The Obligation to Write a Sefer Torah

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

This week is a two for one, because just before the mitzvah from this week’s parsha, that every male Jew own/write a Torah, Rambam records the obligation for a king to write one. I hope that looking at them together will give us productive comparisons and contrasts.

The Two Mitzvot

Obligation 17 in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot records the command for each Jewish king to write a Torah scroll for himself, to always have nearby. Lechem Mishneh quoted a Tosefta that said the king’s scroll had to be written for him, where the ordinary Jew has an added mitzvah to write one, but fulfills the basic mitzvah even with an inherited one.

Minhat Hinuch also pointed out some question how ubiquitous the Torah scroll had to be in the king’s life. Sha’arei Teshuvah had said he was to wear it around his wrist, but Rambam (in Mishneh Torah, says Minhat Hinuch) seemed to think the Torah was put away for the night when the king went to sleep.

The next mitzvah in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot comes from our parsha, God commanded each Jew to have a Torah scroll, and Menahot 30a says if the Jew wrote it himself, it is as if he received it directly from Sinai. The Jew may buy it if writing it is beyond his capabilities, or hire someone to write one for him, but that is seen as “grabbing” a mitzvah rather than fulfilling it.

Based on the language of Rema in Shulhan AruchMinhat Hinuch floats and rejects the possibility the mitzvah is only about the writing, a Jew could write a Torah and then sell it and have fulfilled the mitzvah. In Mishneh Torah, Rambam had ruled that loss of a Torah obligates writing/ acquiring a new one, as does donating it.

The source verse, 31;19, has Hashem tell Moshe to “kitvu lachem et ha-Shirah ha-zot,” write for yourselves this Song. Adds Rambam, Gittin 60a tells us we are not allowed to write sections of the Torah, forcing us to conclude the obligation to write the Song (Ha’azinu) necessitates writing the entire Torah. In Yoreh De’ah 270;1, Aruch HaShulhan suggests shirah means the whole Torah, not only Ha’azinu, that the mitzvah was to write and own a whole Torah for its own sake, not as a means to have a Ha’azinu.

Sanhedrin 21b recorded Rabah’s having inferred from the verse’s first word, ve-atah, and now, a preference for each Jew to write one now, even if his family already owned one. Abbaye challenged Rabbah’s claim from a baraita that limited this idea to a king, with the response that the king needs two scrolls, the ordinary Jew only one.

Rambam sets up questions to investigate: 1) What is the role/purpose of this Torah, such that writing it oneself is better than just having an heirloom one?

2) What value is there in the king having two scrolls, and why do regular Jews not need that?

The King’s Mitzvah

It might take a moment’s thought, but Rambam’s order is surprising; if the king must own two scrolls, it seems to say he has the mitzvah of an ordinary Jew plus a special mitzvah as king, to write an additional scroll.  Let’s look fully at the king’s mitzvah and see what it teaches, and then move to the ordinary mitzvah.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch 503 (from ShofetimSefer Ha-Hinuch is ordered by Torah portion, remember) emphasizes the king is supposed to write the Torah to have with him at all times, to read from it (this is explicit in Devarim 17;19).

He suggests the king’s need addresses his greater power, the obedience he receives from everyone around him, his right to wage war, to kill those who run afoul of him. He needs to read from the Torah to remember not to get too high on himself, to focus on his job to serve his Creator. Sanhedrin 21b laid it out, he brings the Torah with him to war, when he is acting as a judge, eating, all times other than when taking care of bodily functions.

For laws of the mitzvah, which are primarily the same as for any of us writing a Torah, Sefer Ha-Hinuch adds only the king’s scroll was checked and verified from the authoritative one in the Azarah, the courtyard of the Temple.

Aruch Ha-Shulhan He-Atid, Laws of Kings 72;5 suggests a king has a greater responsibility to write his own Torah precisely because he must have it with him more often; for the Jew, who simply needs to own the Torah, acquiring it is acceptable, although not preferred.

[It’s good to be king; most of us would have to trust whatever local scroll is around. Two more points: Sefer Ha-Hinuch’ s logic explains the ubiquity of the presence of the Torah for the king, not why he has to have a second one.  I can imagine the second one emphasizes the first one, makes clear he keeps one with him for some extra purpose, since he already has one; or, perhaps the Torah he has with him all the time is for quick reading whenever he has a minute, the one similar to all other Jews for times of more concentrated study.

Also, he says it is well-known there is no malchut for the Jewish people other than when the Land is be-yishuvah, settled, an ambiguous word that could mean there are people living there; a majority of Jews there; or the Jews living there by tribes. It struck me because I have heard R. Kook quoted to the effect that a modern government of Israel qualifies as malchut Yisra’el despite not being Melech, a government albeit not a king. Not that I think Sefer Ha-Hinuch would agree, but the more seriously we take the idea, the more we might think the head of the malchut should have a Torah scroll with him everywhere.]

The Ordinary Jew’s Mitzvah

Mitzvah 613 (perhaps the reason it is relatively well-known; it’s the last one) requires every Jew to write a Torah. Sha’agat Aryeh, reported by Aruch HaShulhan Yoreh De’ah 270;5, held this mitzvah is not a matter of Torah study and therefore women must do it, too (in contrast to just about everyone else, starting with Rambam in his summary at the end of the Mitzvot Aseh section; Aruch HaShulhan points out Rambam gives contradictory indications, since in the mitzvah itself he does not say women are not included. However, he did define the mitzvah is kol ish, every man).

Minhat Hinuch says it is odd to allow acquired or inherited scrolls when the verse said to write, and understood Rema to obligate writing. He also noted what leads to a common (but I think erroneous)practice today, that correcting even one letter of a Torah scroll (to now make it valid where before it was not) also fulfills the mitzvah. I think people have taken that to mean writing even one letter is good enough, but I’m pretty sure Minhat Hinuch meant correcting the last letter stopping a scroll from being usable works, in which case only the person who writes the last letter has fulfilled the mitzvah with that Torah scroll.

(Minhat Hinuch brought it up in Mitzvah 503, wondering whether it would be true of a king as well; I think it depends on where we come down on the definition of the mitzvah, see below.) To explain, Sefer Ha-Hinuch says people are shaped by what is close and easy; the Torah wanted Torah study to be close and easy, for the Jew not to have to go to a neighbor to borrow.

Why prefer writing new ones when we inherit perfectly good ones? To have a surplus, to be able to lend them to others who did not have the wherewithal to buy one of their own, as well as to have new ones, because people sometimes find older ones less attractive. [The prejudice against the old is not new.]

Writing Supports Learning

He has clearly assumed the point of writing the Torah is to learn from it, a reminder of a time when Torah scrolls were vehicles of study rather than items used only for religious ceremonies. The idea of writing to learn from it explains the obligation being male, since they are the ones with the mitzvah to learn. Especially if we are focused on learning, the issue of why we must write a Torah ourselves becomes more pressing. For learning, and even plentiful supply, what’s the difference whether I write myself or have it written or happen to have one?

Aruch HaShulhan Yoreh De’ah 270;7 tells us Rosh—who lived only a few decades after Sefer Ha-Hinuch—and his son, Tur, transferred this mitzvah to acquiring or writing books of Torah learning, expanding beyond Tanach to Mishnah, Gemara, and other Torah literature. In paragraph eight, he records a debate about whether Rosh meant this in addition to writing a Torah itself, the view of Beit Yosef, Bah, and Taz, or the new view exempted the Jew from writing an official Torah scroll, the view of Derisha, Shach, and Aruch HaShulhan.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch had already made a significant move in that direction, digressing to tell his son the mitzvah technically only applies to a Torah scroll but there is no doubt a Jew should write/own books of commentary, and expand his library beyond what he inherited. In his time, all God-fearing men of rank had a place in their homes for scribes to copy books, according to their means.

Yet It Is About the Writing

For laws of the mitzvah, Sefer Ha-Hinuch records some of the rules of writing a Torah scroll. Minhat Hinuch implies a reason when he points out that the only non-scroll version of Torah we see the Gemara permit writing was humashim, specific sections of Torah, to teach young students. It is perhaps plausible to say what Rambam had: we must write the whole Torah because we want to be confronted with Ha’azinu (or, for Sefer Ha-Hinuch, more) often.

Rules of writing include: the script should be clear and beautiful, with space of a small letter’s width between words, a blank line between each line; every line should be thirty letters long, the width of each column in the Torah, and four blank lines between each book of the Torah. The person writing it should be careful about which letters have lines on them and how many.

All of that produces a high-quality scroll; the basic law focuses on letters not being stuck together, not adding or missing letters, and separating the sections of the Torah with the proper petuhah, open, or setumah, closed, spacing.

The Mitzvah Today

The issue of writing offers one reason people today might feel less pressure to write a sefer. Kiddushin 30a says we no longer are sure of haserot ve-yeterot, of whether certain words are spelled with or without a vav, with or without a yod. Sha’agat Aryeh used this to explain why we do not make sure to write a Torah, since we cannot be confident we are writing a full valid one. By that logic, Minhat Hinuch says it must be that we are sure we do know the proper way of writing the four sections of the Torah included in tefillin, because we do not see any of the same looseness about fulfillment of that mitzvah.

He suggests instead the Gemara referred to being unsure of spellings that do not affect the meaning of the word, and only spellings where the meaning changes invalidate. He does not think we have lost the tradition to that extent, especially because he feels certain we would not lose track of how to observe a mitzvah (a claim weakened by the fact that we have lost the tradition on other mitzvot, such as the techelet in tzitzit, and the exact sizes of various halachic issues or requirements, but that’s what he says).

An Unclear Mitzvah

We are left with significant lasting uncertainties. For Rosh and Tur, there might no longer be a mitzvah to write or even acquire a Torah scroll (and, for them, “writing” other books would not have to involve the physical act of writing, necessarily). We are more sure the mitzvah is connected to our Torah study, the reason women are exempt, leaving us wondering why writing is better than buying.

Ideas to ponder, as we do our best to fulfill some version of the mitzvah.

About Gidon Rothstein

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