May 18, 2024
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Demystifying Sephardic and Ashkenazic Torah Cases

Dear Readers,

I am very honored this week to present a fine essay written by Joël Mizrahi, a member of Congregation Shaarei Orah. Please enjoy!

By Joël Mizrahi

Mazal tov, mabrook, and mobarak to everyone worldwide who completed Masechet Megillah in Daf Yomi last week.

As we completed Masechet Megillah, we learned about rolling the sefer Torah on the last daf (32a). The daf discusses rolling the sefer Torah from the outer roll and tightening it from the inner roll:

הגולל ספר תורה גוללו מבחוץ ואין גוללו מבפנים וכשהוא מהדקו מהדקו מבפנים ואינו מהדקו מבחוץ

Additionally, toward the end of the same daf, it talks about wrapping the sefer Torah in a cloth covering:

מוטב תיגלל המטפחת ואל יגלל ספר תורה

These two statements sound very much like a sefer Torah that is rolled while lying down and has a cloth covering, similar to an Ashkenazi-style sefer Torah. This contrasts with what is generally known as a Sephardic-style sefer Torah that stands up and has a hard cover/case, called a “tik,” תיק, in Hebrew.

What is the history of the different styles of sifrei Torah?

As we learned in sections of Masechet Megillah, it was common to write different parts of Tanach on scrolls. Generally, those were most likely just rolled up, often with no wooden handle(s), possibly sometimes with wooden handle(s).

Sifrei Torah were adorned with a cloth covering or wrapping, and in later times with beautiful wooden handles for rolling and a decorative fabric covering sewn to fit.

While the cloths or fabrics (מטפחות) were used to cover sifrei Torah from the time of the Gemara, it seems that later, communities of Edot HaMizrah began utilizing the hard-cover wood cases—often adorned with silver on the outside—to protect and beautify the sifrei Torah. As a result, there are many designs, shapes, materials and styles of these sifrei Torah from different communities, all radiating the beauty of Torah.

The standing hard-cased sifrei Torah originated from communities in the Middle East, such as Syria, Iraq, Persia, Yemen and even North African communities, before gerush sefarad (the 1492 exile of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula). After 1492, Spanish and Portuguese Jews made their way to the region. As a result, many of the ancient communities of the Middle East and North Africa were heavily influenced by the minhagim of the sefaradim, who came from Spain and Portugal after the expulsion. Unfortunately, there was also mahloket amongst groups.

The Sifrei Torah from the sefaradim of Western Europe were of the style that was lying down. While most Middle East communities kept the standing hard-cased sifrei Torah tradition, many North African communities (such as Morocco and parts of Algeria) adopted the lying-down fabric-covered style from the sefaradim (the original style, as we saw from the Gemara).

In Yemenite sifrei Torah, and even in some Moroccan communities, even the klaf is wrapped inside, similar to the original מטפחת-type cloth mentioned by the Gemara. This is done so that the klaf (sefer Torah parchment) is not touched with bare hands, as we saw on Daf 32a.

It is interesting to note that most of the standing hard-cased sifrei Torah are adorned with a cloth, or scarf, to beautify the sefer Torah and used to cover the klaf when making the brachot on an aliya or in between aliyot. This may be the replacement of the מטפחות mentioned in the Gemara for this style of sifrei Torah.

Another interesting note is that based on the above historical notes, it may be a misnomer to call the standing hard-cased sefer Torah a Sephardic-style one, since the sefaradim themselves from Spain were not utilizing that style of sefer Torah. A more accurate name would likely be a “Mizrahi” or “Middle Eastern” or “Edot HaMizrah”-style Sefer Torah.

In terms of practical use, the lying-down fabric-covered style sefer Torah is generally read on an angled bima for ease, while the standing hard-cased-style sefer Torah is read on a flat-level bima.

I once attended a minyan in Manchester with an angled Ashkenazi-style bima, but they had a standing hard-cased sefer Torah. Since it could not stand up on the angled surface, they read from that sefer by laying it down.

On a similar note, there is an interesting comparison between the different styles of sifrei Torah to the minhagim of positioning the mezuzah (see Tosafot, Menahot 33 s.v. Ha). Just like non-Moroccan sefaradim place their mezuzot vertically following Rashi, Rambam, and Shulhan Aruch, the sefer Torah also stands upright and vertical. Similarly, just like the Ashkenazim and Moroccans follow the opinion of the Rosh and the Rema to compromise between Rashi and Rabbenu Tam (who believe that we should place the mezuzah vertically), and put their mezuzot at an angle, so too the sefer Torah is placed at an angle.

Lastly, while there are different minhagim concerning the outside of the sefer Torah, most important is the inside of the sefer Torah.

The text of the sifrei Torah—whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Middle Eastern, Yemenite, etc.—is the same, which is most important.

There are slight variations with the shaping or style of the letters (and there are some very minor scriptural differences that the Yemenite sifrei Torah have in comparison to others). Still, just like all of Am Yisrael have slight variations, we are all am ehad—one unified nation.

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth. 

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