Part of the series 'Practical Mishneh Torah,' following the 3 chapter-a-day Rambam daily study cycle of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah.

Maimonides opens chapter seven of Hilchot Sefer Torah with a law that seems to be completely obsolete today:

It is a positive commandment for each and every Jewish man to write a Torah scroll for himself, as [implied by the commandment (Deuteronomy 31:19)]: “And now, write down this song for yourselves,” i.e., write down the [entire] Torah which contains this song.1

Maimonides is not alone in codifying this law. The Sefer Hachinuch,2 the Semag,3 and the Semak, all count this as a mitzvah, too.4 So what happened? Why is it not practiced today?

The Shulchan Aruch—which generally guides contemporary law—does codify this as a mitzvah, but adds a paragraph sourced to Rabbeinu Asher, the Rosh, which sheds light on its evolution:

These days, it is a mitzvah to transcribe Chumash, Mishnah and Gemara with its commentaries.5

But is this intended to supplement6 the original law or to replace it?7 Halachic authorities disagree.

We could argue that the reason we are no longer particular to write our own Torah scrolls is because we follow the opinion of the Rosh, as understood by the authorities who believe that writing holy books replaces the mitzvah to write a Torah scroll. But that leaves us with two major difficulties:

1. How does a positive commandment evolve over time? Do we not say that Torah is unchanging? We are not at liberty to add or subtract mitzvahs as we see fit.

2. The language of the Rosh is, “It is a mitzvah to transcribe Chumash, etc. . .” This seems to denote that the requirement is to actually write. However, we do not see individuals taking pains to physically write (or even publish) holy books to satisfy this requirement. Furthermore, the Rema, in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch,8 explicitly writes that the requirement to write a Torah scroll is not satisfied by simply purchasing a scroll. Would the same not apply when we are talking about holy books?

So our original difficulty remains: Whether the obligation is to write a Torah scroll or other holy books, why is it not practiced?

A Tool For Study

In a talk published in Likutei Sichot,9 The Lubavitcher Rebbe examines the law’s context and background and provides a possible resolution.

Upon examining the complete verse Maimonides quotes, “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song will be for Me as a witness for the children of Israel,” it becomes clear that the reason for writing this “song” (a reference to the Torah) is to facilitate teaching. Each individual should have a Torah scroll from which to study.

As such, the commandment to write a Torah scroll is in fact a detail of the more general mitzvah to study and know Torah. The verse instructs us to take a particular action—writing a Torah scroll—as part of the process, but writing the scroll is not really the point. The point is to study; writing the scroll is merely a step in that process.

Times have changed, and Torah study no longer requires an actual Torah scroll. This transition occurred when the Sages decided to transcribe the Oral Torah. This in itself was controversial, as there was a law prohibiting its transcription. But when the Rabbis saw that the Oral Law was in danger of being forgotten, they invoked the principle, “A time to do for the L‑rd; they have made void Your Torah,” and made an exception.10

With this change, The Torah scroll’s place was no longer in the study hall, but in the synagogue to be read during communal prayer. This change, alluded to by the Rosh himself, is why this mitzvah evolved from writing a Torah scroll to ‘writing’ Torah books.

When the law meant that one was required to actually write a scroll, then the scroll needed to be written in a particular way. All the laws relevant to the writing of a kosher scroll were applicable—it had to be written, on parchment, with the correct ink, etc.—because that was how one fulfilled the obligation to write a scroll from which to study.11

But now that this mitzvah is fulfilled by writing other holy books, the actual writing is no longer important. There are no specific rules or detailed requirements for writing Hebrew books, like there are when it comes to writing a Torah scroll. So the mitzvah has not changed; it is still an obligation to acquire the tools needed for Torah study, but the specifics of how it must be written—on parchment, with the correct ink, etc—are not applicable because we are no longer talking about an actual Torah scroll.

So even though the language used is still to ‘transcribe,’ the requirement nowadays is to acquire books to study from, which reflects the original intent of the mitzvah.

Practical Application

The importance of collecting and studying from holy books is clear. Indeed, one of 10 Mitzvah Campaigns the Rebbe launched was “a home filled with holy books.” The rebbe encouraged all to acquire at least the basics of a Jewish library, namely a Chumash, a book of Psalms, books of Jewish Law, and a Prayer Book. If possible, a person should purchase a full Jewish library, so that one’s home will be permeated with holiness.