Question #1: Why not?
“Why doesn’t everyone write his own Sefer Torah?”
Question #2: Partners in Torah
“May two people partner together to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah?”
Question #3: Traditional Chapters
“Why did some gedolei Yisroel not use perakim and pesukim numbers to identify pesukim, whereas others did?”
The last mitzvah mentioned in the Torah, which we are taught in parshas Vayeileich, is that each individual is required to write a Sefer Torah. The words of the Torah from which we derive this mitzvah are, Ve’atah kisvu lachem es hashirah hazos velamdah es Bnei Yisroel simah befihem lema’an tihyeh li hashirah hazos le’eid bivnei Yisroel, “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths, so that this song shall be a testimony among the Children of Israel” (Devorim 31:19). We should note that two of the targumim, the early Aramaic translations of the Torah, authored by Onkelus and by Yonasan ben Uziel, both translate the word shirah not as “song,” but as “praise.” On the other hand, both Rashi and the Rambam (Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:1) explain the posuk a bit differently from the Targum, translating shirah as “song” and understanding it to refer to the song of parshas Ha’azinu. The Rambam explains the posuk to mean that one should “write the Torah, which contains the song of Ha’azinu.”
The Baal Haturim on the posuk notes two gematriyos, one that the words velamdah es Bnei Yisroel equal zeh Torah shebiksav,“this is the Written Torah,” and the words simah befihem equal zeh Talmud, “this is the Oral Torah.”
Fulfilling the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah requires that one write an entire Sefer Torah — even if one letter is missing, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah (Rambam). A Sefer Torah must be written in black ink on parchment. Parchment is made from animal hide, and the mitzvos of Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos require that the parchment is produced from the hide of a kosher species. There is no halachic requirement to make it from an animal that was slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law, and, as a matter of fact, the hide is usually not from animals that were slaughtered according to halacha.
The tanning of the hide into parchment must be done lishmah, for the purpose of using it for a Sefer Torah. At the first step of the tanning, the Jew who processes the hide into parchment should state that he is processing it lishmah. Whether or not a non-Jew can perform some of the tanning under a Jew’s supervision, or whether doing this undermines the requirement that the processing must be lishmah, is a lengthy discussion among early halachic authorities (Rosh, Hilchos Sefer Torah #3).
The writing of the Sefer Torah must also be performed lishmah. Before he begins writing, the sofer should state aloud, “I am writing this Sefer Torah for the sanctity of Moshe Rabbeinu’s Torah” (Rosh, Hilchos Sefer Torah #4). There is an additional requirement that, when writing the names of Hashem, the scribe write them for the sake of creating holy names.
Dipping the quill
There is an interesting halacha that, when writing the name of Hashem, the sofer should not dip his quill into the ink immediately before writing His name. The reason is that the first letter written after a quill is dipped into ink often smears, and one does not want this to occur while one is writing Hashem‘s name.
Prior to writing the words of the Torah on the specially-made parchment, one must score the parchment in a way that leaves no written marks. This process, called sirtut, is accomplished by running an awl or other sharp instrument across the parchmentto mark the lines on which one plans to write (Rambam, Rosh, Tur; cf. Rabbeinu Tam, who disagrees). This law is a halacha leMoshe miSinai, meaning that it is a mesorah, a tradition, that we were taught by Moshe Rabbeinu, who learned it directly from Hashem when he learned the Torah on Har Sinai.
We have a mesorah how the words of the Torah are vowelized and punctuated; the markings indicating this appear in every standard chumash. However, in a Sefer Torah itself, halacha dictates that no periods, other punctuation marks, reading aids or music notes appear.
Similarly, the division of the Torah into chapters, perakim, is originally from non-Jewish sources and is never used in handwritten Sifrei Torah. Indeed, this is true not only of the Torah, but also in most of the rest of Tanach. The chapter divisions that are commonly used for most of Tanach do not originate in Jewish sources. The two books that are exceptions, where the chapters are according to Jewish sources, are Tehillim and Eicha. In all other kisvei hakodesh, the division into pesukim is part of our tradition, but not the division into chapters. Consequently, the numbering of the pesukim, which is based on the non-Jewish chapter division, is also not our tradition.
At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: “Why did some gedolei Yisroel not use perakim and pesukim numbers to identify pesukim, whereas others did?”
Many of our gedolim, for example, the Chofetz Chayim and the Ohr Somayach, refrained from referring to pesukim according to chapter and posuk. Instead, they would refer to them by the parsha of the week and its location within the parsha. Clearly, they did not want to use a system that was non-Jewish in origin. Those who do use the chapter and posuk system felt, presumably, that since there is no prohibition to use this system, which makes it much easier for the student to locate the posuk being quoted or studied, one may use it to facilitate the student’s learning.
Pesuchos and sesumos
The Torah itself is divided into sections using a different system, which are called pesuchos and sesumos. These are indicated by the letter “pei” or “samach” in our standard chumashim.
There is a dispute among rishonim exactly how one is to make the pesuchos and sesumos. Both approaches agree that when the pesucha is in the middle or beginning of a line, it is indicated by leaving the rest of the line blank, and then continuing the next passage on the next line. When a sesumah is in the middle or beginning of a line, it is indicated by leaving blank an area at least nine spaces long and then continuing the next passage on the same line. However, when a pesucha or sesumah is at the end or towards the end of a line, the poskim dispute how it must be written. In order to avoid writing a Sefer Torah that is kosher only according to some authorities, accepted practice is to avoid having a pesucha or sesumah at the end or towards the end of a line. We will see shortly how we make sure that this happens.
Write the letters carefully
The sofer must be careful to write the letters clearly and to follow the halachic rules governing how the letters are to be written. He must also make sure that each letter is completely surrounded by parchment. This last requirement, called mukaf gevil, means that each letter must be written in a way that it does not connect to another letter, nor may it run to the top or bottom of the piece of parchment on which it is written.
One of the rules for writing a Sefer Torah is that the scribe must have another Sefer Torah or a tikun in front of him that has all the words of the Torah correctly spelled. In practice, sofrim use a tikun not only to help them spell the words correctly, but to mimic their exact placement on the line and column. Among other reasons, this is to avoid having the sesumos and pesuchos occur towards or at the ends of lines, which creates a halachic problem, as mentioned above.
Size of letters
A Sefer Torah may be written with very small letters or with very large ones, but the relative size of the letters within the same Sefer Torah must be consistent, except for those few letters that have a tradition to be written larger or smaller.
The scribe who writes a Sefer Torah must be a yarei shamayim and knowledgeable in all the laws of writing a Sefer Torah. There are many more details of these laws, far more than we can discuss in this article. Suffice it to say that numerous works are devoted entirely to the topic of the correct writing of letters in a Sefer Torah.
Someone who does not believe in the G-d-given nature of the Torah at Har Sinai is ineligible to be a scribe for Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos. Such a person may write a kesubah, which is halachically a contract and not holy writing.
How does it dry?
After writing a section of parchment that needs to dry, it is prohibited to suspend it upside down to prevent dust from settling on it. Notwithstanding that this is a simple method for making sure that the parchment remains clean while drying, it is a disrespectful way to treat the words of Hashem (Tur, Yoreh Deah Chapter 277).
The pieces of parchment are stitched together with a specially-made thread processed from sinews of kosher animals. (As before, the animals must be of kosher species, but there is no requirement that they be kosher-slaughtered.) It should not be stitched all the way to the top or all the way to the bottom (Tur, Yoreh Deah Chapter 278).
Until now, we have been discussing the halachos germane to writing a Sefer Torah, all of which are essential to fulfill this mitzvah. At this point, we will discuss some of the other laws germane to fulfilling the mitzvah.
The Gemara writes that a person who purchased a Sefer Torah that was not kosher, even if only because of one letter, and then repaired the error, it is considered as if he wrote an entire Sefer Torah (Menachos 30a). This is because one is not permitted to own an incorrect Sefer Torah.
Why would someone get credit for writing the entire Sefer Torah when all he did was write one letter? The answer is that a Sefer Torah containing mistakes must be repaired or checked within 30 days. Otherwise, one should place it in genizah. Thus, the individual who corrected the one letter took an incomplete Sefer Torah that would have required genizah and made it into a source that can be used for study and reading the Torah.
Selling a Sefer Torah
The Gemara teaches that one may not sell a Sefer Torah, even if he does not have food to put on his table (Megillah 27a). There are two situations in which one is permitted to sell a sefer Torah: (1) one needs funds to study Torah, or (2) one needs funds to get married (ad locum). The Rema (Yoreh Deah 270:1) adds a third case, permitting the sale of a Sefer Torah in order to have funds with which to fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives.
One may not sell a Sefer Torah, even if he owns several already, and even if he wants to sell an older one in order to have the funds with which to purchase a newer one (Tur, Yoreh Deah, Chapter 270).
Purchasing a Sefer Torah
Does one fulfill the mitzvah if one purchases a Sefer Torah? Based on his understanding of the Gemara (Menachos 30a), the Rema rules that one fulfills the mitzvah only if the Sefer Torah had mistakes and he purchased it and hired a sofer to repair it (or repaired it himself); but, if the Sefer Torah was in good order, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah by purchasing it.
Indeed, there is a dispute among the rishonim concerning this halacha: Rashi (Menachos 30a) and the Sefer Hachinuch explain that one fulfills the mitzvah in a non-optimal way by purchasing a Sefer Torah, whereas the Rambam, Smag, Shulchan Aruch and Rema all rule that one is not yotzei by purchase, because the Torah states that the mitzvah is to “write.”
The Minchas Chinuch notes that if he hired a sofer to write a Sefer Torah and then failed to pay him, not only has he violated the Torah prohibition of failing to pay a hiree, he has also not fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah.
Gave it away
According to the Toras Chayim (Sanhedrin 21, quoted by Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 270:3 and by Minchas Chinuch), someone who sold, lost or donated his Sefer Torah no longer fulfills the mitzvah and he must write another one. The Sefer Hachinuch implies that he agrees with this approach, since he writes that the mitzvah is that each individual should own a Sefer Torah. However, there are prominent authorities who dispute this conclusion, ruling that once he fulfilled the mitzvah by writing a Sefer Torah, selling it or giving it away does not invalidate his fulfilling of the mitzvah (see Pischei Teshuvah).
Partners in Torah
At this point, let us examine another of our opening questions: “May two people partner together to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah?”
The Pischei Teshuvah, an anthologized commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, quotes a few poskim who discuss this question. Most are inclined to rule that one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah this way.
The Sefer Hachinuch defines the mitzvah as being that each person must own a Sefer Torah, which sounds as if he also holds that one does not fulfill the mitzvah by partnering with someone else to hire a sofer to write it.
The Sefer Hachinuch also writes that the optimal hiddur is to write the Torah himself, with his own hand. If someone is unable to write it himself, he should hire someone to write it for him.
Does one fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah by purchasing seforim used to study Torah? The Rosh writes: Today, when people write a Sefer Torah and it is then left in shul to be used for the mitzvah of kerias haTorah, it is a positive mitzvah on every Jewish male who can afford it to write Chumashim, Mishnayos, Gemaras and their commentaries, in order that he and his children be able to study them. This is because the mitzvah of the Torah specifies “in order to learn from them,” and with the Gemara and commentaries one understands the mitzvos and their details well (Hilchos Sefer Torah #1).
The Beis Yosef (Yoreh Deah 270) explains that the Rosh was not coming to rule that there is no longer a mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah, but that there is also a mitzvah to write other seforim, and that this acquisition is a bigger mitzvah than writing a Sefer Torah. In the Shulchan Aruch, he reflected this opinion. However, there are prominent acharonim who disagree with the Shulchan Aruch and understand that the Rosh’s conclusion is that there is no mitzvah today to write a Sefer Torah (Perisha; Shach). This understanding of the Rosh explains that the mitzvah of the Torah is to produce materials used to study Torah. Since a Sefer Torah is not used today for this purpose, writing one does not fulfill the 613th mitzvah of the Torah.
According to this approach, there is an easy answer to our opening question: “Why doesn’t everyone write his own Sefer Torah?”
There are other reasons to explain why people do not write their own Sefer Torah. Another approach is that one is not required to spend more than a fifth of what he owns to fulfill a mitzvah (Minchas Chinuch). Thus, many poor and middle-class people are exempt from the mitzvah. (See the Sha’agas Aryeh, Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #52 and #54 and the Minchas Chinuch for yet other reasons to exempt people today from the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah.)
The goal of the Torah’s mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah is so that, wherever Jews live, there should be readily available seforim to study Torah. However, if this was the Torah’s only concern, it would have required each individual to purchase seforim according to his ability. Instead, the Torah required each individual to write a Sefer Torah, thus implying two additional ideas. (1) The Torah wanted each individual to be involved in the providing of Torah learning material, regardless of his personal financial situation. (2) The Torah wanted each individual to be involved, himself, in the writing of Torah materials and their procurement, and not to deputize this mitzvah to others, even when they are more skillful.
The Torah is referred to as a Tree of Life. B’nei Yisroel are depicted as an agricultural people. As the Torah is, indeed, a source — the Source — of life, it is certainly appropriate that we care for its proper “planting” and flourishing, as outlined in halacha.