The Rambam (Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:1) writes: “It is a positive commandment for every man in Israel to write a Sefer Torah for himself, as it is written, ‘And now, write for yourselves this song.'”
The instruction, as the Rambam explains (according to the Beis Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 270) is to “write the Torah which has in it this song”—the song of Haazinu—”for it is forbidden to write the Torah as individual sections.”
The Gemara makes a point of the great virtue of performing this mitzvah, explaining that somebody who has the merit of writing a Sefer Torah is considered as if he has received the Torah directly from Sinai (Menachos 30a). Elsewhere (Sanhedrin 21b), the Gemara clarifies that it is no sufficient to inherit a Torah scroll from one’s father, and in order to fulfill the mitzvah one must actually write the Torah.
Yet, it is striking that this mitzvah, in spite of its great importance, is not widely practiced in our times, and individuals who actually write (or pay for writing) a Sefer Torah are few and far between. In this article we will seek to address the parameters of the mitzvah, to outline its laws, and to understand why we don’t all invest in ink, parchment, and plenty of time, as required for writing the Torah scroll.
Writing or Purchasing a Sefer Torah
The Gemara (Menachos 30a) quotes the following statement: “One who purchases a Sefer Torah from the market is considered as if he has grabbed a mitzvah from the market; one who writes a Sefer Torah is considered as if he has received it at Sinai. Rav Sheishes said: One who corrects even one letter is considered as if he has written the entire Torah.”
Rashi explains that one who purchases a Sefer Torah fulfills the obligation of writing the Torah, yet, unlike actually writing it (or designating somebody to write it as an agent), this is not the optimal method of fulfilling the mitzvah (see also Nimukei Yosef, who explains that purchasing an already completed Sefer Torah involves little effort, and therefore lacks the same level as writing the Torah).
According to Rashi, it is therefore appears that the basic mitzvah does not require actually writing the Torah, but rather having it in one’s possession. Based on this approach, we can understand the ruling given by the Toras Chayim (Sanhedrin 21b) whereby if a Sefer Torah is lost, or donated to a shul, the person who wrote the Torah loses his fulfillment of the mitzvah. The continual fulfillment of the mitzvah requires the continual holding of the scroll in one’s possession.
However, the Pischei Teshuvah (Yoreh De’ah 270:3) cites a number of authorities who dispute this ruling, and contend that a person does not lose his fulfillment of the mitzvah when he loses the scroll, or when he donates it to a shul.
This ruling is well understood in the light of the Minchas Chinuch’s (Mitzvah 613) interpretation of the Rambam’s (Sefer Torah 7:1) opinion, according to which a person must specifically write a Sefer Torah (the Rambam writes that somebody who is unable to write the Torah should appoint an agent to do it for him, and does not mention the option of buying a ready Torah scroll). The Rema (Yoreh Deah 270:1) sides with this opinion, ruling that one who purchases a Sefer Torah that requires no correction has not fulfilled the mitzvah at all.
The Vilna Gaon, however, agrees with Rashi (Yoreh Deah 270:3), and rules that one can fulfill the mitzvah even by purchasing a complete Sefer Torah. This is also the ruling given by the Aruch Ha-Shulchan (270:2), and Rav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah Vol. 1, no. 163) expresses wonder at the Rema’s ruling, adding that the Rambam in no way implies that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah by buying a Sefer Torah.
Purpose of the Mitzvah and Modern Application
The Sefer Ha-Chinuch (613) writes that the purpose of writing a Sefer Torah is for the sake of Torah study: “[T]he Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that each and every man of Israel have a Sefer Torah at hand, from which he can always study, so that he should not need to seek one at his friend’s house. In this way, he will learn to fear Hashem, and he will know and understand His mitzvos, which ‘are more precious than gold, and even much fine gold (Tehillim 19:11).'”
As noted above, the mitzvah applies even to somebody who inherited a Torah scroll from his parents. Presumably, it is harder to study from an old Torah scroll, and a person will be more inspired to study the Torah from a Torah scroll that he himself wrote.
The Rosh (Sefer Torah 1) similarly writes that the purpose of the mitzvah is for the sake of Torah study. Based on this rationale, he goes on to write that today, the mitzvah is fulfilled by the writing of other Torah works: “Nowadays, when Sifrei Torah are written and placed in synagogues for public Torah readings, it is a positive commandment that every Jewish male who is able to should write chumashim, volumes of Gemara, Mishnah, and their commentaries.… The mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah is in order to study from it… it is through the study of Gemara and its commentaries that one comes to know well the meaning of the mitzvos and their laws. Therefore, these are the works that one is commanded to write.”
This understanding of the mitzvah is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (270:1). According to the Shach (270:5) and the Perishah, the ruling implies that there is no longer a Torah mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah, and the mitzvah is fulfilled specifically by writing books that are commonly studied from.
A less radical interpretation is offered by the Beis Yosef and other authorities, who explain that Rosh means to expand the mitzvah, which is fulfilled not only by writing a Sefer Torah, but also through works that are commonly studied from. Writing (or purchasing) such works is included in the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah, and this is superior to writing a Sefer Torah which is used for public Torah readings alone.
It is noteworthy that the Rambam makes no mention of any change in the mitzvah, and clearly maintains that even today, the mitzvah is fulfilled by writing a Sefer Torah. The Chafetz Chaim (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos Ha-Katzar) initially states that one should write, designate someone else to write, or buy a Sefer Torah, subsequently citing the opinion of the Rosh. The Chafetz Chaim concludes: “Whoever is able to fulfill both interpretations—fortunate is his lot.”
Obligation for Women
Based on the underlying rationale behind the mitzvah (as presented above), the position of Sefer Ha-Chinuch , whereby women are exempt from the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah, is self-understood. Because women are not obligated in Torah study, it follows that the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah does not apply to them.
The Shaagas Aryeh (35), however, questions this premise, commenting that this mitzvah does not fall within the category of time-related mitzvos, from which women are exempt. He also notes that although women are not obligated in Torah study on the same level as men, they are obligated to study those parts of Torah that are relevant to their lives, which is why women recite the daily blessing over the Torah.
Moreover, the Shaagas Aryeh argues that the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah is not related to the obligation of Torah study. The mitzvah of writing the Sefer Torah, and thereby continuing the written tradition of the Torah from generation to generation, applies irrespective of the obligation of Torah.
Yet, although he writes that women are in principle obligated in the mitzvah, the Shaagas Aryeh adds that nowadays, even men are exempt from the Torah mitzvah. The reason for this is that we are not beki’im (expert) in how many Torah words must be written. Because our tradition in inaccurate, it follows that the Torah mitzvah does not apply, and the obligation to write the Torah today is rabbinic alone (he adds that the rationale for the rabbinic obligation is to ensure that the Torah should not be forgotten, and because it is directed at Torah study, it is possible that women are indeed exempt).
Another reason for why women might be exempt from the mitzvah is suggested by the Minchas Chinuch, who explains that because women may not serve as scribes to write a Sefer Torah (Yoreh De’ah 281:3), it follows that they are likewise not qualified to appoint agents to write on their behalf. The Shaagas Aryeh dismisses this view, arguing that women are obligated in the mitzvah of mezuzah (for instance) even though they are not qualified for writing it; the same can apply to a Sefer Torah.
Le-Halachah, we find that the Rambam agrees that the mitzvah does not apply to women (he lists mitzvah 18 (writing a Sefer Torah) as one of the mitzvos that women are exempts from), and this is the opinion of virtually all later authorities (see Iggros Moshe, loc. cit.).
Partnership in Writing
Due to the high cost of a Sefer Torah, the matter of writing a Torah scroll in partnership with other has great practical value, and later authorities grapple with the question of whether or not the mitzvah can be fulfilled in partnership.
According to several authorities, the mitzvah cannot be fulfilled in partnership, because the mitzvah is that each and every person should write (or own) his own Sefer Torah (see Pischei Teshuvah 270:1, who cites authorities expressing doubt over the matter; Aruch Hashulchan 270:11). Other authorities, however, write that the mitzvah can be fulfilled in partnership, provided that each of the partners has a specific part of the Torah scroll (Aruch Hashulchan, according to the Rosh; Iggros Moshe, loc. cit.).
Therefore, where this is the only way of fulfilling the mitzvah, it is proper to contribute towards the writing of a Sefer Torah. If possible, one should stipulate that in return for the contribution one receives an actual partnership in the Sefer Torah (according to the Toras Chaim, this is a required stipulation). Rav Moshe Feinstein adds that the combination of writing a Sefer Torah in partnership, and buying sefarim that are commonly studied, is sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah according to all opinion.
It is also noteworthy that in 1933, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky called on Jews everywhere to participate in the writing of a Sefer Torah in memory of the Chafetz Chaim. Announcements bearing R’ Chaim Ozer’s signature called on each man and woman to participate and “thereby fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah.”
A Pricey Mitzvah
As we know, a Sefer Torah does not come cheap, and writing an Ashkenazi Sefer Torah will cost approximately $30,000—an expenditure not everyone can afford. To what extent must a person strive to fulfill the mitzvah, in spite of the high cost?
Rav Moshe Feinstein (loc. cit.) discusses this issue, and writes that according to most authorities, there is no obligation to spend a great proportion of one’s money in fulfilling the mitzvah. Although he mentions opinions that one must spend up to a fifth of one’s wealth, he writes that according to most authorities there is no obligation to spend even one tenth of one’s available funds.
Rav Moshe continues to explain that Chazal will not criticize somebody who spends one tenth of his wealth for the purpose of fulfilling the mitzvah, but that if one spends more than a tenth “it is possible that the Sages will criticize the practice, because if he will spend a fifth of his wealth on a Sefer torah, he will not be able to perform other mitzvos and to donate to charity, for it is forbidden to spend more than a fifth.”
Based on this principle, the obligation of writing a Sefer Torah only applies to a wealthy individual, for whom the cost of a Sefer Torah is less than one tenth of his available wealth; somebody who does not possess such wherewithal is exempt from the mitzvah.
This ruling emerges from the wording of the Rosh (loc. cit.) and the Tur (Yoreh De’ah 270), who write that the mitzvah applies to “any man of Israel who has the means,” implying that only those possessing the [significant] means for writing a Sefer Torah are obligated in performing the mitzvah (see also summary, below).
- The optimal way to perform the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah is to actually write a Torah scroll with ink and parchment. For many, this is not possible, and an agent can be paid to write the Sefer Torah on one’s behalf. According to many authorities one also fulfills the mitzvah by purchasing a Sefer Torah, but this is not optimal, and one should therefore ensure that the purchased Sefer Torah is incomplete (has some words or letters missing), which the scribe then completes as an envoy of the purchaser.
- According to the Rosh, whose opinion is cited in the Shulchan Aruch, the principle mitzvah today is not the writing of an actual Sefer Torah, but the writing and purchasing of sefarim that are commonly studies from (chumashim, mishnayos, gemaros, etc.). Authorities differ over whether a mitzvah remains to write an actual Sefer Torah (see Iggros Moshe, loc. cit., at length).
- The principle halachic ruling is that women are exempt from the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah; of course, if a woman has the means, and wishes to donate towards the writing of a Sefer Torah, it remains a highly worthy deed.
- The obligation to write a Sefer Torah applies specifically to wealthy individuals, who are able to pay for the expense with one tenth (or less) than their available wealth. Authorities dispute whether or not the mitzvah can be fulfilled in partnership. One who donates towards the writing of a Torah scroll should preferably stipulate that his donation buys his an actual share in the Sefer Torah.