Adapted from Likkutei Sichos,
Vol. XXIII, p. 17ff.; Vol. XXIV, p. 207ff.

The Rambam writes:1

It is a positive commandment incumbent on each and every Jewish man to write a Torah scroll for himself, as it is written:2 “And now write down this song for yourself.” [Implied is the commandment to] write [the entire] Torah which contains this song,3 for the Torah should not be written down passage by passage.

Even though a person’s ancestors left him a Torah scroll, it is a mitzvah for him to write [one] by himself. If he writes [a scroll] by hand, it is considered as if he received [the Torah] on Mount Sinai. If a person does not know how to write, others should write [the scroll] for him.

Anyone who checks even a single letter of a Torah scroll is considered as if he wrote the entire scroll.

The Rambam’s words are also quoted by the Shulchan Aruch.4 Nevertheless, in practice, it is not common to see individuals writing Torah scrolls. Although the Rambam considers this one of the mitzvos which a person must actively seek to fulfill,5 the large majority of individuals — including even those who are punctilious regarding their observance of other commandments, do not seek to write a Torah scroll themselves.6

One might say that since most people are unable to write a Torah scroll properly, rather than fulfill the mitzvah themselves, they should commission a scribe to do so. For based on the verse,7 “This is my G‑d and I will glorify Him,” our Sages state8 that mitzvos must be performed in the most attractive and becoming way possible.9

This, however, merely shifts the emphasis of the question. For by and large, it is also not common for most people to privately commission a scribe to write a Torah scroll for them. Indeed, although as quoted above, checking a Torah scroll is considered equivalent to writing one, we do not find most people endeavoring even to check a Torah scroll.

Rabbeinu Asher interprets the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll in a different manner:10

Certainly, it is a great mitzvah to write a Torah scroll…. This applies, however, to the earlier generations when they would write Torah scrolls from which to study. At present, when Torah scrolls are written and placed in synagogues for communal reading, the positive mitzvah incumbent on all Jewish males who have the capacity, is to write Chumashim, Mishnayos, Gemaras, and their commentaries and to ponder upon them…. For [the purpose of] the mitzvah of writing the Torah is to study it, as it is written: “…and teach it to the children of Israel, placing it in their mouths.”

Through the Gemara and its commentaries, one will thoroughly know the interpretation of the mitzvos and the [relevant] laws. Therefore, these are the texts that a man is obligated to write.

This concept is also quoted by the Shulchan Aruch.11 Indeed, there are some authorities12 who maintain that according to Rabbeinu Asher, in the present age, the mitzvah is not to write a Torah scroll, but rather to write “Chumashim, Mishnayos, Gemoros, and their commentaries.”

On this basis, we can explain the common practice of not seeking to write or commission the writing of a Torah scroll oneself. For in the present age, the scope of the mitzvah has been expanded and the mitzvah is fulfilled with other texts.

This resolution, however, is not complete, for the common practice is not to write — or print13 — these other texts, but to purchase them. And the purchase of a Torah scroll is not considered equivalent to writing one. Our Sages14 equate the purchase of a Torah scroll with “snatching a mitzvah from the marketplace.” There are some authorities15 who maintain that one fulfills the mitzvah in this manner, but that this is not the desirable manner in which to perform the mitzvah. The Ramah16 goes even further and rules that a person who purchases a Torah scroll without checking it “does not fulfill his obligation with it.”17 Therefore, the question arises: Even according to Rabbeinu Asher, how can one fulfill his obligation to write a Torah scroll by purchasing printed texts?

Certain authorities18 have explained that the difference of opinion between the Rambam and Rabbeinu Asher concerns not only the object of the mitzvah — a Torah scroll or other Torah texts as well — but also the activity through which the mitzvah is fulfilled. According to the Rambam, the intent is that each man write a Torah scroll, while according to Rabbeinu Asher, what is important is not the actual writing, but that each person provide himself with Torah texts to study.19 Thus, by purchasing texts, one would fulfill the mitzvah.

The wording Rabbeinu Asher himself uses does not, however, reinforce this conception. For Rabbeinu Asher speaks about a difference in the texts used in his generation and in earlier ones, but nothing more than that. And he clearly defines the mitzvah as “writing Chumashim…,” not acquiring them.

The difficulty mentioned above can be resolved through the resolution of a fundamental question regarding Rabbeinu Asher’s position. If the Torah commands us to write a Torah scroll, how can the object of that mitzvah be changed due to circumstance? The Torah and its mitzvos are eternal and unchanging.20 Why then is the definition of a mitzvah affected by our changes in study habits?

This question can be resolved by explaining that Rabbeinu Asher considers the mitzvah to be defined by its motivating principle.21

The verse on which the mitzvah is based is: “And now write down this song for yourself, and teach it to the children of Israel, placing it in their mouths.” Rabbeinu Asher explains that the intent of the mitzvah is to make possible the study of the Torah in a written form. For in this manner, it will be able to be reviewed easily and thus will not be forgotten.22 And thus, as the passage continues,23 the Torah will serve as a testimonial for the Jewish people at all times, even in eras when the people “abrogate My covenant.”

According to this conception, the writing of the scroll per se is not the intent of the mitzvah, but rather the medium through which the mitzvah is fulfilled. At the time when the commandment was given, the only way possible to fulfill the above intent was by writing a Torah scroll — for at that time, it was forbidden to write down the Oral Law.24 Nevertheless, the mitzvah is not to write a Torah scroll, but to enable the Jewish people to study the Torah through written texts.

(To cite a parallel: The Torah commands us to affix a mezuzah with the verse:25 “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your homes….” The scope of this mitzvah is not, however, writing the parshiyos contained in the mezuzah, but rather affixing the mezuzah on one’s doorposts. Writing is merely one facet of the mitzvah.)

Based on this conception, it can be explained that originally, when the only Torah text that one was permitted to write was a Torah scroll, this mitzvah could be fulfilled only by writing such a scroll. And while writing such a scroll, one had to adhere to all the provisions appropriate for the holiness of a Torah scroll: e.g., that it be written on parchment that is ruled, that the Assyrian script be used, and that it be written only in Hebrew. When, however, the restriction against writing the Oral Law was rescinded, the mitzvah of writing down the Torah was automatically expanded to include other texts. For it is through writing these texts that the intent of the mitzvah — the presentation of the Torah as a written testimonial — is fulfilled.

The above concepts are also relevant with regard to the question of whether one can fulfill one’s obligation by purchasing a Torah scroll or not. The opinion which maintains that one can fulfill one’s obligation by purchasing a Torah scroll maintains that the laws associated with writing a Torah scroll are necessary only to endow a Torah scroll with holiness. If the scroll has already been written in a proper manner, one can fulfill the mitzvah of making the scroll available to be studied by purchasing it.

The opinion which does not accept the purchase of a scroll as an acceptable means of observing the mitzvah, by contrast, considers all the laws associated with writing a Torah scroll as intrinsic elements of the mitzvah itself. Since in that era, the only way the mitzvah could be fulfilled was by writing a Torah scroll, and a Torah scroll must be written according to certain specifications, it is only by fulfilling those specifications that one can observe the mitzvah.

According to Rabbeinu Asher, however, this would apply only in the previous eras when the mitzvah of writing down the Torah involved only the composition of a Torah scroll. In subsequent generations, when the scope of that mitzvah was expanded to include other texts which are not governed by these specifications, both approaches would agree that one can fulfill one’s obligation by purchasing such texts.

Explanation is nevertheless required. For we do not find our Rabbis advising youth directly upon reaching the age of Bar Mitzvah to fulfill this mitzvah by purchasing Torah texts. Moreover, as the Beis Yosef, the Bayis Chadash, and others have explained, Rabbeinu Asher’s position should not be interpreted as changing the focus of the mitzvah so as not to include the composition of a Torah scroll, but rather as an expansion of its scope, i.e., in addition to the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll, one should also provide oneself with Chumashim, Mishnayos, and the like.

And thus the original question remains unanswered: Why haven’t our Torah Sages throughout the generations sought to fulfill this mitzvah by writing Torah scrolls or by having them commissioned? Moreover, even those Sages who did write Torah scrolls did not fulfill the mitzvah at the first opportunity which presented itself, but rather later in life.

The resolution to this question is based on another ruling of the Rambam:26 “The inhabitants of a town should compel each other to build a synagogue and purchase a Torah scroll,” i.e., it is common practice for Jewish communities throughout the world to have Torah scrolls written on behalf of the community. In addition to the Torah scrolls which certain individuals have written, and which they endow to the community,27 the community will commission a Torah scroll to be written, and that scroll is the property of the community as a whole.28 In this manner, every Jew has a share in the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll.

This explanation is nevertheless somewhat problematic: Firstly, there is a question whether a community is considered a single, collective entity or merely an aggregate of individuals.29 Moreover, even if the community is considered as an aggregate of individuals, our Rabbis write30 that partners do not fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll by commissioning the composition of such a scroll, for the mitzvah is that each individual write a Torah scroll himself. How then can one fulfill the mitzvah through the writing of a communal Torah scroll?

In resolution, it can be explained that in the present age, every person does not have the capacity of writing a Torah scroll himself. Therefore every person fulfills the mitzvah with the composition of scrolls by the community.

With regard to partnership, the difficulties raised can be resolved by comparison to the mitzvah of lulav and esrog: A person cannot fulfill his obligation with an esrog whose ownership he shares with a partner unless the partner grants him his share as a present,31 for on the first day, an esrog must belong entirely to the person using it for the mitzvah.32 In communities where it is difficult to procure an esrog, however, it was customary for the community to buy an esrog, and for everyone to use it for the mitzvah — even those who did not necessarily know all the halachic details of acquiring the esrog or granting their share to others.33

Why was this acceptable? Since the community purchased the esrog so that everyone could use it to fulfill the mitzvah, one may assume that everyone gave their share to each person who desired to use the esrog to fulfill the mitzvah, with the understanding that later that share would be returned to them.

Similarly with regard to the composition of a Torah scroll: Since this is the only way in which most people today can fulfill this mitzvah , we can assume that the communal scrolls are being written with the intent that they be considered as belonging to each member of the community individually.

The above explanation still appears to be somewhat lacking, for the two mitzvos are not entirely alike. With regard to an esrog, to fulfill the mitzvah, it is sufficient to own the esrog. With regard to a Torah scroll, by contrast, it is not enough to own the scroll, one must write it — or commission someone else to write it. For this reason, if one inherits a Torah scroll, or according to the Ramah, if one purchases a Torah scroll, one does not fulfill the mitzvah. Therefore, even if the community grants each person ownership of the scroll, that does not necessarily enable each person to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a scroll.

This difficulty can be resolved on the basis of the Talmudic principle:34 “The heart of the Jewish court establishes the stipulations for them.” It can be explained that when the communal authorities commissioned the writing of a Torah scroll, their intent was not merely that each member of the community would be considered as the owner of the scroll, but that each member of the community would be considered as if he individually commissioned the writing of the scroll and thus could fulfill the mitzvah with it.35

On this basis, we can understand the importance of the composition of communal Torah scrolls which are written with the specific intent of enabling all Jews to fulfill this mitzvah. These scrolls join together all Jews — particularly those who purchased letters in the scrolls — in the performance of this mitzvah.

The mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll was given to the Jewish people — and fulfilled by Moshe Rabbeinu — directly before our people’s entry into Eretz Yisrael. It is the last of the 613 mitzvos of the Torah.36

Our Rabbis have taught37 us that the fulfillment of this mitzvah is one of the preparatory steps leading to the conclusion of the exile and to the advent of the era when we will again enter Eretz Yisrael, led by Mashiach, and fulfill all the mitzvos in the most complete manner. May this take place in the immediate future.