An amazing new addition to Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, arrived last week. Beloved and long-time Shaarei Orah members Rachel and Itamar Carmi presented the beautiful 50-year-old scroll to our congregation to the delight of all.
One congregant posed a poignant question. He heard that the Yemenite Sefer Torah differs from the Sefer Torah of other Jews. He wondered whether the differences rendered the Torah invalid for use by those who are not part of the Yemenite Jewish community.
I responded that Hacham Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yehave Da’at 6:56) endorses the use of Yemenite Sifrei Torah by all Jews. He notes that there are only two differences in the lettering of the Yemenite Torah scroll. One difference is the letter yod in Bereishit 9:29. Yemenite Torah scrolls state “Vayehiyu bnei Noah” and other Sifrei Torah state “Veyehi bnei Noah.” The other difference is in regard to the word “daka” (Devarim 23:2) from the phrase “petzua daka.” The Yemenite tradition is to write an alef as the last letter in the word daka and others write it with a heh at the end of the word. Rav Yosef said that there has been considerable dispute regarding the spelling of these two words and there is ample and copious support to both the Yemenite tradition and the tradition of the rest of Am Yisrael. Thus, Hacham Ovadia concludes that it is acceptable for all Jews to use the Yemenite Sefer Torah.
When I told this to the Shaarei Orah member, he was astonished. He was rightfully amazed that despite the many thousands of years and miles apart, the only differences were in two letters. He expected the differences in the lettering to be far more dramatic, given the degree of separation among the Jewish people.
This fact, indeed, is both amazing and instructive. It is a dramatic testimony to the dogged determination of all Jewish communities to maintain the integrity of the Torah, despite any and all challenges. In every Jewish community throughout the far-flung Jewish world, scribes, scholars and ordinary Jews assiduously and scrupulously preserved the tradition as passed from one generation to another.
The result is equally dramatic. Despite the many miles of separation, we preserved a unified Torah text, ensured that we remain am ehad, one nation. Rav Saadia Gaon famously asserted that “Ein umoteinu umah ela b’Toratah” (our nation is a nation only by virtue of its Torah). The Torah text unifies all of the Jewish people and, more than anything else in Jewish life, the unified Torah text has maintained us as one nation.
The Gemara in Ta’anit famously relates the cogent and central lesson expressed by an elderly Jew to Honi HaMa’ageil: “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so too I plant for my descendants.” Just as Jews in every community maintained the Torah text without deviation and left a precious and unparalleled legacy of Jewish unity, so too must we make every effort to faithfully and loyally pass our mesorah/tradition to the next and future generations in an authentic manner, in keeping the unified path of our people throughout its journey through history and toward the ultimate redemption.
Rabbi Haim Jachter is rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck.