Monday, September 11, 2017

Both Oral and Written

The development of the printing press had an incredible impact on Western civilization. Prior to the printing press, all documents were hand-written, limiting their dissemination and leaving large swathes of the population illiterate.

There is a mitzvah derived from Deuteronomy 31:18 (“Now therefore write this “song” for yourselves”), which is interpreted to mean that one should write one’s own Torah scroll. It is a mitzvah that few have the privilege of fulfilling unless they have the resources to hire a professional Torah scribe. Due to the printing press, however, the Torah is now printed in a wide variety of published editions, in a multitude of languages and with a wide assortment of commentaries. However, the scroll written by a trained scribe remains the holiest document of the Jewish people.

Given the strong emphasis of Judaism on literacy, it is interesting to note that there is also a mitzvah that empowers those who cannot read or own a copy of the Torah to engage in an intensive learning experience. Moses commanded the Jewish people that every seven years (the year after shmittah), on Sukkot, the Jewish people should assemble “the men and the women and the little ones, and your stranger that is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn and fear the Lord your God and observe all the words of this law” (ibid. 31:12). It was this mitzvah of “Hakhel,” with the king of Israel himself reading from the Torah, that served as a massive communal celebration of religious education.

According to the Talmud, in order to make certain that Torah was studied regularly, it was decreed during the days in the Wilderness that there should be a partial reading of the Torah every Shabbat, Monday morning and Thursday morning. A Mincha (afternoon) Shabbat Torah reading was later added, and it became customary to assign one (sometimes two) portion of the Torah to each week (Talmud Baba Kama 82a).

Today we are blessed with a plethora of options for reading and studying the Torah, as well as opportunities to discuss the commandments and listen to the Torah read aloud. The Mitzvah to write one’s own Torah serves as a reminder of the importance of acting on these options.

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