Holding the Torah Upright

According to some rishonim, the mitzvah to raise the Torah (hagbahah) is mentioned in parshas Ki Savo.

Question #1: Holy Roller

“I was in a shul, and when they took out the sefer Torah, they opened it and carried it all around the shul, showing everyone with a yad where the beginning of the keri’ah is. I had never seen this before, and was wondering if this is a common practice. Is it mentioned in halachic sources, or does it simply manifest someone’s enthusiasm?”

Question #2: Reversing the Trend

Is there any halachic basis for the custom on Simchas Torah of reversing the sefer Torah so that the writing faces away from the magbiah?

Answer: Needing a Lift

The mitzvah of hagbahah is to raise the sefer Torah and show it, so that everyone in the shul can see the writing of the sefer Torah. The prevalent, but not exclusive, tradition among Ashkenazim is that this mitzvah is performed after each sefer Torah is read, whereas the exclusive practice among edot hamizrach (Jews of Middle Eastern and Sefardic descent) is that this lifting is performed prior to reading from the Torah. Among the edot hamizrach, some open the sefer Torah and lift it up immediately upon removing it from the Aron Kodesh, whereas others first bring the sefer Torah to the shulchan and then perform hagbahah, prior to calling up the kohen for the first aliyah (Ben Ish Chai II, Tolados #16). Some even perform hagbahah both before and after the reading (ibid.; Kaf Hachayim 134:17) As a matter of curiosity, it is interesting to mention that some Chassidim and Perushim in Eretz Yisrael observe the practice of the Sefardim and perform hagbahah before the Torah is read. When following this procedure, the magbiah does not sit down with the sefer Torah after he has completed his job, but places it down on the shulchan from which it is read.

As we will soon see, both customs – performing hagbahah before the reading and performing it after the reading – can be traced back to antiquity.

The earliest description of hagbahah

The earliest extant description of the procedure of hagbahas haTorah is found in Masechta Sofrim, as follows:

“One must raise the sefer Torah when reciting the words Shema Yisrael… and then raise it again upon reciting Echad Elokeinu Gadol Adoneinu Kadosh Shemo… Immediately, [the person performing the mitzvah] opens the sefer Torah to a width of three columns and lifts the sefer Torah — showing the writing to all the people standing to his right and his left. Then he moves the sefer Torah in a circular motion before him and behind him — because it is a mitzvah incumbent on all the men and women to see the text of the sefer Torah, to bow, and to say Vezos HaTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei Bnei Yisrael” (Masechta Sofrim 14:11-14).

What are the sources for the divergent customs?

As noted by the Beis Yosef and the Gra, the Masechta Sofrim describes performing hagbahah before keri’as haTorah. Nevertheless, the venerated practice of the Bnei Ashkenaz is to do hagbahah after we read the Torah (see Darkei Moshe 147:4; the practice is quoted at least as early as the Sefer HaItur, who lived over eight hundred years ago). This custom is based on the Gemara (Megillah 32a) that states, “After ten people read the Torah, the greatest of them should roll up the Torah,” which refers to hagbahah and implies that it is performed after the Torah has been read. Similarly, a different passage of Gemara (Sotah 39b) mentions that the person reading the haftarah should be careful not to begin until the rolling of the Torah is complete. This implies that the hagbahah and subsequent rolling closed of the Torah is performed immediately prior to the haftarah, and not before the Torah is read.

Two places in Shulchan Aruch

This difference in practice resulted in an anomalous situation. Because the Tur was an Ashkenazi, he included the laws of hagbahas haTorah after the reading of the Torah, in Chapter 147 of Orach Chayim. On the other hand, the Shulchan Aruch, who follows Sefardic practice, mentions hagbahas haTorah before the rules of the reading of the Torah in Chapter 134:2, yet he also discusses the laws of hagbahas HaTorah where the Tur placed the halachah in Chapter 147. As a result, the halachos of hagbahas haTorah are located in two different places in Shulchan Aruch, some in Chapter 134, others in Chapter 147, with the laws of keri’as haTorah sandwiched between.

Why do Ashkenazim do hagbahah afterwards?

Logically, it would seem that we should display the text of the sefer Torah prior to reading the Torah, so that people observe the section that is about to be read, as, indeed, the Sefardim do. Why do Ashkenazim delay displaying the words of the Torah until after the reading is concluded?

The authorities present the following basis for what seems to be an anomalous practice: In earlier generations, there were unlettered people who mistakenly assumed that it was more important to see the words of the Torah during the hagbahah than it was to hear the reading of the Torah. As a result, many of these people would leave shul immediately after the hagbahah and miss the reading. Therefore, the practice was introduced to postpone the hagbahah until after the reading was concluded — which now caused these people to stay in shul and hear the reading of the Torah (Shiyarei Keneses Hagedolah 134:2, quoted by Kaf Hachayim 134:17).

Are there any other ramifications to this dispute?

Indeed, there is another interesting ramification that results from the Ashkenazic practice of delaying the hagbahah until after the reading is concluded. Should one notice a pesul in the sefer Torah that does not require taking out another sefer Torah, but precludes reading from this sefer Torah until it is repaired, one should not recite the words Vezos HaTorah and Toras Hashem temimah when being magbiah the sefer Torah (Kaf Hachayim 134:17, quoting Shu’t Adnei Paz #13).

What is the proper way to do hagbahah?

A sefer Torah is written on sections of parchment that are stitched together. The person who is performing hagbahah should make sure that the stitching is in front of him before he lifts the Torah, so that if the sefer Torah tears from the stress of the lifting, the stitching, which is easy to repair, will tear and not, G-d forbid, the parchment itself (Megillah 32a, as explained by the Tur; see esp. Aruch HaShulchan 147:13; cf., however, how Rashi explains the Gemara).

“Reading” the Torah

When the sefer Torah is raised, each person in shul should try to actually read the letters of the sefer Torah. This causes a bright, spiritual light of the Torah to reach him (Arizal, quoted by Magen Avraham 134:3). Some have the practice of looking for a word in the sefer Torah that begins with the same letter as their name (Ben Ish Chai II, Tolados #16). In most Sefardic communities, someone points to the beginning of the day’s reading while the sefer Torah is held aloft for all to see. Some congregations consider this a great honor that is given to the rav or another scholar (Kaf Hachayim 134:13). This may be the origin of the custom that some people have of pointing at the sefer Torah during hagbahah (cf. Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, Parshas Ki Savo, 27:26).

In order to make sure that everyone sees the text of the sefer Torah, some Sefardic congregations have the magbiah carry the open sefer Torah around the shul to display its holy words to every attendee (Kaf Hachayim 134:13).

In which direction is the Torah held?

The usual Ashkenazic practice is that the magbiah holds the sefer Torah with its writing facing him. Some congregations have the practice that, on Simchas Torah, the sefer Torah is lifted in the reverse way, so that the writing is away from the magbiah. Most people think that this is a “shtick” as part of the Simchas Torah celebration, but this is not halachically accurate.

The Bach (147) contends that the original approach was to hold the sefer Torah with the writing visible to the people — as we do on Simchas Torah. This is because when the magbiah lifts the sefer Torah the way we usually do, his body blocks the view, and for this reason, the Maharam and other great Torah leaders held the Torah with its text away from them when they performed hagbahah. Presumably, the reason this practice was abandoned is because it is much more difficult to do hagbahah this way, and there is concern that someone might, G-d forbid, drop the sefer Torah while doing it. Nevertheless, in places where the custom is to perform hagbahah this way on Simchas Torah, the reason is to show that on this joyous occasion we want to perform hagbahah in the optimal way.

The more the merrier!!

The above-quoted Masechta Sofrim requires that the magbiah open the sefer Torah three columns wide. The authorities dispute whether the magbiah may open the sefer Torah more than three columns. In other words, does Masechta Sofrim mean that one should open the sefer Torah exactly three columns, or does it mean that one should open it at least three columns, so that everyone can see the words of the Torah, but that someone may open it wider, should he choose? The Magen Avraham (134:3) suggests that one should open it exactly three columns, although he provides no reason why one should not open the sefer Torah more, whereas the Mishnah Berurah says that it depends on the strength of the magbiah — implying that if he can open it more, it is even better. It is possible that the Magen Avraham was concerned that opening the sefer Torah wider might cause people to show off their prowess and cause the important mitzvah of hagbahas haTorah to become a source of inappropriate pride — the exact opposite of the humility people should have when performing mitzvos.

Lift and roll!?

Most people who perform the mitzvah of hagbahah roll open the sefer Torah to the requisite width and then lift it, whereas others unroll it while they are lifting it. Which of these approaches is preferred?

The Shaar Efrayim discusses this issue, and implies that there is no preference between the two approaches, whereas the standard wording of Masechta Sofrim is that one should unroll the sefer Torah first.

Reciting Vezos HaTorah

When the sefer Torah is elevated, everyone should bow and recite the pasuk Vezos HaTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei Bnei Yisrael (Masechta Sofrim 14:14). Indeed, the Chida cites sources who hold that since Chazal mention saying Vezos HaTorah, it has the status of a davar shebekedushah and can be said even if one is in the middle of birchos keri’as shema (Kenesses Hagedolah, quoted by Birkei Yosef 134:4). Subsequently, the Chida wrote a lengthy responsum in which he concluded that reciting Vezos HaTorah does not have the status of a davar shebekedushah, and therefore should not be said in a place where it interrupts one’s davening (Shu’t Chayim She’al 1:68).

Vezos HaTorah should be said only while facing the words of the sefer Torah (Be’er Heiteiv 134:6, quoting several earlier sources). If one began reciting Vezos HaTorah while facing the writing of the sefer Torah, one may complete the pasuk after the text of the sefer Torah has been rotated away from one’s view (Shaar Efrayim).

In many siddurim, after the sentence Vezos HaTorah asher sam Moshe lifnei Bnei Yisrael, five words are added: Al pi Hashem beyad Moshe (Bamidbar 9:23), as if this is the continuation of the verse. Many halachic authorities question adding the words Al pi Hashem beyad Moshe, since these words are from a different passage of the Torah (Aruch Hashulchan 134:3). Others are concerned for a different reason, because these last five words are not an entire verse and they question the practice of reciting partial verses of the Torah. Indeed, many old siddurim do not quote this addition, and many halachic authorities contend that one should not recite it.

Who should be honored with hagbahah?

The Gemara (Megillah 32a) states “Ten people who read the Torah, the greatest of them should roll the Torah,” which refers to the mitzvah of hagbahah, since the magbiah rolls the Torah both prior to displaying it, and when he closes it, afterwards. The Baal HaItur quotes two opinions as to whom the “ten people” refers. Does it mean the attendees of the current minyan, and that the greatest of this group should be the one who is honored with the mitzvah of lifting and displaying the Torah? Or, does it means according the honor of lifting and displaying the Torah to the greatest of the ten people who were involved in that day’s reading (the seven who had aliyos, the maftir, the baal keriyah, and the person who recited the Targum after each pasuk was read, which was standard procedure at the time of the Gemara).

The halachic authorities rule according to the first approach, that one should honor the greatest person in the shul (Gra; Mishnah Berurah 147:6). They also refer to another practice, which was to auction off the mitzvah of hagbahah to the highest bidder (Tur; Shulchan Aruch). However, where the hagbahah is not auctioned, one should provide the honor to the greatest Torah scholar in attendance (Machatzis Hashekel). The prevalent practice of not necessarily offering hagbahah to the greatest scholar is in order to avoid any machlokes (Shaar Efrayim; Mishnah Berurah). Nevertheless, in a situation where no machlokes will develop, one should certainly accord the mitzvah to the greatest talmid chacham who can properly perform hagbahah. Whatever the situation may be, the gabbai is responsible to give hagbahah only to someone who is both knowledgeable and capable of performing the mitzvah properly.

The importance of performing hagbahah correctly

The Ramban, in his commentary on the verse, Cursed be he who does not uphold the words of this Torah (Devarim 27:26), explains that this curse includes someone who, when performing hagbahah, does not raise the sefer Torah in a way that everyone in the shul can see it properly. Apparently, there were places that did not perform the mitzvah of hagbahah at all out of concern that someone will be cursed for not performing hagbahah properly (Birkei Yosef, Shiyurei Brachah 134:2; Kaf Hachayim 134:15; Encyclopedia Talmudis, quoting Orchos Chayim). Although I certainly do not advocate eliminating the mitzvah of hagbahah, a person who knows that he cannot perform the mitzvah correctly should defer the honor, and the gabbai should offer the honor only to someone who fulfills the mitzvah properly.

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