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A Hachnassas Sefer Torah 300 Years Ago

Spiritual Electricity in Prague

Title: Dissertationes Philologico-Theologicae, in Diversa Sacri Codicis Location: 1749

The following tale appears in Dissertationes Philologico-Theologicae, in Diversa Sacri Codicis, written by a certain Conrad Iken, and published by Apud Cornelium Haak, 1749.  Although most of the
book is written in Latin, this story appears in the few pages that are in Hebrew.

Prague, Shabbos Shirah, 1729

The lively sounds of “Toras Hashem Temimah….” and other classics of Jewish song reverberate through the streets of the Jewish Quarter of Prague, as the entire Jewish community comes out to celebrate a Hachnassas Sefer Torah, giving honor to the Torah and thanks to its donors.  That’s “donors” in the plural, because what makes this event so unusual is that the Sefer Torah has been donated by a group of bachurim.  And now for the back-story…

Prague, 1728

A group of bachurim in Prague is sitting and discussing what to do with their spare money.  “Yankel, what do you think we should do with it? We need to come up with a good idea that will bring nachas to Hashem!”

“Dovid’l, I think we should put aside our money every week and once we have a substantial sum saved up, we’ll come up with an idea.”

“A fine plan.  Okay, Yankel, you keep the money in a lock-box and I’ll hold onto the key.  This way, we’ll know the money is safe.” Agreed!”

Title: Conradus Iken (1689–1753) Source: Austrian National Library

The bachurim kept to their new commitment, and each week, they put aside their excess funds, depositing them into the box.  After a while, a nice sum of money had accumulated, and they again, began discussing what to do with the money.

“I think we should use the money for a d’var mitzvah, something that will make Hashem happy.”

“Well, what could be more beautiful than a sefer Torah?” “A sefer Torah?!” “Yes, with this money we’ll write a sefer Torah – the holiest thing there is for a Jew.  What do you all say?”

“Brilliant!” “What a novel idea!” “I’m all for it!” ,

“Well then, a sefer Torah it will be! And I think we should place it in the holiest shul in all of Prague…”

“In the Altneu Shul?!”

“Yes, of course.  If you all agree, I’m going over right away to R’ Ezriel the sofer, to commission his writing of the sefer Torah, which I hope he’ll begin writing as soon as possible.”

“Great! This will surely be a nachas ruach for Hashem.”

The Sefer Torah is Written

R’ Ezriel the sofer gladly took on the job of writing the new sefer Torah.  After many months of painstaking work, the sefer Torah was completed, and it was time for the bachurim to take it to two checkers1The job of the magee’ah is to inspect a sefer Torah to ascertain that each letter, word, phrase and column has been written in complete accordance with halacha.  Even one improperly written letter can invalidate an entire sefer Torah to ensure there were no omissions or errors.  The first checker was R’ Sinai Chazzan, and the second was R’ Itzik Premisla.

The two magee’im did their work faithfully.  Each separately checked the scroll and corrected any minor mistakes, and then returned the sefer Torah to the bachurim.

Permission from the Parneisim

With great excitement, the bachurim took their newly-written sefer Torah to the leaders of Prague.

“We had a sefer Torah written, and we’d like to give it a home in the Altneu Shul!”

“You boys had a sefer Torah written? Since when do bachurim write sifrei Torah?”

“Uh, well, why is that relevant? The fact is we did, and now we’d like to know whether we can put the sefer Torah in the shul.”

“Well, sure, we can’t see why not.  So, yes, you can put it there, with pleasure.  When are you planning to make the Hachnassas Sefer Torah?”

“On Shabbos Shira!”

“Okay, you have our permission and approval.”

The bachurim were very happy with how things were proceeding, but now they had to figure out the practical details of making their dream come true.

“Now comes the most important part.  We have to plan a Hachnassas Sefer Torah!”  “It’s going to be so much fun!”  “Fun? If it’s going to be held on Shabbos, we can’t have any torches or music.  What were you thinking when you said you want it on Shabbos?”  “Because, during the week we’re all busy with other things…”“Hmmmm, I suppose you have a point.”

“One moment there… who says we can’t have music?  If, at a wedding on Friday night the goyim are permitted to play music,2See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 338:2.perhaps the same can be done at a Hachnassas Sefer Torah? I’d like to ask a dayan.”

“You’ve got a point.  Go and ask a dayan.  Meanwhile, we’ll continue planning.”

The dayan paskened that in honor of the Torah it is permitted to have music.  So, they booked a band of non-Jewish musicians to play music at the Hachnassas Sefer Torah, and with that, they waited for the big day to arrive.

The Hachnassas Sefer Torah

The Jewish community in Prague was electrified.  It’s not every day that a Hachnassas Sefer Torah takes place and certainly not for a sefer Torah donated by bachurim.  Everyone came out of their houses to join in the great simcha.

Across from the Sefer Torah were the musicians, their violins, harps, and horns at the ready.  Leading the way at the head of the procession were 50 of the city’s most esteemed citizens, with everyone else walking along with the sefer Torah.  The bachurim gave each of the city’s honorable personages a turn to have the honor of carrying the new sefer Torah.  As the procession drew closer to the Altneu Shul, a group of men carrying all the famed shul’s sifrei Torah emerged from within to greet the new sefer Torah.

It was a beautiful event, and afterwards, the bachurim talked among themselves, sharing their excitement about it, with each other.

“Wow, this was a Hachnassas Sefer Torah to remember.  I don’t think Prague has ever seen anything like it!”

“And everyone really enjoyed themselves.” “I can’t wait until they actually read from the Torah!”

Reading in the New Sefer Torah

The Altneu Shul in Prague, Shabbos Shira, Parashas Beshalach 1729

On Shabbos morning, following the Hachnases Sefer Torah, when it was time to read the weekly portion from the Torah, the new sefer Torah was removed from the aron hakodesh with great anticipation.  The k’riah began, but suddenly the ba’al korei stopped,

“Nu, nu,! What’s happening?” There’s a mistake!” “What?! A mistake in the new sefer Torah?”

The sofer came running up with the dayan, who looked closely into the sefer Torah.  They agreed that there was a mistake and that the sefer Torah needed to be fixed.  The bachurim watched uncomfortably as the sefer Torah was rolled back up, its mantel was placed back on, its special belt over the mantel, and finally, a big belt was wrapped around it on the outside, signaling that the sefer Torah was unfit for reading.  With a sense of disappointment in the air, the sefer Torah was returned to the aron hakodesh and a different one was removed to be used, to finish the reading.

The mispallelim sought to cheer up the mood of the bachurim.

“Don’t worry, boys, mistakes happen.  The Torah wasn’t given to angels.  With Hashem’s help, by next week it will be fixed and we will once again read from your sefer Torah.”  On motzei Shabbos, they took the sefer Torah to the sofer R’ Ezriel to fix it.  The bachurim couldn’t wait for the following Shabbos, when their sefer Torah would surely be used.

Altneu Shul, Shabbos Parashas Yisro

Nu, nu, What’s happening?” Another mistake, that’s what!” “What’s going on? A second mistake in a brand-new sefer Torah?!”

The scene of the previous week repeated itself, with the sofer running up with a dayan, as together they looked into the sefer Torah and agreed that there was a mistake.  “Return this sefer Torah to the aron hakodesh and take out a different one!”

The same story had happened again.  Again, R’ Ezriel fixed the second mistake.  The bachurim couldn’t wait for the following Shabbos …

But on that Shabbos, Parashas Mishpatim, for the third week in a row, the new sefer Torah was returned to the aron kodesh, with sadness and shock, after a glaring mistake was found.

The Sefer Torah is Checked Again

Ware abbildung des ober rabiner David Oppenheim in Prag lebet al hier – True illustration of Chief Rabbi David Oppenheim in Prague lives here

This time, after fixing the error, R’ Ezriel did not simply let matters rest, but visited the rav of Prague, Hagaon Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer, and asked him, “Rebbe, the sefer Torah was carefully checked after I finished writing it, so this is very strange.  For three consecutive weeks, the sefer Torah had a mistake in it.  Something doesn’t make sense.  What should we do?”

“R’ Ezriel, do as the halacha demands.  Give the sefer Torah to several other magee’im and let them check it really carefully, each one separately.  After that, come back to me to report the results.”

R’Ezriel did as the rav had instructed, bringing the sefer Torah to several different magee’im, each of whom gave the sefer Torah an especially close examination.  When they were finished, they went to the Prager rav.

“Rebbe, we were given the job to check the sefer Torah of the bachurim.”

Nu, did you find any other mistakes?” “Actually, something much worse.  There is a complete pasuk missing! Otherwise the sefer Torah has no mistakes.”

“A full pasuk?”

“What? Which pasuk is missing?”

They identified a pasuk from parashas Ki Saitsei.

“Really? This is very interesting.  Give the sefer Torah back to R’ Ezriel for him to fix, and then return it to the Altneu Shul.”

The magee’im left the rav’s house, to carry out his instructions.

But that Shabbos, Parashas Teruma, in the Altneu Shul, the unthinkable happened, as a mistake was found once more in the sefer Torah.

This time, all of Prague was buzzing with the news, for such a thing had never happened before.  “Something truly strange is going on,” everyone said , “but what is it?”

No one knew, nor could they ever have guessed the truth, which was beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.  Actually, it was a nightmare.

Rabbi Dovid Oppenheimer and the Discovery

At the Rav’s home, Sunday of Parashas Tetzave.

The Rav called in his faithful shamash: “Please summon the bachurim who had the sefer Torah written!

The shamash ran to fulfill the rav’s request, and when the bachurim arrived, they appeared quite nervous and unsure of what to expect.

“Dear bachurim,” the rav began in a soft tone, “you have done an amazing thing by saving up your money for such a special reason, to write a sefer Torah for Hashem.  Your intentions were very good.”

The bachurim shifted uneasily.  Had the rav really called them there just to compliment them?

“But,” the rav continued, his voice taking on a sharper edge, “What has been happening with your sefer Torah is not a normal occurrence.  It is unheard of to find so many mistakes in one sefer Torah, one week after the next, and even after the sefer Torah has undergone such careful examination.

“Therefore,” said the rav, his voice rising, “I am asking you to please tell me now. How it is that you had extra money.  Why did you decide to write a sefer Torah?

The bachurim remained silent.  They looked at each other.  Dovid’l was biting his lip.  Yankel twisted the corner of his shirt.  The rav’s stern voice punctured the silence, “If you will not tell me, I will put you all in cherem!”

The bachurim realized they had no choice.  They would have to reveal their secret.  They told the rav everything they had done to come into the possession of such sums of money.  In their free time, they had roamed the streets of Prague, mixing with a bad crowd, whom they had joined in doing aveiros.

In a low voice full of remorse, Dovid’l told the rav, “Once, when we came home, we regretted what we had done.  So, as a form of repentance we decided that every time we sinned, we would put aside some of our money as a kapparah.  We thought that this way, if we would do something for Hashem with our money, He would forgive us.”

The eyes of the shamash were wide with horror.  What would the rav say? “How long has this been going on?”

“Five years.”

“A sefer Torah from impure money? I forbid anyone to read from this sefer Torah until we find out what to do with it!  You, my dear bachurim, must set your ways straight from this moment onward.  Can you not see for yourselves that Hashem is unhappy with both your ways and your sefer Torah?!”

The bachurim left the home of the Rav, with mixed feelings of embarrassment and inspiration to change, swirling within them.

The Psak of the Vaad Arba Aratzos

The rav called upon the dayanim to determine the halacha regarding the sefer Torah.  Some posited that the sefer Torah itself was kosher and so could be used for mitzvos.3See Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 153:21.  Others argued that the sefer Torah could not be used because it came into being as the result of sin, and the strange way in which the mistakes had been found, was a sign from Shamayim that Hashem didn’t want it to be used.

Unable to reach a consensus on the matter, the rav and dayanim decided to send the question to the rabbanim of the Vaad Arba Aratzos,- the Council of Four Lands in Poland.  It took half a year for the response to come back.

The psak was that the sefer Torah wasn’t suitable to be read from, but should instead remain in the aron hakodesh, unused, much like the broken luchos, which remained in the aron in the Mishkan and the Beis Hamikdash.  .

Negative Values, Positive Intention

What is the nature of electricity? It is the movement of electrons.

When negatively charged matter is connected to positively charged matter, the excess negative electrons start flowing towards the positive matter to compensate for the lack of electrons in that positive matter.  Electricity works by compensation, which creates the current.  As long as there is current, there is electricity.

As we said above, the Torah wasn’t given to angels.  Thankfully, the bachurim in this story were connected to their rav and the Kehilla. Their ideals, although faulty, included a spark of love for Hashem.  Their actions drew out their negative behavior to create a spiritual ‘electricity’.  As we see, in the end,  their actions brought them to do teshuva.

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