Torah Dedication

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

20 Shevat: Ketav Sofer on the Occasion of a Torah Dedication

I am trying to avoid imposing myself and my interests or preferences on the selection of responsa we study, so I look for opportunities to include poskim, halachic decisors, we haven’t seen before, as well as topics. For the twentieth of Shevat, I found Ketav Sofer Yoreh De’ah 129.

Ketav Sofer was written by R. Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Wolf Sofer, the firstborn son of Chatam Sofer. Chatam Sofer’s first marriage had been childless; after his wife passed away, he married the much younger daughter of R. Akiva Eiger (who himself was only a year or two older than Chatam Sofer). Although Chatam Sofer lived to be 77, his son was still only 24 when his father passed away, leaving him the rabbinate of Pressburg and the yeshiva there to head, which he did until he himself passed away at 66. His writings were only published after his death.

The responsum we will look at here doesn’t answer an halachic question—it is the written version of a talk he had given at his brother’s shul the previous Shabbat upon the occasion of the dedication of a Sefer Torah. Nevertheless, it does take up both halachic and hashkafic issues, so it seemed to me both a nice change of pace and an essay worth our time.

The Obligation to Write: Ha’azinu or the Whole Torah?

His opening question was raised by Sha’agat Aryeh 34. Rambam (Laws of Sefer Torah 7;1) had noted that the verse that obligates writing a Torah scroll referred to writing ha-shirah ha-zot, this song (the first 34 verses of Parashat Ha’azinu). Rambam read that as obligating Jews to write a scroll that contained that song, since the Torah must be written whole, not in sections.

Sha’agat Aryeh wondered whether the mitzvah remained to only write the Song, the technical rules then requiring writing the rest of the Torah with it, or if those technical rules then changed the mitzvah, making a mitzvah to write an entire Torah scroll. For practical differences between the two views, he notes that if a person wrote only Ha’azinu, that might, after the fact, constitute fulfillment of the mitzvah. Similarly, if a person wrote a whole Torah and the rest was destroyed somehow, leaving only Ha’azinu, one view would think he had fulfilled mitzvah.

Women’s Exemption as Evidence

Ketav Sofer believes he can show that Rambam held that the obligation became to write a whole Torah. He starts with Sha’agat Aryeh’s puzzlement about why women are exempt from this mitzvah, since it has no time element. [Neither of them raises what seems to me a possibility, that the mitzvah to write a Torah is inherently linked to the mitzvah of Torah study, and that women’s exemption from the latter is why they’re exempt from the former.]

He first rejuvenates an answer Sha’agat Aryeh rejected, that women’s being exempt from many mitzvot means they need not write a scroll that has so many of those. Sha’agat Aryeh had discarded that idea, since other Jews are also exempt from mitzvot (e.g. regular Jews being exempt from those that apply to kohanim and/or kings) and yet must write a Torah scroll.

Ketav Sofer’s answer was that men are included in arvut, the responsibility Jews bear for each other’s spiritual welfare (with halachic ramifications such as allowing one Jew to make kiddush for another even if he has already made kiddush for himself). In that sense, male Jews are in fact obligated in the whole Torah.

Since, for reasons having nothing to do with this discussion, some authorities (including Rosh) assumed that women did not bear that arvut, that responsibility for others, they were in fact not obligated by the whole Torah and therefore didn’t need to write one.

That only works, Ketav Sofer notes, if we assume that the obligation is to write the entirety of Torah. If the basic obligation remains only Ha’azinu, the rest thrown in for technical reasons, women’s being exempt from other mitzvot seems irrelevant.

The Original Giving and Its Impact on Writing

He then links this discussion to the Gemara’s consideration of whether the Torah was originally given to the Jewish people in sections (megillot) as each part happened and became accessible to all, or was given chatumah, whole or complete. If the latter, the Torah’s then saying to write the Song, as opposed to saying write the Torah, would seem to focus the obligation solely on the Song. If so, there’s again no reason to exempt women; but if it was given in sections, the Torah’s referring to “this Song” might have no legal content, and the mitzvah might have been to write a whole Torah, which then would not obligate women.

As it happens, Rambam elsewhere does rule that the Torah was given in sections (as had Rif), which leaves open the possibility that the mitzvah of writing the Torah did in fact mean to encompass the whole Torah, such that women would not be included.

Like Standing at Sinai

In the name of space, I skipped one part of his discussion, whether women are halachically able to write scrolls themselves, and whether the Torah would obligate them in a mitzvah they cannot themselves perform. He then turned to his aggadic discussion (a split that seems to have been customary—R. Soloveitchik zt”l’s famed yahrzeit shiurim also had an halachic and then aggadic portion, as do some Shabbat Shuva and Shabbat HaGadol drashot even today).

He started with Rava’s statement that anyone who writes a Torah scroll for himself (even though he inherited one) is as if he received the Torah from Sinai. Struggling with why the two are comparable, Nimmukei Yosef suggested that anyone who would make the effort to write a whole Torah would clearly have made the effort to go to Sinai. Ketav Sofer thinks he can make the comparison more substantive.

He starts by noting another instance of the Gemara’s making such a comparsion, one who teaches his son Torah. To explain why that is, he posits a distinction that seems to me true, insightful, and even more relevant today than it may have been in Ketav Sofer’s time. He says there are those who worship God out of love, those who do it out of fear, and those who do it because they’re accustomed to it, so much so that it’s become natural.

This last group, he says, are the addressees of a verse in Yeshayahu that speaks of the Jews’ service being מצות אנשים מלומדה, learned behavior [Rambam read this as referring to rote observance; Ketav Sofer seems to assume that one of the reasons for rote observance is that the people involved have no interest in service of God, they’re just doing what they’re used to].

As some have worried in our times, Ketav Sofer argues that those who observe the religion out of custom will be less likely to instill it in their children. [He says it categorically, that they will not; we today see people who deny that their observance is a matter of service of God and yet work hard to teach Torah to their children; I’ll address that further, below.]

Would We Accept the Torah If Given the Choice?

In his view, that explains the comparison to Sinai—people observant out of custom have no deep connection to it. Were they able to go back to Sinai and reject it, they might. Because for them, it’s just a habit, not a way of life whose value they recognize. If they could have never learned that habit, that would be fine with them.

That also explains a Midrash Kohelet that distinguishes those who keep mitzvot that will last beyond their lifetimes—like building a shul, writing a Sefer Torah—from others. Ketav Sofer says that it’s the line between those who are dedicated to Hashem’s service and those who do it purely out of custom [the latter won’t bother with lasting contributions, since they have no interest in it lasting beyond them].

[Ketav Sofer’s view suggests a positive side to people we might think of as keeping Judaism purely customarily. In his categorization, anyone who makes efforts to teach Torah to his children and/or contributes to Jewish continuity, by performing mitzvot that last, such as building shuls and/or writing Sifrei Torah (or similar actions) must not be observing Judaism purely out of habit, must have some element of fear or love of Hashem mixed in. It’s not too far from the later view of R. Kook and R. Soloveitchik that all Zionism stems from religious motivation, even if unrecognized by those Zionists themselves. Or to the idea of the pintele Yid, the Jewish spark that we can sometimes bury too deeply underneath other dross.]

The person writing a Sefer Torah, in this reading, shows that his commitment to Torah isn’t just a habit he happened to pick up; it shows a concern with it being lasting. And such a person would have stood at Sinai, happy to receive the lasting vehicle of our service of God.

The dedication of a Sefer Torah was, for Ketav Sofer in 1851, a chance to consider the mitzvah to write it, whether it focused on Ha’azinu or all of Torah, and whether it was a matter of being obligated in all of that Torah. Aggadically, he took writing a Torah scroll as evidence that the person writing it (or, probably, commissioning its’ writing) was dedicated to Jewish continuity in a way that spoke of more than a merely habitual connection to observance, that indicated a connection to and concern with the proper service of Hashem.

About Gidon Rothstein

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