The Mitzvah of Writing a Sefer Torah
The last mitzvah recorded in the Torah (according to Sefer HaChinuch, no. 613) is the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah. While the mitzvah may seem elusive to those who are not adept in Jewish calligraphy or don't have the means to afford a personal sefer Torah, in this week's issue we will discuss the nature of the mitzvah and explore other ways to potentially fulfill the mitzvah.
The Nature of the Mitzvah
Minchat Chinuch, no. 613, presents the following query regarding the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah: is the mitzvah to actually write a sefer Torah or is the mitzvah to own a sefer Torah? There are three comments of the Gemara that indicate that the mitzvah is to write a sefer Torah. First, the Gemara, Sanhedrin 21b, states that even if one inherits a sefer Torah, he nevertheless, has an obligation to write one on his own. Second, the Gemara, Menachot 30a, states that if one corrects one letter of a sefer Torah it is as if he wrote the entire sefer Torah. Third, the Gemara, Menachot 30a, states that one who buys a sefer Torah is compared to one who "grabs a mitzvah from the marketplace." This implies that purchasing a sefer Torah is not the proper method of fulfilling the mitzvah. Rather one should write the sefer Torah himself.
Nevertheless, Rashi, Menachot 30a, s.v. K'Chotef, states that "grabs a mitzvah from the marketplace" means that one who buys a sefer Torah fulfills the mitzvah, albeit not in the ideal form. Based on Rashi, one can then suggest that one who inherits a sefer Torah, also fulfills the mitzvah, but he should write another one in order to fulfill the mitzvah in the ideal form.
Rama, Yoreh De'ah 270:1, rules that one who buys a sefer Torah does not fulfill the mitzvah. Taz, Yoreh De'ah 270:1, notes that Rama's opinion contradicts the opinion of Rashi. [The Vilna Gaon, Biur HaGra, ad loc., rules in accordance with Rashi's opinion.] R. Yechiel M. Epstein, Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De'ah 270:3, suggests that the source for Rama's ruling is Rambam's formulation of this mitzvah. Rambam, Hilchot Sefer Torah 7:1, formulates the mitzvah as an obligation to write a sefer Torah and does not provide an option to purchase a sefer Torah.
However, Rambam does state that if one does not know how to write a sefer Torah, he can appoint someone else to write a sefer Torah on his behalf. Doesn't this imply that there is no actual obligation to write the sefer Torah? R. Meir D. Plotski, Chemdat Yisrael, Kuntrus Ner Mitzvah no. 5, explains that there is a difference between purchasing a sefer Torah and appointing (or hiring) someone to write a sefer Torah. When one appoints or hires someone to write a sefer Torah, the sofer (scribe) acts as an agent on behalf of the appointer. Therefore, it is considered as if the appointer wrote the sefer Torah. However, if one purchases a sefer Torah without any prior arrangement, one cannot attribute the writing of the sefer Torah to the purchaser.
The Opinion of Rabbeinu Asher
Rabbeinu Asher, Hilchot Sefer Torah no. 1, presents a novel idea regarding the mitzvah of writing a sefer Torah. Rabbeinu Asher suggests that nowadays, when the sifrei Torah remain in the synagogue and most people learn from books, there is a mitzvah to write Chumashim, Mishnayot, Gemarot and their commentaries. He states that the purpose of the mitzvah is to provide a means to learn Torah and writing these books is an appropriate method of fulfilling this mitzvah. He concludes that for this reason, one is obligated to write these books and it is prohibited to sell them unless one needs the money for Torah education or to get married. [Beit Yosef, Yoreh De'ah no. 270, asserts that Rabbeinu Asher's intention was not to eliminate the mitzvah of writing an actual sefer Torah. Rather, he is merely adding an additional obligation to write other books. However, Shach, Yoreh De'ah 270:5, disagrees and maintains that according to Rabbeinu Asher, there is no mitzvah nowadays to write an actual sefer Torah.]
Rabbeinu Asher's opinion requires further explanation. On the one hand, Rabbeinu Asher seems to understand that the mitzvah is to own a sefer Torah. Therefore, he prohibits the sale of any Torah book. [The prohibition against sale of sefarim other than a sefer Torah indicates that it is not a function of kedusha (since other sefarim don’t have kedusha). Rather, one must actually own the books in order to fulfill the mitzvah.] Yet, Rabbeinu Asher formulates the mitzvah as writing books and does not mention an option of purchasing books as a means of fulfilling the mitzvah. One would expect that if the purpose of the mitzvah is to provide a means of learning Torah, that one would also fulfill the mitzvah by purchasing a book.
One must conclude that the mitzvah is to own Torah literature that is directly attributable to oneself. This can only be accomplished by writing the books and not by purchasing them. Additionally, the fulfillment of the mitzvah is only apparent when one remains in possession of these books.
One can then suggest that Rashi's opinion is similar to Rabbeinu Asher's. Rashi's opinion is that the mitzvah is to own a sefer Torah. The ideal fulfillment of this mitzvah is when one owns a sefer Torah that is directly attributable to oneself. Nevertheless, if one purchases a sefer Torah, one still fulfills the mitzvah. [Minchat Chinuch op. cit., discusses whether Rambam is also of the opinion that one must own the sefer Torah that one wrote.]
Practical Differences Between the Two Approaches
There are a number of practical differences between the approach that the mitzvah is to write a sefer Torah and the approach that the mitzvah is to own a sefer Torah. First, R. Avraham C. Schor, Torat Chaim, Sanhedrin 21b, discusses a case of someone who writes a sefer Torah and then donates it to a synagogue. If the mitzvah is to write the sefer Torah, he certainly fulfills the mitzvah. However, if the mitzvah is to own the sefer Torah, since he no longer owns it once it is donated, he is no longer in fulfillment of the mitzvah. R. Schor further states that if the mitzvah is to own the sefer Torah and one loses the sefer Torah, he must write a new one.
Second, Minchat Chinuch, op. cit, discusses the time frame for fulfilling the mitzvah. He notes that if the mitzvah is to write a sefer Torah, one must only fulfill the mitzvah once in his lifetime. Although there is a concept of zerizim makdimin l'mitzvah (mitzvot should be performed with alacrity), as long as one fulfills the mitzvah before his death, he fulfills the mitzvah. However, if the mitzvah is to own the sefer Torah, one should try to fulfill the mitzvah immediately upon becoming bar mitzvah because the obligation is continuous. Minchat Chinuch notes that he has not seen anyone who is meticulous to fulfill this aspect.
Third, many Acharonim discuss whether one can fulfill the mitzvah in partnership. R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, Be'er Yitzchak, Yoreh De'ah no. 19, suggests that the only problem with a partnership is if one assumes that one must own a sefer Torah in its entirety. However, if the mitzvah is to write a sefer Torah, it is permissible to write the sefer Torah in partnership.
Fourth, R. Aryeh Leib Ginsburg, Sha'agat Aryeh no. 35, discusses whether women are obligated to observe this mitzvah. He notes that according to many Rishonim, this mitzvah is not a function of the mitzvah to learn Torah and therefore, there is no reason to exempt women. He then adds that even Rabbeinu Asher - who seems to connect this mitzvah to the mitzvah to learn Torah - will concur that women are obligated to observe this mitzvah just as women are obligated to learn the laws in the Torah that are relevant to them. R. Yosef D. Soloveitchik (of Brisk), Teshuvot Beit HaLevi 1:6, disagrees. He notes that one cannot entertain obligating women to perform this mitzvah if one assumes that the mitzvah is to write a sefer Torah because a sefer Torah written by a woman is invalid (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De'ah 281:3). Beit HaLevi adds that since women cannot write a sefer Torah, they cannot even fulfill the mitzvah by appointing an agent because an agent can only perform what the appointer can fulfill herself. However, if the mitzvah is to own a sefer Torah, Beit HaLevi notes that it arguable that women are obligated to perform this mitzvah.