A Problematic Fixing of a Sefer Torah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

23 Adar: R. Ovadiah Hedayah on a Problematic Fixing of a Sefer Torah

[Click here for the audio version.]

Part of what attracted me about random responsa was the exposure I (and we) gain to rabbinic figures whose names we have heard but whose Torah we rarely access. R. Ovadiah Hedayah, a significant Sephardi Torah scholar of the generation before R. Ovadya Yosef (and R. Bentzion Abba Shaul and R. Hayyim David Halevy, whom we’ve also been fortunate enough to encounter in this series) was born in 1890 in Yerushalayim, was a Rosh Yeshivah in Beit El, and published responsa entitled Shu”t Yaskil Avdi, (from Yeshayahu 52;13, hinei yaskil ‘avdi, my servant will act wisely). Shu”t Yakil Avdi 3; Yoreh De’ah 25, dated 23 Adar Aleph 5698 (1938), discussed a refurbished Torah scroll.

Certification for a Scribe

The community in question had only one Torah scroll, which forced it to borrow scrolls when special occasions meant reading from two or three scrolls. A man who claimed to be a sofer, a scribe, had found and supposedly fixed a problematic Torah. The rabbi asking R. Hedayah wanted to know whether the community could trust the man’s qualifications based purely on his say-so, or whether scribes needed certification, like shochatim, men trained to kill animals so as to render their meat kosher.

R. Hedayah cites Peri Megadim Orach Chayyim 32, Eshel Avraham 9, who said certification mattered more for a sofer than a shochet. An unqualified shochet leads Jews to unwittingly eat non-kosher meat at those meals where they eat meat; the unqualified scribe robs Jews of their fulfillment of a daily mitzvah, tefillin, and tricks them into berachot le-vattalah, blessings which do not accomplish any purpose. When a Jew dons tefillin or is called up for the public reading of the Torah, he recites a blessing; if the religious item being used is not valid, the blessing is futile, and therefore a wrongful invocation of Hashem’s Name.

In the same vein, Levush wrote at length about the importance of character for soferim, the community’s right and need to be certain they are people of truth and sonei batza, despise ill-gotten gains (to be sure they not let financial issues get in the way of telling us the truth about scrolls or tefillin they write). He decried his contemporary practice, student scribes wrote parchments for tefillin, the master sofer checked them, then sold them as tefillin he had written. Levush felt such youngsters had not yet developed the proper character needed for a sofer.

The author of Mishnat Chasidim (by R. Emanuel Ricchi, early to mid-18th century Italy) agreed, bemoaning the common practice to accept as a scribe whoever knew how to write the letters. He called for written certification, a semichah, as Rema required for a shochet, a ritual slaughterer.

To R. Hedayah’s view, the certification had to say the scribe knows how to write, the reasons for how and why various items must be written in whatever way, and all the relevant laws. Beyond that, certifying authorities must periodically check he continues to do his job well and carefully.

What We Forget to Emphasize

[Aside from the specific issue, the two sources R. Hedayah cites remind us of claims I fear many today would deny. Peri Megadim was sure valid tefillin mattered more than avoiding non-kosher meat; while some of the relative concern might depend on how often we eat meat, his view still seems to me sadly out of line with the priorities of Jews and the official Jewish community. Consider, for example, that the largest Orthodox lay-led institution is fundamentally about kashrut, and compare that to the disorganized state of safrut.

Similarly, in fact and in sadness of the fact, Levush’s zeal for proper character contrasts with the view of too many today. I know people who are not sure their rabbinic leaders need to be of generally elevated character, where Levush held we must expect such character of all who function in our religious realms.]

A First Reason to Invalidate the Torah: Cutting Out Names of Hashem

As part of refurbishing the Torah, the scribe cut out sections of the scroll, including Names of Hashem, which halachah prohibits (written Names must be treated more respectfully even than the rest of the Torah scroll). R. Hedayah says he should be fined, as would happen to a shochet who mishandled his job [another idea we would struggle to implement today, since communal figures might refuse to pay, leave the job, etc. R. Hedayah implicitly points out the other hand, the necessity of a community’s ability to insist upon and enforce certain conduct by those who oversee religious functions].

The scroll on which he worked also becomes unusable, a mitzvah ha-ba’ah be-‘averah, an item of mitzvah accessed only by violating a prohibition, and both Beit Yosef and Chatam Sofer ruled against using such items for mitzvah purposes. The sofer needs to repent his misdeed, aside from whatever discipline the community applies.

As a further problem, he had used worn parchment, parts of which were too delicate for writing, leading him to leave those parts blank. Empty space in a Torah scroll, however, looks like a parashah petuchah (an open break, as opposed to a parashah setumah, a closed bracketing; both types of space signal a shift from one section to another, a petuchah indicating a greater break). To understand how we react to a scroll with unneeded breaks, R. Hedayah reviews how we designate sections within a Torah scroll.

Rambam and Rosh on How We Signal a New Section

Rambam, Laws of Torah Scrolls 8, gave two ways to delineate a parashah petuchah. If the last line of a section had room for nine or more letters, the scribe could leave the rest of the line blank and start the next section on the next line. If he only finished close to the end of the line, he must leave a full line blank.

setumah has three possibilities, nine letters of empty space within a line (if the first section ended with enough room to leave a blank and then begin again on the same line); with less than nine letters’ space left, the scribe could leave the rest of the line blank and then also a bit at the beginning of the next line; or, if the first section ended exactly at the end of the line, he could leave the first nine letters blank at the beginning of the next line.

Rosh thought a petuchah involved either leaving the rest of a line blank (if there was space for nine letters) or starting nine letters’ space into the next line. For a setumah, he preferred leaving three letters’ space within a line and starting to write again. If there was not enough room, he thought the scribe had to leave a whole line blank, and if the section ended at the bottom of a page, the first line of the next page should be left blank. Shulchan Aruch wanted us to account for both views, which would make the Torah scroll in question a problem, with its unneeded section breaks.

Usually, a break where it does not belong invalidates a scroll. R. Hedayah suggests the delicate condition is obvious enough to free us of that worry. We would not choose such parchment for a scroll, but the truth is clear enough to let us continue using it after the fact.

Gluing Together Letters Torn Apart

Our hapless scribe had also glued together parts of the scroll, though the tear ran through some of the letters. Rashi Menachot 31b made clear we do not repair torn pages which have writing on them, and Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 280;1 does not allow repairing a letter by regluing the parchment from behind.

Birkei YosefChid”a’s comments on Shulchan Aruch, recognized the possibility of a community too impoverished to do without a scroll. He said to sew the parts of the page back together, erase all the words interrupted by the tear and rewrite them, and avoid writing in the area of the tear. He clearly did not allow using the repaired letter, however.

Another strike against the scroll under discussion.

Reusing Pages of a Different Scroll

The scribe’s next poor choice was to take parts of a different Torah scroll to fix this one. Rema Yoreh De’ah 290 allowed using parts of a Torah scroll to fix itself (extra parchment at the end, for example, or a part of the scroll which needed to be re-written, the leftover part of which could be used elsewhere within the scroll), although only when there was no other option.

Pitchei Teshuvah 290;4 quoted Shu”t Chatam Sofer, who inferred we could never use one Torah scroll to fix another, since Rema only permits internal transfers of parts of scrolls, and only when there are no other options. Chatam Sofer ascribed the rule to expectations. A scroll is written to be itself, so moving one part to another still qualifies as part of the original intent; the original scribe never expected part of one scroll to be moved to another, making it an unauthorized (off0-label) use.

Our case is worse, since the scribe had had other options, which means Rema’s leniency never should have come into play.

What It Would Take to Rejuvenate the Scroll

Last, the scribe had included two pages of a different size than the rest, which creates two problems. First, Shulchan Aruch worried about a scroll looking menumar, spotted or mottled; to avoid it, he required opening and using three pages at a time. In our case, the two inserted pages are of a different size, leaving no way to have three similar pages.

The community could find three pages of a parchment, write it appropriately, and use that to fix the scroll. Until they do, however, they definitely cannot use this scroll, regardless of their inability to afford another Torah.

More, since the Torah in question had been placed in the genizah before the scribe fixed it, it lost its chezkat kashrut, its presumption it is well-written. It could not be used again—assuming they resolved the issues we’ve discussed—they would need to have a scribe check it carefully, to reaffirm it is properly written and can be used for public readings.

With all the problems with this scroll, R. Hedayah recommends they spend their energies instead looking for opportunities to acquire another more obviously valid one. Sometimes it’s better to give up and start anew rather than work to fix what cannot be.

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