The 613th Mitzvah

Dedicated by Vicky Wu in memory of J.J. Greenberg on his 18th yahrzeit: Time can’t erase the smile and strength left by J.J., it only enriches his memories in our hearts

At the end of Parshat Vayelech (Dvarim 31:19), God commanded Moshe and Yehoshua to write the Torah and teach it to B’nai Yisrael:

And now write this song for you and teach it to B’nai Yisrael to place it in their mouths; in order that this song will be for me a witness against B’nai Yisrael.

The Rambam, in Sefer Ahava, Chapter 7, Laws of Writing Tfilin, Mezuza and a Torah Scroll explains:

It is a positive mitzvah binding upon each Israelite to write a Torah scroll for their own use as it says in Dvarim31:19: And now write this song for you...”As the Torah is not written in separate sections, this text means, “Write for yourselves the Torah in which this song is contained.” Even if one’s ancestors have left a person a scroll, it is a religious duty to write a scroll at his own expense. If he wrote it with his own hand, it is accounted to him as if he received it from Sinai. If one does not know how to write a scroll, he should get others to write it for him. He who corrects a scroll, even a single letter of it, is regarded as if he had written it completely.

Sefer HaChinuch, the Book of Mitzvah Education, lists Mitzvah #613, the final mitzvah in the Torah, as the religious duty for every Jew to write a Torah scroll. If one wrote it with their own hand, they are praiseworthy. But whoever can’t write their own should hire someone to write it for them.

Sefer HaChinuch adds that other volumes as well, that were composed in explanation of the Torah, should also be acquired.

Over the past year and a half, since the start of Covid, we have seen the importance of owning a Torah scroll. Last year, when Israel’s Ministry of Health only allowed prayer groups of ten or twenty people, those who owned Torah scrolls were able to form minyanim in their backyards and didn’t have to rely on borrowing one from their synagogue. As well, during the high holidays both last year and this year, small outdoor minyanim have been conducted with privately owned Torah scrolls.

How lucky we are that there are individuals who observed mitzvah #613 and commissioned the writing of their own personal Torah scrolls which are now being used to help the larger community during the pandemic. May we all have the merit of taking part in the writing of a Torah scroll and may we be able to return to organized prayer in synagogues when it is safe to do so.