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Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

I don’t know how or when it happened. But somehow, in the not too distant past, the pinnacle of the Simchat Torah celebration moved from the Hakafot and Torah readings to a new, and visually-impressive, presentation — the unrolling of the Torah in its entirety.

More and more congregations have embraced it and I find it both perplexing and troubling.

Traditionally, the Torah is treated as if it is nearly alive. It is NOT alive, but we accord her a great deal of respect. We do not touch the parchment as the oils from our hands will rub away the ink and render it unusable. When we open the scroll for a reading, we open it not more than three columns in order to maintain some semblance of modesty. If we are moving the Torah from one location to another, we would not place her in the trunk. Rather, the scroll would ride inside the car. Nor would we leave the Torah in the car overnight. If a Torah is rendered unusable, we bury her. We stand when the Torah is removed from the ark (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:3). And, God-forbid, should the Torah should be dropped, the one who dropped her is required to fast. As are those who have witnessed the incident (Orech Chayim 3:3).

Unrolling a Torah in its entirety seems to defy our customary ways of handling the scroll.

What is troubling is that there are long-standing rituals associated with Simchat Torah. The Shulkhan Arukh, not to mention a number of Sages, provide clear instructions regarding the ways in which we read the scrolls on this festival. Why toss out the mandated practices only to replace them with something new?

Innovation can be a wonderful thing. It keeps stasis at bay. It seems to me, however, that unrolling the Torah is simply a gimmick to get folks interested in participating. When I read descriptions of this practice as “the highlight of the Simchat Torah experience,” I am saddened. Saddened that we have become so jaded that our traditions are perceived to be both uninspiring and antiquated. Saddened that we seek more thrilling, more “meaningful” rites. Perhaps that is what so compelling about Chabad. They are seen as delivering “the real thing” rather than re-branding it or re-imagining it. How is it, then that instead of seeming outdated, the ways in which they practice their Judaism are seen as “authentic”?

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. Wednesday, 29 September 2010 8:06 am

    This bothers me annually as well. The only thing I like about the unrolling is that our cantor will take the kids and show them special things in the Torah (start of each book, split text, etc) and that seems a worthy inclusion. I just wish there was another means of achieving that.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Wednesday, 29 September 2010 12:35 pm

      One of my colleagues, Rabbi Peter Stein, shared with me the following idea:

      “I’ve created a new tradition over the last couple of years. After the hakafot and the dancing, I have the 5 Torahs set out…they are open to Bereshit, 10 Commandments, Holiness Code, Birkat Kohanim, and the end of Devarim. I read just a short piece from each to celebrate not just the end and beginning, but the high points along the way.”

      This would accomplish the mitzvot related to the chag as well as make the most of a teachable moment.

  2. Jockbro permalink
    Wednesday, 29 September 2010 11:45 am

    Does this occur instead of hakafot at some shuls? Is this done prior to or after them? One suggestion is to unroll the scrolls at a different time, perhaps during religious school. Those who find it appealing can still come and be fulfilled, but in a way that is separate from what is commanded during Simchat Torah itself.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 3 October 2010 9:57 am

      As you probably can guess, I agree completely!

      And yes, there are some places where one measly hakafa is done (or not).

  3. Wednesday, 29 September 2010 11:58 am

    We do all the hakafot first and then unroll it – but we line up tables, so the whole thing is supported and won’t fall. Then our Rabbi Emeritus (Rabbi Schaalman) reads from the end of the Torah and Rabbi Zedek reads from the beginning.

    As it is unrolled and rerolled, the rabbis and cantor go along and tell people where they are standing in the Torah and highlight different portions.

    Then it is rerolled and set for a new year.

    • Thursday, 30 September 2010 11:11 am

      Hey, I like that idea – that’s a good one.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 3 October 2010 9:58 am

      Would I be correct in my assumption that your place only has one scroll?

      With one scroll, the entire thing must be rerolled. Using a table is a good way to go.

  4. Leah permalink
    Wednesday, 29 September 2010 4:59 pm

    I have no problem with this – so many people have never actually SEEN the inside of a Torah, and we hear year after year from people who are inspired to begin studying Torah because of their experience seeing it unrolled. Yes, it’s a “gimmick” in a way, but we’ve seen how awe-inspiring it is and at least for our community, it’s pretty meaningful. Our “unrolling” is during the Torah reading, and we use a smaller Torah which is set aside for this purpose, and then we have the other Torahs that get danced around during all the hakafot. We also have this awesome local klezmer band for the hakafot, but I suspect that’s also a bit wacky but hey that’s us 🙂

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 3 October 2010 10:00 am

      Folks who have not seen a scroll up-close-and-personal can be invited up to see it without having to unroll one in its entirety.

      As for the klezmer band, not so wacky. The only place I have ever been without freilich music on Simchat Torah was my student pulpit in a deaf congregation. Seven hakafot — with no music.

  5. Saturday, 2 October 2010 2:59 pm

    Considering the price and holiness of a Sefer Torah, it seems pretty dangerous. One shouldn’t be a game out of it. At first I thought the picture was of a circle dance.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Sunday, 3 October 2010 10:00 am

      Nope….that’s a naked Torah.

  6. Sunday, 3 October 2010 7:25 pm

    Sure it’s risky. It could be torn. But the Torah is for the people.

    This year we unrolled two of them, and various congregants stood near verses we had chosen and talked about why that verse is particularly meaningful to us. Then two b’nai mitzvah students read the end and the beginning. Then we rolled them up and danced.

  7. Sunday, 3 October 2010 8:36 pm

    this is interesting, as always, lady. i loved the way that you described the details of how we treat the torah as human. i read the thread at rj as well. heated, indeed!

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