Why Most People Do Not Observe the 613th Commandment

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Vayeilech

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: If there is a mitzvah to write a Torah scroll, why do so few people observe it today?

And now write for yourselves this song and teach it to Children of Israel to place it in their mouths; in order that this song will be for Me a witness against the Children of Israel. (Deuteronomy 30:2,11-14)

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) interprets this verse to mean that everyone is obligated to write their own Torah scroll. The glaring question is why do we so few – even pious – people who apparently neglect to fulfill the final mitzvah in the Torah?

(A) According to Ibn Ezra this commandment was only legislated to scholars who possess the knowledge and expertise necessary to write their own.

However, as a general rule, the Ibn Ezra should not be taken as a source of normative halachic practice. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 27) explicitly rules that one who does not know how to write their own Torah should commission it to be written by someone else on his behalf. (There is a related discussion about the obligation for a father to circumcise one’s son.)

(B) The Shagas Aryeh (no. 36) reasons that, in truth, there is at best only a Rabbinical obligation to write a Torah scroll nowadays. Already in the times of the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), and even earlier, it was evident that many rabbis were not familiar with the precise subtleties required for spelling every word in the Pentateuch (see also Sifrei on Deuteronomy,  piska no. 6 and Tosafos on Niddah 33a, s.v. V’Hinasei). Since a Torah scroll that is missing even one letter is invalid (Menachos 30a) it follows that the mitzvah to write a Torah scroll has become functionally inapplicable. A ramification for those who accept this premise, that our Torah scrolls are not completely accurate, appears in the laws of Torah reading itself. The Rema (O.C 143:4) comments:

This that we remove another Torah [from the ark] is specifically when a complete error is found [in the one that is currently out], but if it was only because of missing or extra letters, we don’t take out another Torah, since our Torah scrolls are not so precise so as to say that the other one would be more valid.

On this basis that our Torah scrolls are not 100% accurate, the Shagas Aryeh suggests that there is a separate Rabbinical commandment to persevere in producing Torah scrolls so that the teachings of the Torah do not become lost from the Jewish people.

A practical difference is that according to this later Rabbinic enactment it would be sufficient to own a Torah scroll without the formal necessity to actually write it oneself. And since the writing of a Torah scroll nowadays serves as a mere contingency measure to maintain our tradition, it is understandable why there would be no formal blessing for writing it – as the mitzvah is to preserve rather than to write anew. (See, however, Minchas Chinuch no. 613, who challenges the premise of the Shagas Aryeh by arguing that only changes to the Torah that alter its meaning compromise its validity.)

(C) Another justification emerges from a particular reading of the Rosh (Halachos Ketanos, Hilchos Sefer Torah, no. 1). The Rosh ambiguously writes that nowadays there is a mitzvah to write and study the Talmud and books comprising Rabbinic literature. However, it is subject to debate whether the Rosh intended to expand the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll to other holy books (Taz Y.D. 270:4), or if he was updating the mitzvah by claiming that it applies to books which are regularly consulted – unlike a Torah scroll which is practically limited to public ritual readings (Shach Y.D. 270:5). According to the latter interpretation, most people do not expend a small fortune to commission their own Torah scroll because there is no formal obligation to do so.

The Chasam Sofer (O.C., no. 52) explains that for this very reason the Sages did not ordain that a blessing should be recited upon the writing of a Torah scroll. In general, we do not make a blessing on the initiation of a mitzvah, but on its completion (Menachos 42b). For the Rosh, the writing is only the beginning – the learning that follows is the true culmination of the mitzvah.

Endnote: For more on the topic of the accuracy of the Masoretic text, see R. Amnon Bazak’s To This Very Day (Ch. 5).

Another consideration is that a Torah scroll costs an exorbitant amount of money. We are told that one is not required to expend more than a fifth for performing a positive mitzvah (see Rema O.C. 656:1). Thus, for those of standard financial means it is practically unfeasible to commission a Torah scroll – especially on top of tuition, increased real estate prices and all other associated expenses that have become de facto gateways to living in an established Jewish community.

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my  own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter