What Is It?

The most important items in the synagogue are the Torah scrolls that reside in the ark at the front of the sanctuary. Handwritten in ink on parchment, these scrolls are read regularly during the prayer services. People donate Torahs to synagogues to celebrate milestones, memorialize loved ones, or just because they are needed.

A Hachnasat Sefer Torah is the celebration that centers around the welcoming of a scroll to its new home. It’s a really big deal, akin to a wedding. In fact, the entire town skips Tachanun (penitential prayers) that day in celebration.

Now, don’t get stressed over pronouncing that term (hach-nas-at means “bringing in of,” and Sefer Torah means “Torah scroll”). You can also just call it a “Torah celebration” or “Torah parade.”

Before You Go

This program often will include some outdoor marching and dancing, so make sure to plan accordingly. If you will be taking a small child or another person who has difficulty walking, you may want to bring along a stroller or another mode of transport. Also, if the weather necessitates it, consider taking sunscreen, a hat or an umbrella (rain is a sign of blessing, so it’s all good).

Since this is a Jewish event, dress as you generally would for synagogue services. For guys, this means some nice clothes and a kipah to cover your head. For women, a modest dress or top and skirt is ideal.

What to Expect:

There is precious little in the way of absolute protocol for these celebrations, so things can vary, but there are generally four parts:

a. The Finishing of the Letters: In the donor’s home or another convenient location, invited guests will take turns assisting the sofer (scribe) to fill in the final words of the Torah scroll. Sometimes the assistants will be allowed to actually fill in the letters on their own, but often they symbolically hand the quill to the scribe and let him do what he does best. Once the last of the ink is dried, the scroll is lifted for all to see, and dressed in its velvet mantle, silver crown and pointer.

Completing a Torah in Skokie, Ill.
Completing a Torah in Skokie, Ill.

b. The Parade: Under a chupah (canopy), accompanied by joyous music, the new Torah is jubilantly carried to its new home. Traditionally, marchers carry torches, and paper flags are distributed to the young ones. In some communities, the parade is led by a music truck with a giant crown (not sure whose idea that was). You’ll notice that the Torah is passed from hand to hand, as marchers are given the honor of carrying the Torah along the way. Clap, dance, sing, and just become one with the proceedings.

The parade was led by a special retrofitted firetruck, complete with a crown to mark the occasion.
The parade was led by a special retrofitted firetruck, complete with a crown to mark the occasion.

c. The Welcome: As the procession approaches, the congregation’s existing Torah scrolls are brought out to greet the latest addition. Together they are danced into the sanctuary and joyously carried around the room, similar to the dancing that takes place on Simchat Torah. In fact, in Chabad communities, the Simchat Torah chants and hymns are said as well.

A new Torah being welcomed in Skokie, Ill.
A new Torah being welcomed in Skokie, Ill.

d. The Feast: After the Torah scrolls have been safely returned to the ark, there is normally a celebratory meal, sometimes only for reserved guests. Like a Shabbat meal, it commences with hand-washing, the hamotzi blessing and the breaking of bread. There will often be some speeches. After you’ve eaten, make sure to say the Grace After Meals before heading off.

Welcoming a new scroll to Chabad of Hoboken, N.J.
Welcoming a new scroll to Chabad of Hoboken, N.J.

Some things you may have been embarrassed to ask:

Who is invited? Generally, the parade and dancing are a communal event, and everyone is invited to participate and observe. The finishing up of the letters and the celebratory meal are often—but by no means always—smaller affairs.

Do men and women celebrate in the same way? All Jews are invited to celebrate with the Torah. Even though the guys will be the ones to hold the Torah, men and women are encouraged to give it a kiss during the parade and participate in the march. Also, upon arrival to the synagogue, chances are that the men will enter the men’s section of the sanctuary, and the women will enter the ladies’ section.

Does it cost money? Generally not. However, it is a great merit to contribute financially to a new Torah scroll, thus fulfilling the biblical obligation for every Jew to write a Torah scroll. Often communities will offer sponsorships for letters, words, or even entire sections of new Torah scrolls. So don’t feel the need to pay to come (really!), but contributing is a good thing if you can.

What do I say? Since this is a Jewish milestone celebration, the proper thing to wish the donors and other involved parties is “Mazal tov!

Can I take pictures? These events are rarely on Shabbat or a Jewish holiday. As such, there should be no problem with snapping a few pics with your phone or camera.

Do I need to stay the whole time? Nope. Feel free to come late and/or leave early if you need to.

Completing a Torah in Clearwater, Fla.
Completing a Torah in Clearwater, Fla.

Some good resources for further research:

An overview of the customs and practices associated with this event

A father’s lighthearted account, detailing his experience taking his kids to a Torah parade

An emotional account of the celebration surrounding a Torah dedicated by a Holocaust survivor in memory of his family

Videos, letters from the Rebbe and other miscellaneous items related to this celebration