Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat VaYelekh

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Vayelekh 5759/1998

"Write down this poem" (Deut.31:19)

Prof. Yitzhak (Eric) Zimmer

Department of Jewish History

There are two main schools of thought regarding the command to write a Torah scroll: the better-known one was set forth by Maimonides in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot [1] and Mishneh Torah. In the latter source he stated as follows:[2]

It is a positive command incumbent on each and every Jewish man to write himself a Torah scroll, for it is said: "Therefore, write down this poem" (Deut. 31:19). In other words, write down the Torah which contains this poem, since one does not write a Torah in separate sections.

In other words, there is a special commandment that applies to each and every man[3] to write himself a Torah scroll. This opinion is accepted by the vast majority of compilations of commandments made after Maimonides, including Sefer ha-Hinukh,[4] Semag,[5] Semak,[6] and eminent posekim such as Baal ha-Turim and R. Joseph Caro in his Shulhan Arukh.[7]

The opposing school was led by the author of Halakhot Gedolot, followed by R. Saadiah Gaon and later also R. Hefez b. Yazliah, in their compilations of commandments. According to this school, writing a Torah scroll is not an individual responsibility and therefore is not included in the list of commandments incumbent on each and every person. Rather, according to this school, writing a Torah scroll is a public duty. Indeed Halakhot Gedolot includes this obligation among the "sections of the Torah, laws, and ordinances entrusted to the community," obscurely referring to this mitzvah as "the parasha of the large stones ("parashat avanim gedolot.")[8] R. Saadiah Gaon, concurring with this view, lists this commandment among the "sixty-five sections, laws and ordinances read to them [the community]." He also writes in a similar style: [the mitzvah is] that "My Torah is to be written in stone."[9] The upshot of their words is that they hold that writing a Torah is a public obligation of the Jewish community, not performed by writing it on parchment, but in stone, as stated in Deuteronomy (27:8): "And on those stones you shall inscribe every word of this Teaching most distinctly." The compilation of commandments by R. Hefez b. Mazliah (apparently lived in Babylonia in the 11th century) also lists this only as a general commandment.[10] This lead was apparently followed by R. Eliezer of Metz in Sefer ha-Yerei'im, where the command is not listed as one that applies to individuals.[11]

Presumably the proponents of this second school held that the case of an individual writing a Torah scroll was not a separate mitzvah but was part of the commandment of Torah study. In other words, writing a Torah scroll could be viewed as preparatory (hekhsher mitzva) to performing the command of studying Torah. Indeed, the verse that Maimonides (of the first school) ascribes as the origin of the commandment for an individual to write a scroll also indicates that this act is for the purpose of study: "Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths" (Deut. 31:19). This attitude, I believe, must have prompted R. Asher ben Jehiel to state that writing Pentateuchs for use in the synagogue or home, Mishnahs and Talmuds fulfills the commandment in our day 'to write a Torah scroll'. After noting Maimonides' view as presented above, R. Asher b. Jehiel continued as follows:[12]

That applied to former times, when one would write a Torah scroll and study it; but now that one writes a Torah scroll and places it in the synagogue for it to be read in public, it has become a positive command for every Jew who can afford to do so to write a Pentateuch, Mishnah, Gemara and commentaries and study them, he and his sons; for the command of writing the Torah is for the purpose of studying it, as it is written, "and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths." Through the Gemara and the commentaries they will attain a thorough understanding of the commandments and religious laws. Therefore, these are the books that we are commanded to write.

R. Jeruham b. Meshullam cites R. Asher b. Jehiel and then adds, "and thus it has been written by the Geonim."[13] Presumably, he had in mind the school of thought espoused by Halakhot Gedolot and Saadiah Gaon and their followers.

Indeed, the Bet Yosef ( Tur Yoreh De'ah 78) attempts to arrive at a synthesis of these two schools. He challenges Tur, who notes the above-mentioned remarks of his father, R. Asher b. Jehiel, in the following manner: How could R. Asher exempt a person from the Biblical command to write a Torah scroll, replacing that with writing Pentateuchs, Mishnah, Talmuds, and commentaries? Therefore he concludes that R. Asher did not intend to exempt every person from writing a Torah scroll, but rather to add to the main commandment. It is the duty of each and every person today, just as in former times, to write a Torah scroll, except that today there is an additional duty to write Pentateuchs, Mishnahs, Talmuds and commentaries, "for this too comes under the general commandment of writing a Torah scroll." In other words, the commandment to write a Torah scroll still applies to every person today, even if it is placed in the synagogue for public reading, in line with the approach of Maimonides and his followers. However, today one also performs a worthy commandment by writing sacred books and commentaries in order to fulfill the commandment of studying Torah, according to the approach of the Geonim, set forth above.

Ha-Perisha ve-ha-Derisha, R. Joshua Falk's commentary on the above-mentioned Tur, differs with Bet Yosef, calling that interpretation "extremely far-fetched." He believes that, "in our days of diminished religiosity, about which the Rabbis quoted the verse, 'It is a time to act for the Lord-- violate Your Torah,' (Ps. 119:126)[14], and since the Talmud has been written in books, ... page by page, each self-contained, why should we show disrespect for the Torah scroll [by writing it and], studying from it unnecessarily, since we no longer learn from the missing or excessive letters, the crowns, phrasing and cantillation, as in former days." Hence, he supported R. Asher b. Jehiel's idea that today the commandment is to write Pentateuchs, Mishnahs and Talmuds, and not specifically Torah scrolls.

Furthermore, he wrote, "Let us pay attention to the reason, for the Lord commanded us to write Torah scrolls in order to study them; now that in this generation one does not study from the scroll, it is no longer a positive command applying to every Jew."[15] I do not think Ha-Perisha ve-ha-Derisha intended to abrogate completely the commandment to write a Torah scroll in this age, but rather to say that now this commandment applies to the public, according to the approach taken by the Geonim.

Perhaps the new insight by R. Asher b. Jehiel, that writing a Torah scroll primarily serves Torah scholars, is the source of the view that identifies the Torah with those who study it, that is to say, those who study the Torah are, as it were, Torah scrolls themselves. While there may be no conclusive proof of this view, positive substantiation can be found in Tractate Kiddushin (33b):

The question is asked, why does one stand before a Torah scroll? R. Hilkiyah, R. Simon and R. Eleazar said, "It is a kal vahomer; if one stands before those who study it, then clearly one should stand for the Torah itself."

This question, discussed by the amoraim, is based on the Torah saying, "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old" (Lev. 19:32). The Sages interpreted "aged" (zaken) as none other than one who had acquired wisdom, thus none other than a sage. Must one, therefore, also rise to show respect for a Torah scroll? The Sages answered that if one must rise before Torah scholars, clearly one must rise for the Torah itself.

The above Gemara continues with a story illustrating the point: While R. Ilai and R. Jacob bar Zebadi were sitting, R. Simeon bar Abba passed by them, and they rose for him. R. Simeon retorted that, first, the former two had the honorable title of Sages, whereas he was only called a haver; moreove, should the Torah have to rise before those who study it? Rashi commented on R. Simeon's remark as follows: Since they (R. Ilai and R. Jacob) were actually studying halakhah at that moment, they were like the Torah itself, whereas R. Simeon, who was not studying Torah at the moment, was only considered one of its scholars.

A sermon of the late Rabbi Soloveitchik compared a boy reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah with the process of writing a Torah scroll. Educating a young man to reach religious maturity parallels the stages of writing a scroll. Just as preparing the parchment, ink, and quill lay the ground for the scroll to have sanctity when it is fully written, so the education of a boy, beginning at a tender age in his father's house and continuing with studies in school, prepares a youngster for maturity. Then end of childhood parallels completion of a scroll. Both attain the appropriate sanctity, as is said in the Zohar, "The sanctity of the Lord, the Torah, and Israel is one" (Zohar, par. Aharei Mot).

[1] Sefer ha-Mitzvot (S. Frankel edition, Jerusalem and Bnai Brak, 1995), positive command 18.

[2] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, Mezuzah and Sefer Torah, 7.1.

[3] R. Joseph Kapah notes that Maimonides repeated the word ish, man, perhaps to exclude women from this obligation. Cf. Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (R. Kapah ed., Jerusalem 1985), ibid., n. 2.

[4] Cf. Sefer ha-Hinukh (Chavel ed., Jerusalem 1952), commandment 613.

[5] R. Moses b. Jacob of Coucy, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol ha-Shalem (Machon Jerusalem ed., 1993) pos. com. 24.

[6] R. Isaac b. Joseph of Corbeil, Sefer Amudei ha-Golah, otherwise known as Sefer Mitvot Katan, Jerusalem 1959, par. 155.

[7] Tur and Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De'ah , par. 270.

[8] Introductions to Sefer Halakhot Gedolot, Hildesheimer ed., Jerusalem 1987, p. 111.

[9] Sefer ha-Mitzvot of R. Saadiah Gaon, J. F. Perlow ed., Warsaw 1913, part III, p. 193, 431-435. According to Perlow's elaboration, he was of the opinion that Moses wrote one Torah for each and every tribe, plus the one that was placed in the ark. Moses deduced this from the commandment to write the Torah down in stone [on twelve stones]. However, according to R. Saadiah Gaon, the individual's obligation to write a Torah was only of Rabbinic origin, and Maimonides' verse was for Saadia nothing more than an allusion (asmakhta).

[10] M. Zucker, "Keta'im Hadashim mi-Sefer ha-Mitzvot le-R. Hefez ben Yazliah," Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 29 [1960-1961]. Hebrew part, p. 52 and n. 34.

[11] R. Eliezer of Metz, Sefer Yere'im ha-Shalem (Vilna, 1902), par. 444, p. 512. See the commentary Tosafot Re'em, ibid., n. 1. For other works that follow the school of Halakhot Gedolot, see the introduction to Sefer Halakhot Gedolot (n. 8), pp. 24-28.

[12] Halakhot Ketanot of R. Asher b. Jehiel, in the Talmud, Vilna ed. (end of Tractate Menahot), Hilkhot Sefer Torah 61.

[13] R. Jeruham b. Meshullam, Sefer Adam ve-Havah, Venice 1543, vol. 2, part 2, p. 17a.

[14] The rabbinic understanding of this verse is that there are times when the regular rules of the Torah must be violated in favor of emergency regulations. Rabi Falk is also playing on the word toratekha, as if to say that in these days we may "violate" the rule to write an actual Torah scroll and instead write(or print) other Jewish books.

[15] Resp. Sha'agat Aryeh, by R. Aryeh Leib of Metz, par. 36, rejects the opinion in Perisha. The view of Sha'agat Aryeh was opposed by R. J. Baabad, Sefer Minhat Hinukh le-Sefer ha-Hinukh, Jerusalem Institute ed., Jerusalem, 1990, par. 613. Also see Resp. Hatam Sofer, Yoreh De'ah par. 254. Incidentally, I found a sermon delivered by Ariel Gilat (son of Prof. Yitzhak Gilat from the Department of Talmud) on: "The Mitzvah of Writing a Torah Scroll," private publication, 1975, which relates to the above sources in several other directions.