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standing for sefer torah

Why We Stand for a Sefer Torah

    From the youngest age, we are taught that the holiest, most precious object that we have, as Jews, is the Sefer Torah.  We all know that, as the living testament of God's covenant with the Jewish people, it must be treated with the highest degree of honor and respect. When the aron kodesh, where it resides, is opened, we are taught to rise and when it passes by us we are encouraged to kiss it.  If, God forbid, a Sefer Torah were to drop to the floor, then everyone present would be obligated to fast.  While we all know and practice these laws and customs, many of us would have a difficult time pointing to their sources or explaining the reasoning behind them.
    The Torah commands us to stand before a Torah scholar as a way of  honoring the Torah that he has learned. The Gemara makes a logical deduction from this mitzvah. If we are required to stand before a human being in order to honor the Torah that he has learned, then, certainly, we should be required to stand before the actual Torah, itself.  Indeed, this is the accepted halacha that is brought down in the Shulchan Aruch.  We find written there that one who sees a Sefer Torah being carried should stand until it reaches its destination or until it is out of view.

    The Rema in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch takes it a step further. He writes that even if one only hears a Sefer Torah being carried, but does not see it, he should, nevertheless, stand. This refers to one who hears the jingling of the bells of the crown of the Sefer Torah but does not actually see it. The Rema is referring to the words of Rabbeinu Manoch who writes that the custom is to adorn the Sefer Torah with bells so that people may more quickly honor the Torah when they hear it coming.

    He illustrates this with a story from the Gemara. Rav Yosef would stand when he heard his mother approaching. When people would ask him about this he would say, “Let me rise before Hashem’s presence approaches.” The Maharsha explains that when a person honors his parents, the Shechina, God’s presence, dwells among them. Therefore, although the law of honoring one’s parents only required Rav Yosef to stand when his mother came into view, he would, nevertheless, show additional respect to Hashem by standing when he heard his mother approach. In a similar fashion, Rabbeinu Manoch feels that it is proper to honor the Torah even before it approaches, such as when the sound of its bells is discernable as it is being carried.  
    It’s interesting to note that the widespread custom of standing when the aron kodesh is open, is just that, a custom, not an actual halacha established by our rabbis.  In fact, the halachic authorities infer from the words of the Shulchan Aruch that one must stand only when the Sefer Torah is in motion, not when it is held in a stationary position. This leads to an interesting dichotomy between two common practices. The first is the custom to have the aron kodesh open during neilla on Yom Kippur. As it is a meritorious custom to stand while the aron is open, if one feels weak he may sit. However, on Simchat Torah, when the congregants are dancing with the Sifrei Torah, one may not sit unless it is truly a burden for him to stand. In line with the above reasoning, the Aruch Hashulchan writes that in between the hakafot, when the Sifrei Torah are stationary, one, indeed, may sit.
    The ultimate honor that is shown a Sefer Torah is that it is never allowed to touch the ground. Even as young children we are taught that only someone strong enough to handle the weight of a Sefer Torah may carry it.  The reason for this, as we mentioned above, is that if it were to fall, then everyone present would be obligated to observe multiple days of fasting.  Once again, this is a matter of minhag and halacha. Rav Moshe Feinstein writes that the custom is that everyone present when a Sefer Torah falls should fast one day. This is true whether it fell out of the hands of a person carrying it or if another Torah fell when the first one was removed from the aron kodesh.

    Even kissing the Torah has its roots in minhag not halacha. The root of this custom is the mitzvah of tefillin. When a person puts on or takes off his tefillin the halachic authorities write that he should kiss them to show his love for the mitzvah. Therefore, the custom has evolved to kiss the Sefer Torah, as well, which, by its nature, has much more kedusha or holiness than the tefillin.

    The above are just some of the many laws and customs that we have in our tradition that help us understand the extent to which we must show honor and respect for a Sefer Torah.   Of course, this is only fitting.  After all, the Torah is really the only thing that we have as a people that distinguishes us from all of the other peoples on the face of the earth.  It is nothing less than Hashem’s unique gift to us, a gift which He personally delivered to us on Har Sinai, a gift that provides the means by which we are able to come closer to Him and help the rest of humanity do the same.  As we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot commemorating this event, may we all fully appreciate this awesome gift which we have received and may we allow this message to penetrate our hearts and to motivate us to achieve ever greater knowledge of the Torah and observance of its mitzvoth.

Rabbi Eliezer Kessler
Houston, Texas