A Community Response When A Torah Falls

Posted on March 04, 2015

From Rabbi Nesson

We, the Jewish people, have always treated the Torah  Scroll, the Sefer Torah, with extraordinary respect.   So if a Torah were to accidently fall, it would affect not only those who were present at that moment, but also the entire community.

Well, on Friday night February  13th, ( ah oh!)  it happened in our  Willner Chapel.  During the service, a Torah accidently fell out of the Ark even while no one was actually near it a t the time. This is a rare, and I am sure upsetting event in any congregation.   To my knowledge, this has not happened before in our synagogue.

So, what are we supposed to do now that a Torah from our congregation has fallen? Even though most of us were not there at that service ( including myself), our tradition suggests a community response both from those who were present and those who were not.

The tikkun (or, repair) that needs to take place goes beyond the quick kiss we give to a siddur or humash that has fallen to the ground. Those books contain God’s name, and have attributed holiness. The Torah is itself holiness. It embodies it, and so the response must reflect that.

Some of you know of the custom that associates fasting with a fallen Torah, and we have heard that we are supposed to fast for 40 days. I am not suggesting that we do that.

It is a little more complicated than that. First, fasting for any amount of time when a torah falls is a custom and not a law, though often the line between the two may be blurred.

As Rabbi David Golinkin wrote in his teshuvah (halakhic responsum) on the topic of a falling Torah, the earliest mention of this custom is in the 17th C. Within the custom of fasting, there were several versions: some sources said that the person responsible for dropping the Torah must fast for 40 consecutive days (with the fasts being “minor,” so dawn to dusk, with eating at night…like a version of Ramadan);  some said that 40 individuals in the community who witnessed the fall should fast on one particular day; still others maintained that on 40 consecutive days on which a Jew can fast (excluding Shabbat, holidays, etc…), a member of the community should do so. In all of these customs, the “40” corresponds to the days Moshe was on Sinai receiving Torah. If it took “40” to receive Torah, then it will take “40” to earn back Torah, after its fall.

Rabbi Golinkin notes that fasting  is not the only response.  The tikkun can also be accomplished in other ways, for example giving tzedakah, or  studying of the laws of the sefer torah.   In some communities a new cover was made for the torah, as well as checking to see that all is well with all the torahs in the ark.  The main point is that the community feel the impact of this repair, committing ourselves to efforts that reflect the gravity of a Torah scroll having fallen to the ground.

With all of this in mind, and having consulted the core texts and several colleagues, mentors, teachers and authorities, I encourage the following congregational responses to this incident.

FAST –  If you are able, choose a day to fast from morning until evening.  Since next week, Wednesday March 4th is the Fast of Esther, I would recommend joining in the fast that day.  Fasting is not easy, and by fasting we involve ourselves in a memorable event.  (If we have 40 people fasting that day, we can fulfill the tradition too.  I will be fasting that day.  If you plan to fast, please let me know at ravdjn@aol.com)

2  GIVE TZEDAKAH-  Giving tzedakah is a time honored response. I would recommend a donation to any Jewish fund of your choice, and especially those in our congregation.   A donation to the Education Endowment at the congregation would be fitting, since it is here that we teach torah to our children, our future. The Shabbat that this incident happened was called Shabbat Shekalim, the Shabbat were we remind ourselves to collect tzedekah for Purim and Passover.

3)  STUDY TORAH-  On Saturday March 21st, following services, I will lead a short study session on Hilchot Sefer Torah, the laws pertaining to the Torah.

In this way, we will have engaged in tzedakah, fasting and Torah-study, a threefold, community response to an incident we can all hope will not be repeated in our lifetimes.

Let us all be inspired by the words we recite when we return the Torah to its home at the end of every reading:

Eitz hayim hi lamahazikim bah .

The Torah is life for those who hold it dearly. Physically, and spiritually, let us grasp Torah dearly, nurture it, protect it, and see that is always upright.