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Is it Permissible to Practice Reading the Torah From a Torah Scroll?

To my granddaughter Maya Golinkin on her first birthday

Question from Rabbi David Ebstein:

Is it permissible for a child to practice reading the Torah from aSefer Torah [Torah scroll] in preparation for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony? A rabbi wrote to me that “there is a problem halakhically to take a Torah out when it’s not for the need of thetzibur [=congregation]”. Any thoughts on whether this is forbidden?


1. Practicing the Torah reading in the Talmudic period

According to a story about Rabbi Akiva found in Midrash Tanhuma(Yitro, parag. 15) and Shemot Rabbah (parashah 40), it is forbidden to read the Torah in public until you review the parashah[Torah portion] once or 2-3 times, and this was codified by the Tur,Shulhan Arukh and Arukh Hashulhan (Orah Hayyim 139). I assume that they used to review the parashah in a Torah scroll, but it is not explicitly stated in those sources.

2. The mitzvah of every Jew to write a Sefer Torah

Maimonides ruled (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 7:1):

It is a positive commandment for every single man in Israel[i.e. Jew] to write a Sefer Torah for himself… and even though his forefathers left him a Sefer Torah, it is a mitzvah to write his own.

This ruling is based on Deuteronomy 31:19; Sanhedrin 21b at bottom; Menahot 30a; and Massekhet Soferim, Chapter 3. It was also codified by the Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 270:1.

One might claim that each Jew wrote a Sefer Torah and gave it to the synagogue, but that would be an anachronism since the institution of the synagogue only arose 2,000 years ago, long after the book of Deuteronomy. Rather, each Jew was supposed to write a Sefer Torah and keep it in his home for private use. This is evident from Sefer Hahinukh (parag. 613), which was written inSpain in the 13th century:

From the roots of the mitzvah… And therefore God commanded us that each and every Jew should have a Sefer Torah ready by him so that he should be able to read from it always and he should not have to go after it to the house of his friend, in order that he should learn to fear God, and that he should know and understand His commandments which are dear and more precious than much gold…

In other words, it is a mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah for personal use at home in order that he should be able to learn from it whenever he wants. Thus, since it is clearly permissible to study from Torah scroll at home it is also permissible to read from it in order to practice the Torah reading.

3. A house which contains a Sefer Torah or a pair of tefillin

The same thing is evident from a beraita (ca. 70-200 c.e.) inBerakhot 25b-26a: “It is forbidden to have sexual relations in a house which contains a Sefer Torah or tefillin until he takes them out [of the house] or until he puts them in a receptacle inside a receptacle”. Later on in the passage, the Amora Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (ca. 230 c.e.) says: “A Sefer Torah, one must build a partition of ten [tefahim, handbreadths, in order to have sexual relations in the house]”. And so ruled Maimonides (Hilkhot Sefer Torah 10:7) and the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 282:8). In other words, it was very common in the period of the Mishnah and the Talmud that someone kept a Sefer Torah in his home just as he kept a pair of tefillin in his home. It was not intended for public use but rather for private use, as we saw in Sefer Hahinukh cited above.

4. Sitting on a bed which contains a Sefer Torah

The same thing is evident from Maimonides (Hilkhot Sefer Torah10:6) and the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 282:7), that “it is forbidden to sit on a bed which contains a Sefer Torah“. This shows, once again, that many Jews kept a Sefer Torah in their homes for private use.

5. Reading from a Torah scroll in order to fulfill the obligation of reviewing the Torah portion twice every week

Rabbi Ami stated in Berakhot 8a-b: “A person should always complete his parshiyot [Torah portions] with the public, twice the Bible and once the Targum [the Aramaic translation of the Torah portion]…”. Much has been written about what this sentence means, (See Aryeh Leibush Wagne, Hatzofeh L’hokhmat Yisrael 10 (1926), pp. 140-143 and Moshe Benovitz, Talmud Ha-igud, BT Berakhot, Chapter I, Jerusalem, 2006, pp. 319-327). but one set of sources is very relevant to our topic of reading from a Torah scroll in private.

The Radbaz (Rabbi David ibn Zimra,Spain,Israel,Egypt, 1480-1574) was one of the most important halakhic authorities in the late Middle Ages. And so he ruled in his responsa (part 3, No. 529):

You asked me to tell you my opinion about a person who has a Sefer Torah in his house and also a humash [one of the five books of Moses], with which of them should he fulfill his obligation of “twice the Bible and once the Targum”?

… And it seems to me that if this reader is proficient in reading with [the correct] vowels and cantillation and ends of verses, he should obviously read from the Sefer Torah for it has more holiness, and the main reason for making it is to read from it… But if he is not proficient in reading, it is better that he read from a humash which has vowels and cantillation and [also] contains holiness… (This responsum is quoted in various ways by Rabbi Hayyim Benveniste, Knesset Hagedolah to Orah Hayyim 285 in the name of the Radbaz, part 2, No. 193; the Hida, Mahazik Berakhah toOrah Hayyim 285, parag. 2; Rabbi Ya’akov Hayyim Sofer, Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 285, parag. 7; Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef,Hazon Ovadiah, corrected edition, Jerusalem, 2008, Hilkhot Shabbat, part 1, p. 303; Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Yalkut Yosef, part 4,Hilkhot Shabbat, volume 1, p. 364).

A similar ruling was made by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Hakohen (Poland, 1838-1933) in the Mishnah Berurah (to Orah Hayyim 285, subparag. 2) on the basis of the Radbaz: “A person who is proficient in the cantillation and the vowels, it is good to adorn themitzvah by reading [“twice the Bible”] from an actual Sefer Torah“.

Rabbi Hayyim Vital (Safed, Jerusalem, Damascus, 1542-1620) was one of the most prominent disciples of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, Egypt, Safed, 1534-1572) and the main disseminator of his teachings. In his Sha’ar Hakavanot (Inyan leil vav u’tevillat erev Shabbat, Jerusalem, 1995, fol. 529b), he relates the following: (My thanks to my son-in-law David Zohar who referred me to Sha’ar Hakavanot).

The customs of my teacher of blessed memory [the Ari]. Right after he completed the Shaharit service on Friday, he would go to the synagogue or to his Bet Midrash [House of Study]. If there was a kosher Sefer Torah there, he would take it out [of the ark] and read from it the portion “twice the Bible and once the Targum”, and he would read the Bible from the Sefer Torah, and he had a student who would read to him the Targum from a volume of Targum and he would repeat after him, and so he would do for every single verse until he completed the parashah…. And after reading the parashah, he would immerse [in the mikveh] the immersion of Erev Shabbat [Friday]…

This passage was quoted verbatim in Kaf Hahayyim to Orah Hayyim 285, parag. 3 and it is quoted in brief in Sha’arei Teshuvahto Orah Hayyim 285, subparag. 1.

In other words, the Radbaz  — one of the most important halakhic authorities; the Mishnah Berurah – one of the most widely accepted halakhic authorities today; and the Ari – one of the most influential kabbalists of all time – all of them ruled that it is preferable to read “twice the Bible” from a Torah scroll.

6. The explicit ruling of the Hida on our question

Furthermore, there is one important halakhic authority who related to our question directly. The Hida (Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, Israel and Italy, 1724-1806) wrote over 100 books, including three different commentaries to the Shulhan Arukh.

In his book, L’david Emet (5:53, Jerusalem, 1986, p. 23), which is devoted entirely to the laws of the Sefer Torah, he rules:

It is a mitzvah to read the parashah on Friday from the Torah scroll which they plan to read from on Shabbat, and especially the sheliah tzibbur [cantor, Torah reader], so that if there is a mistake or letters touching each other – he should fix it [before Shabbat].

In other words, not only is it permissible to read from a Sefer Torah in private, but it is a mitzvah to do so in order to correct mistakes in the Sefer Torah in preparation for the Torah reading on Shabbat.

7. An interim summary

It is evident from all of the above that a Sefer Torah is intended for both public and private use. It is a mitzvah for every Jew to write aSefer Torah and keep it with him at all times for private use. It was assumed in Talmudic times that many people have a Sefer Torahat home which must be properly covered or partitioned during sexual relations and that one may not sit on a bed which contained a Sefer Torah. Three prominent authorities ruled that the best way of fulfilling the obligation of “twice the Bible” every week is to read from a Sefer Torah. And the Hida explicitly ruled that the Torah reader or someone else should read the Torah portion from theSefer Torah on Friday in order to correct mistakes in the Torah scroll before Shabbat. Thus, it is obvious that a child may read from a Sefer Torah as part of the preparation for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

8. L‘shem Hinukh – for the sake of education

Furthermore, it seems that the rabbi quoted forgot the important halakhic concept of l’shem hinukh, for the sake of education. If we want the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child to read without mistakes, we need to let them practice from a real Sefer Torah. The approach of the rabbi quoted is similar to teachers and rabbis who teach children to recite blessings by reciting barukh atah hashem instead of barukh atah adonai and then the child recites barukh atah hashem at the actual Bar/Bat Mitzvah! This is a minhag ta’ut, a mistaken custom (See Rabbi Wayne Allen, Further Perspectives on Jewish Law and Contemporary Issues, 2011, pp. 85-86, who relies primarily on Maimonides, Hilkhot Berakhot 1:15 and on Rabbi Eliezer Mazya (16th century), Responsa Yefei Nof, No. 335).

9. Possible opposition to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah child practicing from a Sefer Torah

Before concluding, it is worth noting that there are three halakhic authorities who might object to a Bar/Bat Mitzvah child practicing by using a real Sefer Torah:

a. This is implied by Rabbi Yehoshua Falk (Poland, 1555-1614,Perishah to Tur Yoreh Deah, parag. 270 at the end) as quoted by Rabbi Shabetai Rapoport (Poland, 1622-1663, Shakh to Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 270, subparag. 5):

… If so, why should we denigrate the honor of a Sefer Torahfor nothing by learning from it unnecessarily. It is found in these generations in which we don’t learn from it, that there is no positive commandment [of writing a Sefer torah].  

This approach ignores all of the sources quoted above, and in any case, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has already disproved it. (See his Yalkut Yosef, part 4, p.365 in the footnote.)

b. Rabbi Naftali Tzevi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv, Volozhin, 1816-1893, Responsa Meishiv Davar, Orah Hayyim, No. 16) forbade reading from the Torah in public on a Sunday without a blessing in honor of a new Ark. Aside from the fact that that case is different from ours (reading in public and not in private), the Netziv relies on the Talmud Yerushalmi,  but Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef (as quoted by Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef) has already pushed aside his arguments on the basis of the Babylonian Talmud which always takes precedence over the Yerushalmi.

c. Rabbi Yehudah Altman (Responsa Mei YehudahOrah Hayyim, end of parag. 40; as quoted by Yalkut Yosef, loc. cit.) opposed the custom of reading “twice the Bible and once the Targum” from aSefer Torah.

Since it is possible to read from a humash, why denigrate the sanctity of the Sefer Torah for nothing? And there is no proof from the Holy Ari for simple people, and so too we should obviously not learn from the Gr”a [the Gaon of Vilna] — who studied from a Sefer Torah — regarding the behavior of other people.

To this we can reply that not only the Ari followed this custom. As we have seen, the Radbaz and the Mishnah Berurah ruled the same way for all Jews. And as for the Gaon of Vilna, he liked to revive ancient customs and probably wanted to emulate the Talmudic Sages by studying from a Sefer Torah.

Indeed, it appears from the last three sources – and especially from the Perishah and the Shakh – that as a result of the invention of printing ca. 1550 they began to look on the Sefer Torah as an object so holy that one only reads from it in public. Yet it is clear from the above sources that this was not the approach in the Talmudic and medieval periods up until the Radbaz and the Ari in the 16th century.

10. Summary and Practical Halakhah

Throughout most of Jewish history, a Sefer Torah was intended for both public and private use. Therefore, not only is it permissible for a child to prepare for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah by reading from a Sefer Torah, but it is preferable to do so, in order that he/she should feel at home when reading the Torah and not make any mistakes during the actual Bar/Bat Mitzvah service.

David Golinkin
24 Marheshvan 5774

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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