Parshat Va’etchanan (2013)

Parshat Va’etchanan
Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11

The Hagabah (The Torah Lifting) as an Example of Diverse Customs

Ashkenazi HagbahI love to study the various traditions of our Jewish culture. I have various cultural influences in my life, and a multitude of religious influences in my education. I have the benefit of being connected through history and regional custom to the Sephardic tradition (Spanish and Mediterranean Jewry). However, I have spent most of my life in the context of the Ashkenazic tradition (Central and Eastern European Jewry) when attending services. The latter is the most represented in America. Even then I have had the luxury of a middle ground, connecting myself to the path of Chassidut which infuses Sephardic liturgical influence into the Ashkenazic minhag (custom). My experiences have given me the best of both worlds.

This has had some benefit when I work with liturgy, which is my main occupation. I know just enough about the traditions to be able to look for the variances in a text to identify its custom and influences right away. Many times I have friends come to me and ask me to identify a prayerbook for them, in order to help them decided if one works best for their custom and philosophy. The variances in tradition are not all aesthetic.

I am reminded of the diversity in our tradition by this weeks parsha, as it reveals a phrase that all Jews of every tradition will recognize:

“This is the Torah

which Moses placed

before the children of Israel.”

| Z’ot haTorah

| asher sam Moshe

| lifnei b’nei Yisra’el.

Deuteronomy 4:44

No matter what custom you are from, this is how we respond to the Torah being raised, during the hagbah (הגבה: meaning “to be lifted up.”). This is the universal custom for responding to the people witnessing the words of the Torah displayed.

I bring our attention to this element of our tradition because it is universally recognized, and because of it best demonstrates the diversity there is in the Jewish tradition. We all know this part of the service because the Torah reading is the central focus of our festival and sabbath days. The whole ceremony and adornment surrounding the Torah is so awe-inspiring that it catches everyone’s attention.

If I asked a group of Jews from all over the world how to respond to the hagbah, everyone would be in agreement. This is how we respond, by quoting this verse from our parsha; “Zot haTorah / This is the Torah…” Everyone can shake their hand in agreement. But if I were to ask specific questions about the process we begin to see divergences that are not known to others.

The first and obvious divergence I see when I consider a text is in the placement of this verse during the Seder Kriyat haTorah – the Order of the Torah Reading. If I asked each person in a diverse assembly of Jews to look up and show me in their siddur where this recitation of this verse is placed, we would see that not everyone’s text is the same. Some will find it placed before the reading, other will find this statement after the reading of the Sefer Torah – the Torah Scroll.

Most of us know the latter method, that after the Torah is read it is raised and as all the people witness the text held high and we say “Zot haTorah…” This method most normative to us North Americans and to Europeans, as this is the tradition of Ashkenazim of Eastern Europe who predominately inhabit these lands. However, in the Sephardic tradition of Spain and the Levant it is said before. Furthermore in each tradition it may be followed by different verses, as statements about each community’s hopes they hold in this Torah.

I downplay the aesthetic differences, but those should not be discounted. There are also unique ways that accustom the raising as well. This is made most obvious when we see the Torah scrolls revealed.

In the Ashkenazic tradition the scrolls are brought out finely dressed and adorned, rolled around wooden poles (customarily refereed to as eitzei chaim – trees of life); in this custom the Torah is laid down and referenced by turning these rolling handles, and likewise lifted by grasping hold from there.

In the Sephardic-Mizrahi tradition common to the middle-east the Torah scrolls are instead kept in a self-contained mini-ark called a tik (תיק; Hebrew meaning something like “a portfolio” or a “file folder”), which is more like a small travel bureau. When the Torah is lifted, this whole adorned chest is raised high. Then the reading is done while the text is read standing upright, turned by its self-contained rollers.

The Sephardic/Mizrahi Torah in a Tik, preparing for lifting.

A Sephardic/Mizrahi Torah in a Tik, preparing for lifting at the Kotel

Most of you who visit Israel are probably used to seeing a bit more diversity in custom, and are more accustomed to seeing people of many backgrounds using a Torah Tik. Some might think it a bit exotic, but it is not looked at oddly because we respect that it is an authentic regional custom to the Middle-East thus we embrace it. In fact deferring to the Sephardic custom is not just for regional considerations, but also because the Sephardi custom can often best represents the historic practice.

This might be hard for some people to accept, but here as with many cases the Sephardic tradition predates the Ashkenazic tradition that we are all so familiar with. Our certainty in part is because of the details related to the codification of Jewish law in the Sephardic tradition which predates that of the Ashkenazim (examples: the Rambam with the Mishneh Torah, The Maran with the Shulchan Aruch). Secondly, uncontested voices in the Ashkenazi tradition tell us this is so. None other than the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kremer of Lithuania, 18th century), the eminent voice of Litvak tradition, points out to us that aspects of the Sephardi tradition predate the others. The GR”A points to an example of this being the lifting of the Torah; it originally came first, he contends. (see Biur Hagra; citing Shulchan Aruch; 134:2)

For a brief moment I would like us to look at the actual text of the Shulchan Aruch, presented in the voice of the Maran Yosef Karo who is the primary author. It sheds light on the original maneuvers in this tradition, and reveals the reasoning behind it:

“[At the] appearance of the face

of the writing of the Sefer Torah

to the people,

to the left and right,

and back around he turns;

This is followed by a command

that each man and women

are to see the writing and bow

and says ‘This is the Torah…’ (Deut. 4:44)

[and] ‘The Torah of Hashem is pure…’ (Ps. 19:7)”

מראה פני |

כתיבת ספר תורה |

לעם |

העומדים לימינו |

ולשמאלו ומחזירו לפניו |

ולאחריו שמצוה |

על כל אנשים ונשים |

לראות הכתב ולכרוע |

ולומר וזאת התורה וגו‘ |

תורת התמימה וגו‘. |

Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 134:2

The Maran; Rabbi Yosef Karo, Tzfat, Israel in 1563

This is most definitely understood to happen before the reading, further attested to by the fact that the Rem”a – Rabbi Moshe Isserlis of Kraków, Poland; who provided the Ashkenazi glosses to the text in the year 1578 – he explicitly goes out of his way to contrast that they hagbah after and not before. And thus Torah is lifted high, so that all the people can see the writing.

If we consider the origins of the tradition, it might seem self-explanatory why we would raise this holy text before it is read. It would be logical to conclude  that since we revere the text and it’s message we want to see it for ourselves, to attest that what is being said is true.

Though this might seem like a reasonable answer, this is not the only purpose of the hagbah. Another purpose is to fulfill the honor of reading the text. Though there is great honor given to a baal koreh – a designated Torah reader for the service – there is also much honor given to each person who actually reads along with the leining (the chanting) of the Torah. In order to extend this honor to all the congregation, to be partners in this reading of the Torah, we reveal the text to be seen by each congregant.

Furthermore, our tradition also can be said to hold great value in seeing the text, independent from the command to read it. In yet another gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, the Magen Avraham tell us: “When one sees the letters, the holiness of the words radiate and impart holiness to the individual.” (Magen Avraham, Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland; 134:3)

The Magen Avraham seems to suggest that by just seeing the words of the holy Torah, in all their splendor as they stream over the parchment, this experience alone is enough to mystically impart holiness and light to the individual. This is true for all persons, men or women, old or young, and presumably literate or illiterate. Though surely the words reverberate more with an individual if they are able to intone them, nonetheless one that merely peers upon the words also gleans spiritual strength and inspiration.

Modern Liturgical Considerations

If we look at the halacha (the law) regarding the hagbah (the lifting) as presented in the Shulchan Aruch (also known as The Code of Jewish Law) we see that all major traditions have drifted in some respects. This is most obvious when we see that there is a second verse presumably offered for recitation after the lifting and reciting “Zot haTorah.” I know of no tradition that still maintains the formula of following this up with the words, “The Torah of Hashem is perfect…” (Psalms 19:7)

Today when Zot haTorah is followed up with another pairing verse we generally see two major variations, ones that also divide alone the lines of Sephardic and Ashkenazi tradition.

The Ashkenazi tradition continues with the biblical words, “Al pi Hashem b’yad Moshe / At the command of Hashem, by the hand of Moses.” (Numbers 9:23)

The Sephardi tradition most often continues with the biblical words, “Torah tziva lanu Moshe morasha hekilat Yaakov / The Torah, which Moses commanded us, [it is] a heritage for the congregation of Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 33:4)

I must point out that not one tradition is necessarily more authentic than the other in this case. If we look at the siddurim (prayerbooks) from the period shortly after the codification of the Shulchan Aruch we will see that these two traditions are well documented by each community therein.

One of the interesting questions is why each community chose these specific verses. Is there a philosophical meaning behind this?

I think there most certainly is a regional religious influence that had some swaying on why each tradition chose these verses. It all appears, in my understanding, to be focused around a cultural trend in Europe at the time to defend Biblical Inerrancy. The European Age of the Enlightenment introduced the first revolutionary stokes of biblical criticism for the greater continent. As this period was in full swing in Europe, it seems quite reasonable that the rabbis objected to biblical criticism with a conservative response. They felt it incumbent upon them to emphasize that this is the actual Torah written by the hand of Moses.

Though Jews of the region already held the stigma of being blasphemers, they certainly didn’t need the problems of being accused of the additional crimes of heresy and doubt by the Christians. Nor did Jewish leaders there want this “Enlightenment” to seemingly creep in and blind the eyes of their students to the Torah message.

However, in Spain in the deep south, the wheels of biblical criticism were already set into motion by such greats as Ibn Ezra in the 12th century. I don’t wish to exaggerate their critique, as Ibn Ezra did not call the Torah a mere work of man but he did suggest that parts of it were indeed written in by Yehoshuah (Joshua, the Judge) upon the demise of Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher) as his successor. This was not considered heretical. It is well accepted that Mosaic tradition passes from person to person, master to student. It never was part of the mentality of the time to suggest that every word and letter was preserved without error, from the hand of Moses alone. Instead it was stated that these words (both oral and written) are a heritage stemming back to the teachings of Moses. Sure there are differences and oddities, but instead of ignoring them we look at them nice and hard to understand why they are so and what lesson they have. This is how we deal with the reality of textual variance in our Mesoretic tradition. And upon this Sephardim choose to emphasize this sense of heritage.

I am not suggesting that there has been a tendency towards biblical criticism more prevalent within the Sephardic culture (this would not be true, Sephardic culture is often theologically more traditional), but what I am suggesting is that there was no great need to influence the liturgy in  direct opposition to the threat of an emerging Enlightenment school of thought.

Though I believe that the Torah is inspired by G-d, I must deal with the reality of textual criticism. I do not think that it is possible for me to be effective in talking Torah with a diverse group of people without exposing myself to textual criticism. It’s not something I can or want to avoid.

In fact I feel a great need to reach out further to my friends that feel iffy about the Torah, and help them explore how they relate to it. Do they really consider it to be of divine origin, or is it just a good idea passed down the ages? For those people who are not so brave enough to yet say, “This is the Torah by the hand of Moses…” I contend that there is another awesome and respectful response one can make when witnessing our Torah, “The Torah which Moses commanded us is a heritage…” One can still respond with awe to the Torah and proclaim with honesty that they respect this Torah, not because they are a fundamentalist, but because it is their heritage. We don’t need to recreate a new text that is more honest for progressive sensibilities, it already exists enshrined in a variant tradition waiting to be revived.

2 responses to “Parshat Va’etchanan (2013)

  • ralph

    You write “I must point out that not one tradition is necessarily more authentic than the other” <– Do you mean "one tradition is not necessarily more authentic than the other"? Also, it's worth noting Why Ashkenazim do Hagba after the torah reading. I heard from a Rav, that Ashkenazim used to do Hagba before the Torah reading, but some people used to go out of the service after Hagba, which is a big sin, so to avoid that big sin, they do Hagba after.

    On a related note, I don't know whether there's a difference btween ashkenazi and sephardi custom on yom kippur for the long shofar blow that happens.. But one of the rabbis in the area said that the normal place for that blow is earlier in the service than we do it, but some people would go home after hearing it.. (and eat?), and they did that blow later (at/near the end?) of the service. instead.

    • ralph

      I mean..when they did hagba before the reading, some people used to go out of the service after the hagba and miss the torah reading

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