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Drash Service Taking Torah Out Ark

Service for taking the torah out of the ark

Drash, By Margery Auerbach January 2000

In discussing prayer, we usually focus on the words, but our tefilah involves three elements, the words, music and choreography.


In the Torah service the choreography is particularly important. We approach the Torah gradually and slowly. First we begin the familiar prayers with the Ark closed, then the Ark is opened ceremoniously, we rise, but the Torah stays where it is. Third, we remove the Torah, and it’s held by the service leader at a distance on the Bimah. Fourth, the Torah is carried around so that everyone in the congregation can touch it, and lastly, the covering is removed and we hear the sacred words.


The Mishnah discusses taking the Torah out, but not the particular words accompanying that act. The earliest record we have is from Tractate Soferim from about the year 600 C.E., which does mention the Ein kamocha passage. A congregant told me of a plan to do a Dvar Tfilah on just the first four words of this passage, which Harlow translates loosely – it really means “Who is like you among the gods, Adonai?” That does raise certain theological questions.

The verses we recite are in general taken from the Tanach. Ein Kamocha is from Psalm 86 and the next line (the rest is translated pretty accurately) is from Psalm 145. The third line – Adonai melech… does not occur together anywhere in the Bible in total. It is a composite, the clauses taken, respectively, from Psalm 10, Psalm 93, and Exodus 15. The next line asking God to grant us strength and peace comes from Psalm 29, and the Av harachamim section, asking God to build the walls of Jerusalem, is from Psalm 51.

Now is Ark is opened. The vay’hi binsoa has been controversial in some quarters, the “scattered enemies” seen as militaristic. This verse is taken from Numbers 10:35, remembering the earliest days of wandering in the desert when the Ark was carried at the head of the column and the Ark was indeed often carried into battle. The new Reconstructionist Siddur offers a choice of this passage or pitchu li shaare tsedek, open for me the gates of righteousness. The Vayhi binsoa was used in the Torah service in Southern France in the 13th century, but didn’t become a part of the Ashkenazic rite until the mid 16th century. The final lines, ki mitsiyon, are from Isaiah, 2:3. We move to hope for the future when all nations will want to learn God’s word and hear it from Zion.


Just a few words about the music. The familiar Ki Mitsion is not a tune from Sinai. It was written for Chazzan and four-part chorus by Solomon Sulzer, who lived ( mostly in Vienna) from 1804 to 1890. He was a renowned Chazzan and composer associated with the German reform movement. Sulzer was a friend of Franz Schubert, and Schubert’s influence can be heard in much of Sulzer’s music, which derives its melodies not from traditional Jewish tunes, but from European music of the time.

It’s ironic that even congregations which reject most of those reforms still sing the Sulzer medodies. The Sulzer composition, by the way, continues with Shema yisrael …echad. This tune is not only almost universally used for the Torah service, but every time the Shema appears in the liturgy. Many Cantors are encouraging congregations to sing the Shema in the appropriate Nusach (or prayer mode) wherever it appears, but I’m afraid it’s a losing battle, except maybe in High Holidays Maariv when we sing the Shema in the the beautiful flowing melodies of that Nusach.

Finally, please be assured that the words, the music, and the choreography of the Torah service are one-hundred per cent Y2K compliant.

Given at Tifereth Israel January 1, 2000 by Margery B. Auerbach