Saturday, April 01, 2023

Ashkenazic Versus Sephardic Hagbah

Ashkenazic Jews who ask why Sephardic Jews conduct hagbah before Kriat HaTorah are asking the wrong question. The question should be: Why do Ashkenazic Jews lift the Torah only after the Torah reading? — contrary to Nechemia, perek eight. This perek describes the only Kriat HaTorah in Tanach. Pasuk five records that before reading the Torah, Ezra opened the Torah before the assembled Jews.

Interestingly, many Sephardic Jews open the sefer Torah in the heichal/Aron Kodesh while brich sh’may and other tefillot are recited — in keeping with the description of Ezra’s “opening the Torah.” In addition, some Sephardic Jews carry the opened Torah from the heichal to the bima/teiva.

Masechet Soferim (14:14) describes hagbah occurring before Kriat HaTorah. The Vilna Gaon (Orach Chaim 134:2 s.v. V’Nahagu) and Aruch Hashulchan (Orach Chaim 134:3) acknowledge that this early source supports Sephardic practice. Sephardic practice follows — not surprisingly — the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 134:2), which teaches that hagbah occurs before the Torah reading. By contrast, the Rama notes the Ashkenazic custom of performing hagbah only after the Torah reading.

Accordingly, the Ashkenazi custom regarding hagbah seems to depart from the original practice. The Aruch Hashulchan and Mishna Berura do not explain the reason for the Ashkenazic tradition. However, the Kaf HaChaim (Orach Chaim 134:17, quoting the Kenesset HaGedola) writes that Ashkenazim changed, since ignorant people thought seeing the Torah’s text uplifted was more important than hearing it. They, therefore, left the shul after hagbah! As a result, Ashkenazim postponed hagbah until after the Torah reading to ensure that people stayed.


The Centrality of Hagbah

A downside of the Ashkenazic practice is that hagbah becomes a footnote — or afterthought — to the Torah reading. For Sephardim, hagbah is a grand opening to the Torah reading in its original position. Emphasizing the importance of hagbah fits the Gemara’s (Megillah 32a) description of its centrality (translation from the William Davidson’s edition of the Talmud):

“And Rabbi Shefatya said that Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘If 10 people read from the Torah, the greatest among them should furl the Torah scroll, for this is the most distinguished honor. And the one who furls it takes the reward of all of them,’ as Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: ‘If 10 people read from the Torah, the one who furls it receives the reward of all of them.’” The Gemara asks: Can it enter your mind to say that he actually receives the reward of all of them? Why should all the others forfeit their reward? Rather, it should say instead: “He receives a reward equivalent to that of all of them.”


The Basis in the Torah — Arur Asher Lo Yakim

What is the basis in the Torah for the centrality of hagbah? The answer lies in analyzing the last of the brachot and kelalot recited at Har Gerizim and Har Eival — as recorded in parshat Ki Tavo (Devarim 27:11-26). After a list of 11 specific activities for which one is cursed for doing, the Torah condemns “one who does not ‘yakim’ the words of this Torah.” The mefarshim explain this word in various ways.

Onkelos translates “yakim” as “yekayeim,” to fulfill. Rashi follows suit and says that this last “arur” is an all-embracing declaration referring to those who do not fulfill any of the Torah’s mitzvot. Rashbam understands it as referring to one who fails to observe any mitzvot in private. Rashbam takes his cue from many of the 11 arurim, which address sins committed in secret. Ibn Ezra quotes an opinion that this “arur” refers to one who does not fulfill the previous 11 arurim articulated at Har Gerizim and Har Eival.

Ramban translates “yakim” in the sense of “kiyum,” meaning “validation” (as used in Esther 9:27: “Kiyemu v’kiblu hayehudim”). Ramban explains that “akim” in the Torah means validating the Torah and its mitzvot in one’s heart and recognizing that it serves our best interest.

Ramban cites the Talmud Yerushalmi (Sotah 7:4), which understands “yakim” to refer to “l’hakim,” uplifting the Torah. Ramban explains that it is insufficient to observe the Torah personally. If one can strengthen others’ Torah observance, but fails to do so — he is included in this “arur.” The Netziv explains uplifting the Torah to refer to financially supporting Torah learning and adherence.

Finally, the Ramban cites the Yerushalmi’s application for “arur asher lo yakim,” as cursing one who does not raise the Torah in the hagbah ceremony, where one lifts the Torah before we read from it. Thus, the Yerushalmi understands this “arur” as cursing one who refuses to do hagbah!


Hagbah Combines All the Explanations of Arur Asher Lo Yakim

We suggest that hagbah combines all our explanations of “arur asher lo yakim.” Lifting up the Torah expresses a commitment to observe all of the Torah in both public and private, validates the Torah’s authenticity and efficacy, and encourages and supports others to follow the Torah. Most importantly, lifting up the Torah shows that the Torah is our highest priority.

I believe those who watch hagbah — and internalize its message — vicariously perform hakhel. Interestingly, Masechet Soferim mentions that the Torah should be lifted before the assembled men and the women. Women are certainly included in hagbah’s message. Accordingly, we understand why the Gemara considers hagbah to be of primary importance.



The Levi’im gathered between Har Gerizim and Har Eival — not only — to present the 12 arurs outlined in the Torah. But — as Rashi (Devarim 27:12) notes — the Levi’im also blessed those who did the opposite of the cursed activities. Thus, the Levi’im blessed those who performed hagbah and internalized the multifaceted meaning of “yakim” the Torah. Therefore, we understand why the Gemara states that the one who does hagbah receives a reward equivalent to all who receive an aliya, and why the most prominent community member should receive hagbah.

Such a glorious mitzvah should be front and center; thus, Sephardim perform it first. It behooves Ashkenazim, who — out of caution — delay hagbah until after the Torah reading, to make more effort to recognize the hagba’s primacy. For Ashkenazim, the centrality of hagbah is not “built into the system,” as it is for Sephardic Jews. Thus, Ashkenazic Jews must make more effort to internalize hagbah’s message.


At Shaarei Orah, we follow the Turkish practice of conducting hagbah on Tisha B’Av after the Torah reading. This practice fits with our approach to hagbah. Tisha B’av mourns the diminishment of the Torah’s prestige and observance due to the Churban. Indeed, Megillat Eicha (2:1) observes and grieves the degradation of Tiferet Yisrael, the glory of our nation. Thus, on Tisha B’av, hagbah takes a back seat and is not front and center — symbolizing the lessened Tiferet Yisrael.

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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