MeAm Loez on VaYelech The Mitzvah to Write a Torah Scroll
Sefer HaMitzvot (Postitive Comandment 18)and Sefer HaChinuch (Mitzvah 613) include the writing of a Torah scroll as one of the 613 Mitzvot of the Torah. It is incumbent on all males, in every generation, in all places.
Menachot 30a states that it is preferable that each person should write out the Torah himself by hand. doing so is considered equivalent to receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai. If that is impossible, a scribe should be hired to write a Torah scroll. If that is also beyond one's ability, one may join others and commission a scribe to write a Torah for the entire group as a community. If even one letter is written in the name of each individual, it is considered as if he fulfilled the Mitzvah of composing a Torah scroll.
Even if a person inherits a Torah scroll, he is commanded to write a Torah scroll himself. Among the reasons given for this decision are:
- In this manner, the number of Torah scrolls will be increased, and each individual will have a scroll to study from himself and another to lend to others
- The Mitzvah involves the act of writing and not the possession of the scroll.
According to the latter opinion, checking and correcting an existing scroll also constitutes fulfillment of this Mitzvah. Even if a person corrects only one letter, it is as if he wrote the entire Torah scroll by hand.
Some Rabbis forbid a person to lend a personal Torah scroll to a community synagogue. They explain that a person must keep his Torah scroll available so that he can study it frequently.
Others allow the scroll to be loaned to a synagogue, since the main aspect of the Mitzvah is the actual writing of the scroll. The latter view is now favored, because it is customary to study from printed texts rather than from scrolls.
Megillah 27a states that a person who possesses a Torah scroll should not willingly part with it. Even if he lacks his basic necessities, he should not sell it. However, there are two reasons for which a Torah scroll may be sold:
- To study Torah, for Torah study will lead to complete Jewish practice, the goal of each person's existence
- To marry, for marriage endows a person with stability and balance
If a Torah scroll is sold for other reasons, the seller will not realize any ultimate benefit from the money he receives.
Laws of the Composition of a Torah Scroll
Shemot 13:9 states: "So that this Torah will be in your mouth." On this basis, Shabbat 108a states that a Torah scroll may only be written on parchment from the skin of a kosher animal. However, the animal need not necessarily be slaughtered in a ritually acceptable manner. As long as the species is kosher, the parchment may be used for a Torah scroll.
Parchment that has been deemed forbidden because of association with idol worship or similar practices may not be used for a Torah scroll.
Parchment made of fish skin cannot be used for this purpose. Fish skin gives off an unpleasant odor which is not becoming to a Torah scroll.
The parchment must be prepared with the intention that it be used for a Torah scroll. Therefore, a Jew must carry out or, at the very least, assist in this task. If the preparation of the parchment is carried out entirely by a Gentile, it may not be used for this intent.
Only black ink is acceptable. Ink of any other color disqualifies a Torah scroll.
RaMBaM writes that the ink used to write a Torah scroll is obtained by boiling oils, tar, and wax, and collecting the vapors. Afterwards, that mixture is combined with tree sap and honey, and then dried out and stored. Before its use, it is mixed with gall-nut juice.
At present, scribes prepare ink using gall-nut juice and gum. The black color is obtained by adding various tints.
The Composition of the Scroll
Before beginning to write a Torah scroll, a scribe must mark off the lines on the parchment (seertut). The utensil used for this purpose must not leave any coloring on the parchment. It is preferable that this marking be carried out with the intent to write a Torah scroll. A right-handed scribe should write only with his right hand. If he is left-handed, then only that hand should be used.
A feather pen or a reed pen should be used. An iron pen is not desirable because:
- It may perforate the parchment
- Iron is often used to make weapons of death and destruction, both of which contradict the intent of the Torah
The letters of a Torah scroll must be written in the "Assyrian" script. The letters in which Hebrew is commonly written or printed are not aceptable. The Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities have a number of variations of this script. The three that are most commonly employed are as follows:
- That composed by Rav Yosef Karo in accordance with the opinions of the Medieval responsa
- That composed by Rav yitzchak Luria, the Holy Ari, which follows the teachings of Kabbalah
- That composed by Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, which combines both points of view
Certainly, a person who has not carefully studied the laws pertaining to composing a Torah scroll cannot be a scribe. Printing a Torah scroll is not acceptable. This applies even if the letters conform to the required form.
The Publication of Other Texts
Rabbenu Asher (The Rosh) writes that the purpose of the Mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah is to spread Torah study. Hence, the Mitzvah of writing a scroll only applied in previous generations when it was customary to study from those scrolls.
Since at present it is customary to study from the Chumash, the Mishnah, and the Gemarah, the Mitzvah of "writing the Torah" consists of making these texts available to others.
RaMBaM maintains that the Mitzvah consists of the actual deed of writing. Most authorities suggest that both opinions should be followed. A person should write, commission the writing, or join with others who commission the writing of a Torah scroll. However, effort should also be made to write and publish other texts of Torah scholarship.
The Reward for This Mitzvah
When foretelling the vents that will precede the redemption of the Jewish people, the Book of Daniel (12:1) relates:
At that time, Michael, the great archangel, who supports the children of your people, will stnad up. There shall be an unprecedented time of trouble for the nation... At that time, all your people who are written in the book will be delivered.
The commentaries explain that "all your people who are written in the book" refers to all those ho have written or commissioned the writing of all or part of a Torah scroll.
There is a Messianic aspect to the Mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll. On the verse from the liturgy: "I have redeemed you from this final [exile] as from the first," Ben Ish Chai (Drushim) writes that the redemption will come when emphasis is placed on the first Mitzvah of the Torah: "Be fruitful and multiply," and the final Mitzvah, the composition of a Torah scroll.
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