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The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | 101 Uses, Part 7

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, In Eight Parts

By Mark L. Berch

The primary function of a Sefer Torah is the public reading, which will be covered in the final essay.  There are other ways in which it is used.

The most joyous use is the processional, called the hakafot, at Simchat Torah, when all the Sifrei Torah are taken out to be marched and danced with.  This custom dates only to the middle ages.  This procession also takes place with lulav and esrog at Hoshana Rabbah.

A more sedate ritual occurs on a Shabbat  Mevarchim, the one before the New Moon.  A Sefer Torah is held during a special blessing which announces the coming of the new month.  In some synagogues, there is a processional of congregants carrying lulav and esrog on non-Shabbat days of Sukkot, and the Torah is kept out, generally on the reading table, for that.  Similarly, during the recitation of the Hoshanot during Sukkot, one custom is to take out the Sefer Torah for that too, because the congregational refrain includes the word Torah.  Some synagogues take out scrolls for the memorial prayer during Yizkor.

The most solemn use is during Kol Nidrei.  The heart of this service, near the beginning, is the recitation of the Kol Nidrei prayer, which is a legal formula which releases people from vows made under duress.  Traditionally, two or three scrolls (or, in some places, all scrolls) are held by honored congregants, to act as witnesses for the legal procedure.

Somewhat related to this was a custom of grasping a Torah while making an oath, presumably the better to ensure that the truth was told.  Many rabbis were, understandably, not happy with reliance on oaths at all.  They would generally discourage their use, for who could be absolutely certain of memory?  And an oath could deprive the rabbi as adjudicator the flexibility to work something out.  An account of just such an event is given in “The Oath”, in I.B.Singer’s warm memoir “In My Father’s Court”.

The Torah is also displayed (by opening the ark) for many High Holiday prayers, and for Avinu Malkaynu whenever it is recited, and for Anim Zemirot.  The original reasons for this appear to have been lost.

Some uses of the Sefer Torah are archaic.  The ordeal of Sotah involved rubbing bitter waters onto Numbers 5:21-23 to erase the verses.  Indeed, until Sotah was abolished by  Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, those verses had to be written in erasable form (i.e. without use of vitriol).  The Talmud also records that the Sefer Torah would accompany a King into battle, and was used in a special public fast ceremony at times of drought.  There was also a medieval custom that a Torah could be brought into the room of a woman in a dangerously difficult labor, and could even be grasped by the woman, to give her extra strength.

Finally, the Sefer Torah, as a physical object, could be bought and sold.  But such is its holiness that sale is permitted only for three purposes: raising money for ransoming captives, for marrying, and for Torah study.  Given, however, that there is both a licit and an illicit market in Sifrei Torah, it appears that this rule is not strictly followed.  In fact, this Torah holiness extends to items used with the Sefer Torah.  This “contact Kadoshin” extends most strongly to the Ark.  Thus, one cannot sell an Ark even to build a synagogue, since an Ark outranks a synagogue.  However, the Sefer Torah has less contact with the reading table, so a reading table can be sold to buy an Ark.  The Sefer Torah also emanates holiness to its ornaments.  Indeed, even the chair or stand on which the Sefer Torah sits during the reading of the Haftorah is sufficiently elevated in holiness that it may not be discarded, but must be placed in a geniza or buried.  So just think what the Sefer Torah can do for you.

Next:  The Public Reading of the Sefer Torah