The 613th mitzvah of the Torah is the obligation for every Jew to write a Torah scroll.1 In the words of the verse2: "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."

Although Rashi3 and some other commentaries4 understand this as a command only to write the Torah portion that immediately follows, Ha'azinu (which is referred to as a song), the Talmud5 understands it as an obligation to write the entire Torah. Maimonides6 explains that although the word "song" in the verse is referring to Ha'azinu, since it is forbidden to write only a single portion of the Torah on a scroll,7 it is understood that there is an obligation to write the entire Torah.8

Moses fulfilled this commandment by writing (or completing) a Torah scroll on the day he passed away. As the verse states9: "And Moses wrote this song on that day, and taught it to the children of Israel… Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion.”

The mitzvah is echoed in the command for a king to write a “second” Torah scroll.10 This is understood to mean that in addition to the Torah scroll which he must write as every other Jew does, he also needs to write a second one which he will then carry with him and read from constantly.11

The Details of Writing a Torah Scroll

  1. In order to fulfill this obligation, one does not need to write the Torah oneself; one may commission a scribe to write it.
  2. However, if one does write a Torah scroll himself, it is as if has received it from Mt. Sinai.12
  3. If one simply buys a ready-written Torah scroll, he has not fulfilled his obligation, unless he then fixes at least one letter that was previously invalid.13 Others say that one fulfills the mitzvah through purchasing a Torah, but not in the optimal way.14
  4. If one fulfilled this mitzvah and then subsequently sold or lost his Torah scroll, he must write or commission the writing of a new one.15
  5. Some say that this mitzvah cannot be fulfilled with a Torah scroll which is owned in partnership.16 Others disagree.17
  6. Maimonides18 rules that women are not obligated to fulfill this mitzvah. The Beit HaLevi19 explains that this is because women are exempt from the mitzvah of studying Torah.20 Others question Maimonides' ruling on this matter.21

Why Don't We All Write Our Own Torah Scrolls?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that we don't find any record that upon receiving this mitzvah the Jews en masse wrote hundreds of thousands of Torah scrolls. Nor do we find historically that many people actually commissioned the writing of their own scrolls. The Rebbe concludes that since the main purpose of the scroll is to read from it and that nowadays we read from it in the synagogue, one can fulfill one's obligation through the Torah scroll that is owned by the community. In addition to the fact that as a member of the community, he owns a part of the Torah scroll, he also can be considered a full owner during the time that he actually reads from it – that is, when he receives an aliyah.22 It is an unspoken agreement that whenever anybody is called to the Torah, all of the community members temporarily give that person full ownership of the Torah for the duration of that aliyah. When the aliyah is over, he then “returns” the ownership to the entire community.23

Although ownership of a Torah scroll is not sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah, but rather the person must commission a scribe to write it for him, in the case of scrolls written for the community, we consider the scribe an agent of the entire community. In addition, if the Torah needs to be corrected – something which is a frequent occurrence – the scribe who does the corrections is seen as an agent of the entire community. Thus, even those who were not yet born when the Torah was written have a part in the writing.24

This explains how we can all fulfill this mitzvah today—even according to the opinions that one must actually write one's own Torah scroll and not simply be a partner.

In addition, the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated campaigns to unite all of Jewry in this mitzvah by having as many Jews as possible purchase letters in Torah scrolls that are written in Jerusalem. Separate scrolls are written specifically to unite Jewish children. To purchase a letter in the Torah scroll for adults, click here, and here to purchase a letter in the scroll written for children.

Buying Other Holy Books

The Rosh (Rabeinu Asher ben Yechiel c.1250-1328) writes25 that in previous eras, the Torah scroll was the only text that Jews could actually use for study, since it was forbidden to write down the Oral Law.26 Nowadays, however, when it is permissible to write down the Oral Law,27 and the Torah scroll is stored in the synagogue for public readings rather than used as a study text, the obligation of writing a Torah scroll encompasses the obligation to purchase other holy books (seforim) that can be used for study.

Some understand this to mean that there is no longer an obligation to own or write a Torah scroll and that the obligation is fulfilled in its entirety simply by owning other holy books, e.g., a Chumash, Mishnah, Talmud, Code of Jewish Law, etc.28 Others say that the Rosh meant that the obligation to write a Torah scroll still exists, but that in addition to this, one must also purchase other holy books.29

The Details of Owning Holy Books

  1. Although by merely purchasing a Torah scroll one does not fulfill his obligation, in regard to holy books, it is certainly enough to purchase them. It is not necessary to write them oneself, because there is no special holiness imparted to a Torah book that is handwritten (rather than printed).30
  2. One fulfills the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll via owning holy books even if one doesn't own all of the holy books that can be purchased.31
  3. Nevertheless, it is important to try to purchase the basic holy books necessary for Jewish life and learning, for example: prayer books, Chumash, Tanach, Mishnah, books on Jewish Law, etc.32
  4. One can fulfill this mitzvah with books in the language that one understands. The books do not have to be in Hebrew.33
  5. I have heard from my teacher Rav Chaim Sholom Dietch, dean of Kolel Tzemach Tzedek in Jerusalem, that the opinion of the Rosh – that the obligation to write a Torah scroll includes the obligation to purchase other holy books – is the basis for the custom of giving seforim as a Bar Mitzvah gift. Once a boy turns thirteen, he is an adult and must now fulfill all of the mitzvot of the Torah, including the mitzvah of owning holy books. His friends and family help him fulfill this mitzvah by purchasing holy books for him.