Writing the Scroll for Ourselves

Fulfilling the 613th commandment

Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.


To get to know a city or countryside that we have not visited before, we need to walk its paved streets or dirt roads. Driving or flying over them misses the heartbeat of the place. The tragic German-Jewish intellectual of Weimar Germany, Walter Benjamin, turned this truism into a profound analogy.

The power of a country road is different when one is walking along it from when one is flying over it by airplane. In the same way, the power of a text is different when it is read from when it is copied out… Only the copied text thus commands the soul of him who is occupied with it, whereas the mere reader never discovers the new aspects of his inner self that are opened by the text, that road cut through the interior jungle forever closing behind it: because the reader follows the movement of his mind in the free flight of day-dreaming, whereas the copier submits it to command. The Chinese practice of copying books was thus an incomparable guarantee of literary culture, and the transcript a key to China’s enigmas (Robert Alter, Necessary Angels, 67-68.)

It is hard for us to grasp the luminosity of Benjamin’s comparison, because we are so far removed from a scribal culture. Our copying of a text, whether by Xeroxing, microfilming or downloading from a computer, epitomizes the mechanistic character of our technological age. The object of copying though, for Benjamin, has nothing to do with speed or numbers or efficiency. Copying by hand is an act of internalization that requires unbroken concentration. When we read our minds readily wander from the words. In copying, our inner state and external activity come into sync. To absorb experiences beyond our ken can be done only in slow motion.

Because Benjamin’s insight goes against the grain, it helps us understand the final mitzvah of the Torah’s 613 commandments, which we meet in this week’s parashah. I can’t imagine a more fitting or far-reaching closure to the religious regimen that makes up the infrastructure of Judaism. Moses and Joshua are instructed by God to record the poetic finale (Ha’azinu), a dark vision of Israel’s future infidelity, which Moses is about to declaim: "Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel…" (Deuteronomy 31:19). On the basis of this cryptic verse, the Talmud derived the prescription that each of us is obligated to write a copy of the Torah for ourselves, even if we have the good fortune to inherit one from our parents (BT Sanhedrin 21b).

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein of Pinsk, who died in the Holocaust (like Benjamin), suggests that the motive that drives this demand is the desire to increase the number of Torah scrolls thereby enhancing the knowledge and stature of Torah in the world. Earlier commentators read the verse more literally. Lost in the translation is the Hebrew word lakhem, "for yourselves." To inherit Torah passively makes it ours only nominally. True possession (mishelakhem) needs active engagement, that is, actually copying the Torah from beginning to end (Torah Temimah, ad loc.).

Benjamin adds an interior dimension by transforming the act of copying into a metaphor. To reproduce a text painstakingly by hand, one letter at a time, alludes to the labor it takes to appreciate its latent as well as manifest content. In the spirit of Chinese calligraphy, we must learn to read vertically, unhurriedly, penetrating layers of nuance, influence and association.

Thus, writing our own copy of the Torah offers yet another striking formulation of the centrality of study in Judaism. The exertion that brings mastery is both cerebral and physical. Copying carves out a second channel through which signals are received from a remote and unfamiliar source. Several senses combine to capture the complexity of their meaning.

Today the 613th commandment can be fulfilled by simply purchasing a printed text of the Torah, a Humash. Torah scrolls abound, especially in synagogues. That was the case already by the end of the 13th century in Spain when Rabbenu Asher ben Yehiel, who hailed from Germany, urged that fulfillment of the law now meant making copies of the Oral Law. His counsel, I suspect, reflected a defiant reaction to the policy adopted by the Church at mid-century of confiscating manuscripts of Mishnah and Talmud in an effort to weaken the exegetical underpinnings of rabbinic Judaism (Tur, Yoreh Deah 270).

But what, in truth, might be the equivalent for us to the writing of our own sefer Torah, our own Torah scroll? I would contend that it is learning to chant the Torah in the synagogue according to its musical cantillation, the trop. In Judaism, sacred texts are not read aloud, but chanted.

Music is a mark of holiness and an integral part of the liturgy. The pattern is so ingrained that even the study of Talmud takes on a distinctive musical intonation. Hence, to recite the parashah or haftarah on Shabbat morning entails singing it. Since the former is done from a scroll in which there are no vowels or musical notations, the task puts a premium on memorization. But, it is precisely the repetition involved that enables us to appreciate the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, the cantillation as punctuation and the innumerable subtleties of the text.

To master the musical rendition transports us to a far deeper level of comprehension. It is for this reason that synagogues should expect their youngsters to chant the parashah as well as the haftarah for their bar or bat mitvah. And once they have gained proficiency, they should be invited to return periodically to chant other parashot and haftarot.

Like copying, chanting is intended to slow us down. The activity facilitates attention to detail. The pace engenders moments of reflection. Above all, chanting is a deconventionalized mode of learning. It lifts us out of the ordinary realm of our experience. The degree of alienation diminishes the numbness that comes with repetition.

This is the wisdom inherent in the manner in which the Torah is read in the synagogue. The rite is permeated with unconventionality. Ritual sets apart the holy. The reading requires a minyan. It is always done to trop and from a handwritten scroll, never a printed book. When executed proficiently before a congregation that has pored over the parashah during the week, the Torah reading delivers an emotional experience laced with echoes of Mount Sinai.

Interestingly, the penultimate mitzvah of the Torah is to assemble the nation of Israel once every seven years at the central sanctuary on Sukkot for a public reading of Deuteronomy (31:10-13). That kernel would eventually germinate into our practice of weekly readings in the synagogue that cover the entire Torah in sequence in the course of a single year. Liturgy came to the aid of public instruction. Only an informed laity could make Judaism a lived reality. The advent of cantillation heightened the impact of the ritual, saving Hebrew from the fate of hieroglyphics.

Nothing is more important for the contemporary synagogue than to recapture the beauty and power of the Torah reading as a collective experience of revelation and an individual opportunity to internalize it.

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