A few words about Hanukkah, and then a lot of words about the religious and emotional importance of the Torah Scroll. [If you want to know more about the practicalities of Hanukkah, feel free to come to the Mount Sinai Hanukkah party on December 29 at 5 p.m. or look over this website https://www.myjewishlearning.com/category/celebrate/hanukkah/ ]
Hanukkah is a very minor festival in the Jewish calendar. It has nothing to do with Christmas – as I suggested a Native American ally to ask somebody who asks – “What makes you think a commemoration of an event during the Greek Occupation of Judea has any connection to the birth of Jesus during the Roman Occupation of Judea?” To sum up what happened (which can be read in much more detail in the books of I and II Maccabees): religious zealots formed a guerrilla army which caused the Occupation’s forces to leave the land for a bit without removing their control of the country. The religious zealots who were led by a group of Priests (Kohanim) decided soon afterwards to also take on the mantle of royalty. They could not actually be Jewish kings, as no Kohein can be a descendant of King David, as a Kohein is of the tribe of Levi and King David was of the tribe of Judah; both religion and tribal membership passed through the paternal parent during those centuries. One of the kings decided to forcibly convert the neighboring country of Idumea, and history’s karma bit the Jews in the backside because of this as King Herod the Idumean could be King, even though he was not of Davidic descent (as all converts are brought in as part of the tribe of Judah). That is actually more words than the minor holiday of Hanukkah needs, especially at this moment, given the recent spate of antisemitism in America. On to the main topic for today’s message.
You might not have heard yet of the vile vandalism perpetrated upon Nessah Synagogue in Los Angeles. Torah Scrolls were tossed about, as were prayer books and other religious garb. Some pictures of what happened with the Torah Scrolls were posted on Twitter, and when I saw them I felt like somebody had punched me in the gut.
It is not about how expensive Torah Scrolls are (and they are worth 1 year to 1.5 year’s full time salary for the scribe involved). It is not about how carefully it must be written or that the directions for writing one have been listed for over 2000 years. It is not even that they are still written with a quill, on parchment, with ink. [These next practices are based on what was done in Europe, during our exile there.] When the Ark is opened and the Torah Scroll or Scrolls are visible, people in the congregation rise. When the Torah Scroll is read, it is taken out to the people and brought back up to the reading table. Then, when it is time to return the Torah Scroll, it is also taken out to the people and brought to the Ark. When it goes out to the people, they line up and either touch it with a prayerbook or with a prayer shawl and kiss that part of the book or shawl which has been in contact with the Torah cover. Some people kiss the Torah cover directly.
When the Torah is read from, two people are assigned to make sure it does not fall off the reading table. If a Torah scroll should fall to the floor, then anyone who witnesses this is supposed to reenact Moses’ situation when first receiving it (as in fasting for 40 days and nights). When people come up for Torah honors (basically acting as witnesses that this Torah being read agrees with the text given to Moses at Mount Sinai) they touch the spot the reader is pointing to with a fringe of the prayer shawl or with the spine of the prayer book and kiss the shawl or book. Nobody will kiss the Torah scroll directly, just as nobody will touch the ink part of the Torah directly with their fingers. Not even the reader is allowed to do that.
If there is a mistake in the Torah due to age (as in some letters wore away and are no longer readable) then the Torah scroll must be fixed. The way to test if the letters are actually unreadable is to bring a student who is just learning the Alef Beit to see if they can identify it. The reader and other experienced people know words, so they might figure out what the letter should be from that. Once it is certain there is something wrong, the Torah Scroll has the cover put on under the belt, so the Torah Scroll will not be removed from the Ark until it is repaired.
The seminary I went to made an emergency plan to ensure that the Torah Scroll was carried out of the building in case of fire or other potential destruction. Many people have gone into burning buildings to rescue a Torah Scroll.
When a Torah Scroll has aged beyond usefulness (often after several hundred years or so, depending upon humidity level) then it is buried in a cemetery, just like a person would be. Anything with the Tetragrammaton (the unpronounced 4 letter name of God) gets buried as well when it is no longer usable. Until the burial time, these books and sheets of paper are kept in a storage place called a Genizah. Anywhere these items are put before being buried is termed a Genizah. The most famous one is the one in Cairo, because the atmosphere there kept the majority of the items placed there in readable condition.
The Torah is only brought out to be read if there is a community to hear it. This means either 10 Jewish adult males for most Traditional communities, and 10 Jewish adults for other communities. The number 10 is derived from Abraham’s argument with God concerning the destruction of Sodom, Gemorrah, Admah and Tzvoyim and the number of Princes from the tribes who decided we could not handle the people in the land of Canaan.
I personally have read the contents of the entire Torah in public several times during the last 4 decades. This is trickier than it sounds, as the only thing written in the Torah Scroll are the letters. Neither vowels nor musical notations are in the Torah Scroll, yet both vowels and music are heard when it is read. So the abuse heaped upon my dear friend, the Torah Scroll, has hit me personally quite hard. It comes a very close second to my reaction to the antisemitic murders perpetrated in Jersey City last week.
Rabbi Larry Moldo is currently (until December 31) Chair of the Wyoming Interfaith Network as well as serving Cheyenne’s Mount Sinai Congregation. He is also on the Executive Board of COMEA and a past President of the Cheyenne Interfaith Council.
Contact Carl Carmichael, Chair-Elect for more information Carmichael.firstname.lastname@example.org 307.421.7575