisely what the commandment is about, clearly one should refrain from writing individual excerpts.
The Tur cites the opinion of his father, the Rosh (R. Asher), who has reservations about taking this commandment in its plain and literal sense, in view of the changes that have taken place in the way of life of the Jews over the centuries (Yoreh De’ah 270):
My master and father, the Rosh, wrote that this applied only to early generations, when it was the practice to write a Torah scroll and study from it; but in our day, when Torah scrolls are written and left in the synagogue for reading at public worship, it is a positive commandment for every Jew who can afford it to write Pentateuchs [humashim], Mishnahs and Gemaras and their commentaries, and to study them, he and his sons. The commandment to write the Torah is for the purpose of studying it, as it is written, “teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths.” Through the gemara and its commentaries one learns to interpret the commandments and laws properly, therefore these are the books that one is commanded to write.
Thus the Rosh believes that in the light of circumstances in his day, and all the more so in our times, the commandment to write a Torah should not be interpreted literally, but should be viewed in accordance with the times. Since scrolls were no longer used for studying the Torah, other books that are used by those who study Torah should be written, and thus the commandment would be properly fulfilled.
Beit Yosef (commentary on the Tur written by R. Yosef Karo) expressed surprise at the approach of the Rosh:
One wonders how the Rosh could exempt one from the commandment of writing a Torah scroll and substitute writing Pentateuchs and Mishnahs, etc. Therefore, it seems to me that he did not intend to introduce a new requirement, namely to write Pentateuchs and Mishnahs... for this is also part of the commandment to write a Torah.

Indeed, Sefer ha-Hinukh writes as follows:
Even though the main requirement is not only a Torah scroll, there can be no doubt that also with respect to other books written on the Torah each person should do his best ... and this was the way of all eminent persons who preceded us: to establish a House of Study in their homes for scribes to write many books.
Both Beit Yosef and Sefer ha-Hinukh understand from the remarks of the Rosh that he had no intention of abrogating the command to write a Torah scroll, rather of adding to it, including the writing of other books that could serve for Torah study. However the Derisha maintains that this was not what Rosh had in mind, and that it clearly follows from his words that today there is no longer any requirement to write a Torah scroll: “Follow the reason that the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded us to write a Torah scroll: to learn from it. Since in these times no one studies from the scroll, it is no longer a positive commandment.”
Possibly, the controversy between Beit Yosef and the Derisha whether one must write a Torah scroll can be better understood in the light of the question over “whether or not one should try to explain ta’ama de-kera, the rationale behind Scriptures.” The Encyclopedia Talmudit[3] defines the concept of ta’ama de-kera as follows: “Commandments or laws learned from the reasons given in the scriptural text; sometimes the reason is explicitly stated in them, sometimes the reason is midrashically explicated by the Talmud – in order to make fine distinctions within the laws or to add greater strictures (humrot) to them.” Here too the controversy revolves around whether we are to explicate the reason for writing a Torah as given in the verse itself to include writing the Oral Law in place of actual Torah Scrolls.
Essentially it is ruled that one is not to delve into the reasons for scriptural commandments, so that in principle we are not to derive any additional laws from the rationales that are given for a specific commandment. From this it would seem to follow that we are to accept the commandment of writing a Torah scroll literally as an edict of Scriptures, and are not to change this commandment or restrict it according to the circumstances.
Nevertheless the Hatam Sofer is of the opinion that there is room to introduce additional elements to the commandment of writing a Torah scroll which are also considered part of the commandment, for even though the halakhah follows those who hold that one must not delve into the rationale of the commandments, nevertheless one may consider the reason behind a commandment in order to interpret it more strictly.[4] Opposing him, the author of Imrei Shefer believes that if the reason for writing a Torah scroll is clearly in order to study it – and this is the straightforward sense of the text – all would agree that one can explain the reasons behind scriptural commands.[5]
Thus, according to Imrei Shefer the Rosh was correct in ruling that today the commandment is not necessarily to write a Torah scroll. The author of Hayyei Adam, who lived after the invention of printing, sums up the discussion as follows (rule 31.50):
Some say that in this era the commandment is to acquire a Bible, Mishnah, Gemara, and works of posekim, and that this takes precedence over writing a Torah scroll; for in those days it was actually the custom to learn by heart from the Torah scroll, but in our times it is better to learn from printed books. Some say that all the same there is still a positive command to write oneself a Torah scroll, and G-d-fearing Jews fulfill all these obligations if it is within their reach. If it is beyond their reach and striving for it would lead to abandoning Torah studies -- for a person might not have books of Gemara and posekim -- it seems patently clear to me that these works take precedence over a Torah scroll, for surely studying the Torah is more important than writing a Torah, insofar as one may sell a Torah scroll in order to afford to study Torah. It also seems to me that providing [books] to those who study the Torah takes precedence over writing a Torah, contrary to the masses who believe that writing a Torah scroll is the very most elevated of commandments and that through this alone can one assure oneself of the world to come, and who do not contribute to equipping those who wish to study the Torah. Therefore they walk in darkness, and what is more, when the scroll is given to the synagogue they squander money on feasts and candles and many expenses, and if they only listened to the words of the Sages they would realize that it is better to spread around their money to the poor and to those who study Torah.
The author of Hayyei Adam says in no uncertain terms that it is better to support those who study Torah than to spend considerable sums of money on writing a Torah. If the object of the commandment is to encourage study of the Torah and to have more people study, then in every era one must find the most appropriate ways to fulfill the intention of the commandment, even at the cost of putting aside the literal sense of the commandment. This example shows how the halakhah has evolved in the case of one of the 613 commandments – commandment 613.


[1] Hilkhot Tefillin u-Mezuzah ve-Sefer Torah, ch. 7., halakhah 1.
[2] Cf. Yehudah Nahshoni, Hagut be-Parshiyot ha-Torah, Bnai Brak 1989, pp. 829-832.
[3] See under Ta’amah de-Kera.
[4] Resp. Hatam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 254.
[5] Imrei Shefer 34.5, in accord with Tosafot Ha- Rosh, Bava. Metzia 90a.
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