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Why Do Sephardim Keep Their Torahs in Cylindrical Cases?

Why Do Sephardim Keep Their Torahs in Cylindrical Cases?

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Ashkenazi and Sepharadi Torah scrolls share an ark at Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie.
Ashkenazi and Sepharadi Torah scrolls share an ark at Lubavitch Chabad of Skokie.

Question:

I recently had occasion to pray in a Sephardic synagogue, and they kept the Torahs in some kind of ornamental cylindrical case with the scroll in the upright position. Then, when it came time to read the Torah, they simply set it on a flat table and cracked open the case.

As you know, Rabbi, we Ashkenazim generally keep our Torahs in soft velvet covers and lay them on a slanted bimah to read them. What gives?

Answer:

On the surface, one might think that this difference is primarily a cultural one. Just like people in different lands dress differently, they also developed different styles for “dressing” the Torah.

However, there actually is important halachic significance to the fact that the Sephardim keep their Torahs in cylinders that hold them upright, while the Ashkenazi Torah scrolls need to be propped up on a slant.

In order to understand this, let’s take a look at the mezuzah. Since you are an Ashkenazi, you probably have positioned your mezuzah in a slanted position. Sephardim, on the other hand, tend to place theirs upright.

How come?

The Talmud states that if one positions the mezuzah like a nagar (bolt), it is invalid. Now, what is the position of a bolt?

The great commentator Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) explains that a nagar is a bolt that lies horizontally. Thus, he learns that a mezuzah needs to be attached vertically.1

Rashi’s grandson, Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir), disagrees, saying that the nagar in question is not a horizontal door bolt, but a vertical tent pin, like the pins used to keep the Tabernacle walls in place. Accordingly, he says that a vertical mezuzah is invalid. Interestingly, he finds a parallel for his horizontal requirement in the fact that the dead must be buried lying down, and in the historical precedent that the Tablets were positioned on their sides in the Holy Ark.2

Now, if the Tablets and mezuzahs are not allowed to stand upright, it follows that Rabbeinu Tam would also forbid having a Torah stand vertically.

What This Means to Us

An Ashkenazi mezuzah is slanted inwards.
An Ashkenazi mezuzah is slanted inwards.

Maimonides3 and the Code of Jewish Law4 concur with Rashi’s opinion that the correct position of a mezuzah is in the vertical position, and if it’s in the horizontal position, it is invalid.

Thus, Sephardic Jewry generally affix their mezuzot in the vertical position, and extend this to the Torah scrolls, which they store and read while the scrolls are standing in their cases.

Ashkenazic custom, however, generally follows the opinion of the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles) in his glosses to the Code of Jewish Law. He writes that although the halachah follows Rashi’s opinion, one should take Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion (that a vertical mezuzah is invalid) into consideration. Therefore, he suggests that the best way to affix the mezuzah is diagonally (with the top facing inward). Since the mezuzah is neither vertical nor horizontal, it is valid according to both opinions.5

And now you can also see why Ashkenazim read the Torah on a slanted bimah and are particular to store the scrolls on a (slight) slant as well.6

A Position of Respect

Let’s remember that, no matter what your custom, everyone is doing his utmost to honor the Torah. After all, beyond any divisions or disagreements that there may be, it is the Torah that unites us all.

Footnotes
1.
Rashi on Talmud, Menachot 33a.
2.
Tosafot on Talmud loc. cit., s.v. ha da-avida.
3.
Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Tefillin u-Mezuzah 5:8.
4.
Tur and Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 289:6.
5.
Rema on Shulchan Aruch loc. cit.
6.
See R. Yosef Lewy, Minhag Yisrael Torah, Orach Chaim 150:17 and 154:4.
Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin responds to questions for Chabad.org's Ask the Rabbi service.
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Jessie k Hammack stanta rosa, fl October 25, 2017

good to know Reply

kay Houston October 25, 2017

Add poignance to what we take for granted in our activities and what we see. Thanks. Reply

George Florida July 14, 2016

Great wisdom I love the summary "...beyond any divisions or disagreements that there may be, it is the Torah that unites us all." Reply

Laibel Alexander March 27, 2016

Different Torahs Sefardi Ashkenaziand Yemenite Torahs all have differences.

If the Yemenite community appears to have the least corruption in their tradition, why don't we all adopt their version ? Reply

Yossi Brooklyn, NY January 5, 2016

The North African and Middle Eastern comminutes keep their Sifrei Torah in cases like the one pictured above due to the extreme heat conditions.
I was in Sephardic shul in Greece where they use the similar style as Ashkenazim. They used sockets to place the Torah in, in order to keep it upright. Reply

Leibel Montreal, QC November 21, 2015

To Boaz The article mentions that out of respect we should try and have the Torah stored slanted.

To Moshe Chaim: we're not attempting to follow both opinions but to make sure it's kosher according to both. There's a difference. In the Hebrew, Talmudical terminology: we're trying to fit with both "bderech shlilah" not "bderech chiyuv." Reply

Maurice Cohen Rancho Santa Margarita November 13, 2015

To Rabbi hazan I grew up in a Sephardi community in France of Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian descent. We actually had both kinds in our synagogue. Not sure why but when we took out more than one Sefer Torah, we took one of each kind. Reply

Anonymous November 13, 2015

Great article! Thanks for posting! Reply

Shlomo Chicago November 12, 2015

An interesting point The Yemenites, who essentially follow the Rambam, have their Torah in a case, like Sephardim, but lie it down and read it. Reply

Anonymous November 12, 2015

awesome! very interesting article indeed. Reply

Rabbi Hazan New York November 12, 2015

The Sephardim from Sapanish descent such as the Spanish and Portuguese communities, Holland,Greece,Morocco,Bulgaria (as opsed to the Edit Hamizrach-Jews from middle eastern countries) cover their Sifrei Torah the same as their Ashkenazi bretheren. Reply

Anonymous November 10, 2015

How to solve 2 differing opinions? Easy, create a 3rd opinion that satisfies neither! Reply

Moshe Chaim November 10, 2015

something missing; doesn't make sense. Two things:
1) It doesn't make much sense to say that the halachah follows the vertical opinion, but then saying one should consider the other opinion which says that the first opinion is invalid, leading one to a "compromised [half/half] opinion. Likewise, when hagbah is done, as well as carrying the sefer Torah, it is not leaning very much [if at all].
2) I have camped many times, and tent pegs are not usually put straight up down, but [rather] at a slight angle. Otherwise, the peg tends to pull out much easier [especially if you camp in areas where you can't get a lot of depth]. Thus, I am not sure I buy into the idea that vertical [as defined in the article above] is invalid.

Personally, I full affirm that both opinions [vertical, or slanted] are kosher. However, I respectfully don't buy into the explanation given here. Likewise, the Yemenites, who were separated from our people for the longest time, also have vertical Torahs [and they were before Rambam]. Why? TY Reply

Boaz Copenhagen, Denmark November 10, 2015

But in the aron ha'kodesh, the ashkanazi scrolls stand up vertically...
Surely reading is done slanted, but the keeping of the sefers are kept in an upright position, so I don't see the difference in Halacha Reply

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