In certain segments of the Ashkenazic Orthodox community it is common practice to stand for Kriat HaTorah. This is a result, in part, of the influence of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein who were enthusiastic about the practice to stand during Kriat HaTorah. They often stressed that standing for Kriat HaTorah helps us experience the Torah reading as a recreation of the Divine revelation at Har Sinai, at which time we stood (Devarim 4:11). However, this is very much not the practice at Sephardic synagogues.
The Mordechai (Shabbat, 222) records that the Maharam of Rothenburg would stand during the Torah reading. This custom is quoted by the Rama (Orach Chaim 146:4; Maran Rav Yosef Karo, though, writes that it is not necessary to stand for Kriat HaTorah). The source for this practice is Nechemia (8:4-5), which records the only incident of Torah reading in the entire Tanach: “And Ezra the Scribe stood upon a wooden platform that they constructed for this purpose and Matitya, Shema, Aniya, Uriya, Chilkiya and Ma’aseya stood on his right side, etc. And Ezra opened the scroll before the eyes of the entire nation, for he stood above the entire nation; and when he opened it, the entire nation stood.” The verse seemingly indicates that it was customary to stand when the Torah was read.
On the other hand, one of the most ancient of siddurim, the siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (2:25), writes that those who interpret the verse to mean “the entire nation stood” are mistaken in the understanding of the verse, for the Gemara (Sotah 39a) states that Rava bar Rav Huna taught that immediately upon opening the Sefer Torah it is forbidden to speak even words of Halacha, as the verse states, “And upon being opened, the entire nation stood,” and standing refers to being silent. This means that the word “standing” in Sefer Nechemia 8:5 refer to being silent. Thus, according to Rav Amram Gaon there is no source in the Tanach for the practice to stand during the reading of the Torah.
Nevertheless, the Agudah (a Rishon) writes that although the word “standing” in the verse actually refers to being silent, a verse can never lose its simple understanding, which is that the nation stood on their feet. Thus, although we derive from this verse that it is forbidden to speak at all during the time the Torah is being read, we can derive an additional law—which is that one should stand during the Torah reading.
Most Rishonim, including Rav Amram Gaon and the Rambam (Teshuvot number 46) rule that there is no obligation to stand while the Torah is being read. Indeed, as mentioned, Rav Yosef Karo rules in accordance with the majority approach. Some Ashkenazim observe this custom since it is quoted explicitly by the Rama. Nevertheless, even those Ashkenazim who do follow this custom are doing so only as an added stringency and not the letter of the law. Such a custom does not exist at all with regard to Sephardic Jews, for even the Arizal would sit during the Torah reading (see Kaf HaChaim 141). All great Sephardic authorities behaved in the same manner. Indeed, Maran Rav Ovadia Yosef would customarily sit during the Torah reading.
Thus, Sephardic Jews sit during the Torah reading. In Ashkenazi communities there are those who customarily stand while the Torah is read—since one must feel like one is receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, when the entire nation stood around the mountain.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
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.