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Parshas Vayeilech (5777)

The Last Commandment

You may not know this but if you are an adult Jewish male, you have a Biblical obligation to write a Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) once in your lifetime. If you are unable to actually write one yourself, you must hire a sofer (scribe) to write one for you. [Some Halachic authorities are of the opinion that one can fulfill this obligation by purchasing a second-hand Sefer Torah.]

As G-d commands Moses and the Jewish people at the end of this week’s Torah portion: “So now, write this ‘song’ for yourselves …” (Deuteronomy 31:19). This is actually the last of the 613 commandments mentioned in the Torah.

The Sefer HaChinuch offers the following rationale for this mitzvah:

“It is known that the way in which men carry out their deeds reflects their degree of preparation for those deeds. Therefore, the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded that each and every man of Israel have a Sefer Torah at hand from which he can always study, and that it not be necessary for him to seek one at the house of his friend. In this way, he will learn to fear G-d, and he will know and understand His mitzvos which are ‘more precious than gold, and even much fine gold’. And each and every one man of Israel is commanded to fulfill this mitzvah [of writing a new Sefer Torah] - even if he already inherited an old one from his father - so that there will be a proliferation of Torah scrolls, which can then be lent out to those who can’t afford to purchase them. And also so that each and every man of Israel can study Torah from a beautiful new scroll and not be disgusted from the old scrolls that they inherited from their fathers.”

The obvious question is why doesn’t every Jewish man write (or have written for him) a Sefer Torah? We all eat matzah on Passover and hear the shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah. So why should writing a Sefer Torah be different?

The answer is that there are a number of leniencies mentioned by the Halachic authorities which most people have come to rely on over the years. I will list three of them:

1) The opinion of the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher, 1250-1328), who writes the following regarding the mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah: ". . . but that was in earlier generations when they would write Sifrei Torah (Torah Scrolls) and learn from them. Nowadays, that Sifrei Torah are written and placed in synagogues for public Torah readings, it is a positive commandment that every Jewish male who is able to, should write [or purchase] Books of Torah, volumes of Talmud, Mishnah, and their commentaries, to toil over together with his sons. For the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah is in order to study from it, as it is written, ". . . write for yourselves this song] and teach it to the children of Israel, place it into their mouths." It is through [the study of] Talmud and its commentaries that one comes to know well the meaning of the mitzvos and their laws. Therefore, these are the works that one is commanded to write. . .” Consequently, according to the Rosh, one who acquires a volume of Talmud or other Jewish book which explain the mitzvos of the Torah, has fulfilled his mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah.

[It should be mentioned that many Halachic authorities disagree with the Rosh and hold that even today one can only fulfill this mitzvah by writing an actual Torah Scroll.]

2) The Sha’agas Aryeh (Rabbi Aryeh Leib Ginzburg, 1695-1785) is of the opinion that we can’t fulfill this mitzvah today because of the uncertainty regarding the spelling of certain letters in the Torah. If even one word in the Torah Scroll is misspelled, the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah has not been fulfilled. Since we don’t know for sure the proper spelling of every single word in the Torah, we are presently unable to fulfill the mitzvah and the mitzvah is not in force.

3) The Halachah (Jewish Law) is that one is obligated to give away all his money in order not to transgress one of the 365 Negative Commandments of the Torah. For example, the Chafetz Chaim writes that if one’s boss wants to obtain some information from him which is lashon hara (slander) – and there is no Halachically recognized objective benefit in the boss knowing this information - and will fire him if he won’t tell, he is obligated to risk losing his job rather than transgress the Torah prohibition against speaking lashon hara. This is the law regarding Negative Commandments. However, to fulfill one of the 248 Positive Commandments of the Torah, one need not spend more than twenty percent of one’s available resources. For instance, if one has $50,000 to spend, and a Sefer Torah costs $30,000 to write (that’s on the low end - the better ones actually cost $50,000 or more), he is released from the obligation to write a Sefer Torah because he is not obligated to spend more than $10,000 (twenty percent of 50K) on any mitzvah. For this reason, most of us have no obligation to write a Sefer Torah.

[Sources: Inside STa”M: A Complete Buyer’s Guide by Rabbi Reuvain Mendlowitz, Israel Bookshop Publications]

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