Simanim 147-149 Closing the Scroll

  • Rav Asher Meir
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Mishna Berura
Yeshivat Har Etzion

SHIUR #82: Simanim 147 - 149


by Rav Asher Meir








The Rema in se'if 1 recommends not touching any properly written scroll of Scripture without washing hands beforehand.  Actually, in the time when teruma was still eaten in ritual purity, touching these books required washing hands AFTERWARD.  Let us examine the source of this surprising decree.


The beraita on Shabbat 13b includes among the famous eighteen special decrees of tum'a (ritual impurity), which were initiated by Beit Shammai, "a book" of Scripture and also "the hands."  The tum'a in question is a relatively mild degree which disqualifies (posel) teruma.


The gemara on the next page continues:


And why did the Rabbis impose tum'a on the Scriptures?  Rav MiSharshia said, people used to store the teruma next to the sefer Torah, saying, both are holy.  When they saw that this lead to damage [vermin used to damage the Torah scroll - Rashi] the Rabbis declared it tamei.


And the hands - because hands are always busy [and become soiled without the person noticing].


[The beraita] teaches: Even hands which come from [contact with] Scriptures disqualify teruma, because of R. Parnakh['s concern].  For R. Parnakh said in the name of R. Yochanan, Anyone who holds a bare sefer Torah will be buried bare.  Could that really be?!  Rather we should say, bare of this particular mitzva (Shabbat 14a).


            Rashi explains the word "bare" according to its plain meaning - that there is no intervening garment.  There does seem to be a certain impudence, an excessive familiarity, in touching the scroll directly.


But the Mordekhai at the very end of Megilla cites in the name of the Ra'avia that if the hands are washed BEFORE touching the Torah scroll, there is no problem.  The Ra'avia evidently understood that the dishonor to the Torah scroll was due to the uncleanness or impurity of the hands; if the hands are clean, it is as if the scroll is not "bare."


This reasoning is logical enough in its own right, but in the context of the gemara it is a bit puzzling.  Unwashed hands are tamei even BEFORE they touch the Torah scroll - this is the original decree of the "busy hands."  According to the Ra'avia, it is not clear what additional tum'a is added by touching the scroll itself; and if there is none it is unclear what deterrence this decree creates to prevent people from touching the Torah scroll in a disrespectful way.


Today we are unable to purify ourselves from tum'at met (ritual defilement due to a corpse) and so it is impossible to eat teruma or challa.  Consequently, all of the eighteen decrees are more or less dormant.  Why does the SA then rule that we may not touch a Torah scroll?


Many of these decrees were never intended as strictures in the area of ritual purity at all, but on the contrary sought to exploit the fact that ignorant Jews were extra-sensitive to ritual purity requirements in order to create stricter observance in OTHER areas of halakha.  The three examples we have mentioned are perfect examples.  The tum'a of the Scriptures was instituted to protect them from vermin; that of the hands, to prevent unclean (not necessarily tamei) hands from touching sanctified food; that of the hands which have touched the Scriptures, in order to discourage people from touching these books in a disrespectful way.  These decrees seem to carry an implicit prohibition.


So it is perfectly consistent for the SA to forbid touching the Torah scroll, even though the original decree never forbade such contact but merely imposed a certain constraint on it.  On the other hand, we do NOT forbid a person from dirtying his hands or becoming distracted from their cleanliness, even though such distraction still technically makes them tamei.  The object of the "busy hands" decree was merely to enforce cleanliness before touching sanctified food and objects.


There is a disagreement as to whether the other decrees among the "eighteen things" carry with them an implicit prohibition.  For instance, one of the eighteen "tum'ot" is one who washes immediately after ritual immersion.  Even today one who washes in this way is tamei to the extent that he or she will disqualify teruma.  Is such washing forbidden?  The Rema at the end of YD 201 writes that "there are those who forbid" going back and washing "and this is the custom"; but the Gra s.k. 127 writes "That decree was only for teruma that it would be considered unfit on a rabbinic level, but the immersion is effective."


The obvious question arises, if the sages wanted to prevent people from touching the Torah scroll, or storing teruma with the Torah scroll, and so on, why didn't they just forbid these things?  Why approach the problem via the rules of rabbinic tum'a?  One answer seems to be that the desire was to discourage these things but not to forbid them altogether, thus allowing for cases where there could be a special need.  However, the MAIN reason seems to be that ignorant people, who would disregard a straightforward rabbinic decree, were more in awe of the rules of tum'a, and would be deterred by tum'a even while a direct prohibition would be ineffective.


There is an interesting parallel today in the attitude towards the Kabbala and the esoteric in general.  I have heard in the name of Rav Mordekhai Eliyahu that he often brings rules in the name of the Zohar even when the exact same ruling is found in the Talmud or the codes, because people are more careful to carry out "obligations" if they hear them quoted from Zohar.  A wry epigram says that if you tell people something is forbidden they will ignore you, but if you tell them it is warned against in the Will of Rav Yehuda HaChasid they will listen to you.  There are certainly many people who are much more concerned whether their prospective bride has the same name as their mother than they are whether she will cover her hair in a modest way.





And R. Tanchum further said, in the name of R. Yehoshua ben Levi: The congregation is not allowed to leave until the sefer Torah is taken and set in its place; and Shemuel said, until it exits.  And there is no dispute: one is where there is another exit, one where there is no other exit.  Rava said, Bar Ahina explained this to me [according to the verse] (Devarim 13) "Go after HaShem your God" (Sota 39b).


Rashi explains that the problem exists when the sefer Torah is stored in a room outside the sanctuary.  If there is only one exit, then leaving through that door before the sefer Torah is presumptuous - we are supposed to follow HaShem, not lead Him, as Bar Ahina explains.  But if there is another exit, we may leave whenever we like.  (Compare YD 242:17 in the Rema - the rule of giving "right of way" to a Torah scholar.)


The Tur cites a Gaon who explains that the problem exists even when the scroll is stored in an ark in the sanctuary.  The Beit Yosef brings two different explanations of this opinion in the name of Rav Yitzchak Abuhav.


According to the first explanation, R. Yehoshua ben Levi means that even a procession within the sanctuary is a proper procession, and the congregation should wait for it and take part in it.  Shemuel adds that if the procession leads OUT of the sanctuary, it is permissible to leave through a different exit.


According to the second explanation, Shemuel does not provide a leniency.  Since according to the Gaon the problem is not leaving in FRONT of the sefer Torah (which we would solve by going through another exist) but simply deserting the procession, what good does it do to use another egress? Rather, RYBL explains that we may not leave until the Torah scroll is picked up.  Then we may go out together with it, as part of the procession.  And even if we happen to leave the sanctuary before the scroll, that is irrelevant since we are part of the procession.  But Shemuel explains that this is not sufficient.  Even when we belong to the procession, the sefer Torah has to precede us.  Only if there is another exit can we leave through that exit before the scroll has left the sanctuary - but all the time we are part of the entourage.


The SA rules according to the second explanation.




It is the custom for orphans to mention departed parents after the Torah reading on Yom Tov and the High Holy Days.  This is a very old custom, mentioned many times in the writings of the Rishonim.  The Kitzur Shulchan Arukh (133:21) writes that it is the custom that someone whose parents are still alive leaves the sanctuary during Yizkor.  (For someone still in the first year of mourning for a parent there are varying customs.)


The Tzitz Eliezer XII:39 brings various reasons for this custom, among them: Being reminded of the departed conflicts with the joy of the holiday (but on the contrary, for the mourners memorializing their departed parents is a source of comfort - see Rema OC 288:2); it is a problem to be present at a part of the service we do not take part in.  The Tzitz Eliezer vociferously defends the custom, and warns strictly against departing from it.


Since Yizkor is said right after the Torah reading, this custom would seem to involve an obvious conflict with the rule in our siman.  I haven't found anyone who discusses this, but one simple solution suggests itself.  It seems that both Rashi and the Gaon agree that the main purpose of prohibiting leaving is in order to impel the congregation to accompany the Torah scroll as it is brought to its ark - either inside or outside the sanctuary.  The problem is not that the Torah scroll is "sitting there" without us, but rather that it will return to its resting place without a proper entourage.  Since those who leave the sanctuary return for the procession of the sefer Torah, there is no conflict.


However, sometimes once a person leaves for Yizkor he endeavors to make it back in time for Musaf; our siman DOES imply that we should make every effort to enter the sanctuary in time for the return of the Torah scroll to the ark.