Jewish Law

What’s the Truth about. . .Fasting Forty Days Upon Seeing a Torah Scroll Fall?

Misconception: A person who drops a sefer Torah, and even one who merely witnesses it fall, must fast for forty days.

Fact: There is a late post-Talmudic custom for a person who drops a sefer Torah to fast, usually one day.

Background: This is a widespread belief, and even people lax in other areas of halachah seem to be careful about this (forty-day) fast.1 Yet there is no source in either the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud, the Rambam, Tur or Shulchan Aruch for fasting when a Torah falls, let alone fasting for forty days. However, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Waldenberg devoted twenty-five pages (Tzitz Eliezer 5:1) to exploring the development of this custom, citing sources and providing reasons and parameters for the practice.

Of course, one must guard the sanctity of a Torah and treat it with special care, and no one questions the trepidation and sorrow that accompany the desecration of a Torah scroll. The Gemara (Moed Katan 26a) rules that if one sees a Torah scroll burned deliberately, Rachmana litzlan, one must tear keriyah. (In fact, in his very first responsa [She’eilot U’Teshuvot Mi’ma’amakim I:1], Rav Ephraim Oshry, z”tl, discusses a case in the Kovno Ghetto where the accursed Nazis slaughtered dogs and cats in the shul, and then forced Jews to tear apart sifrei Torah with which to cover the rotting carcasses. Rav Oshry ruled that those who witnessed the event should tear keriyah, but there is no need for anybody to fast, particularly considering the malnutrition and ill health of those in the ghetto. Rav Oshry did view the event as a call from Above for teshuvah.) The Shulchan Aruch (YD 340:37) says that one must tear keriyah if one sees other books of the Tanach or tefillin burned deliberately; the Shach (YD 340:56) applies it to seeing a sefer Torah being torn; and, although Pitchei Teshuvah (YD 340:21) cites rabbinic authorities who are unsure if keriyah is necessary when seeing Gemaras and other religious texts being torn, the Aruch Hashulchan (YD 340:38) says that one must do so. As an extension of this, the custom evolved to impose a fast if a Torah was burnt or torn, Rachmana litzlan.

The idea of fasting when a Torah or a pair of tefillin2 “merely” falls is more recent, dating back several hundred years, and since then its parameters have been discussed by many later authorities. A sefer Torah falling is certainly less severe than the deliberate burning or tearing of a sefer Torah. Hence, although there is a popular notion to fast even on Shabbat for dreadful dreams, including a dream in which one saw a Torah or tefillin burnt (Shulchan Aruch, OC 288:5), that is not the case for seeing them fall in a dream (Mishnah Berurah, 288:16). Similarly, no rabbinic authority suggests tearing keriyah for a fallen Torah, possibly because usually there is no actual damage, and it is not intentional.

Among the earliest references to fasting for dropping tefillin (or a Torah scroll) are Rabbi Israel of Bruna (1400-1480; Shut Mahari Bruna 127), who explains that dropping tefillin is a sign from Heaven that one should repent and fasting is a means of repentance; and Rabbi Shmuel ben Moshe Kalai (Greece, c. 1500-1585; Sefer Mishpatei Shmuel 12) who states that we fast because dropping tefillin is a “zilzul” (desecration). Fasting after such an event entered the mainstream when the Magen Avraham (1637-1683, Poland; OC 44:5, cited in MB 40:3) and Rabbi Moshe ibn Habib (1654-1696, Jerusalem; Kapot Temarim on Sukkah 41b) noted that it is a popular custom and that it applies to a Torah scroll as well.3 These early sources mention that the one who dropped the Torah or tefillin should fast, but do not mention that those witnessing it need to fast (see Tzitz Eliezer 5:1:3:2-3).

Extending this custom which, as is noted by many of the later authorities, has no Talmudic basis, took two forms: increasing the number of days required to fast and adding to those who are obligated to do so. The Chida (Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai; 1724-1807) was asked if those who witnessed a Torah fall must also fast. He responded (Shut Chayim She’ol 1:12, summarized in his L’David Emet 3:11 and Shiurei Berachah, YD 282:1-4) that there is no source even for the one who dropped the Torah scroll or tefillin to fast, but since it is already an established custom, if one who drops either did not fast, that would be viewed as strange; thus he should fast one day. However, the Chida states that witnesses are not obligated to fast. He does, however, mention a community where a Torah fell from the hands of an individual and the local rabbi imposed a three-day “BaHaB” fast (Monday-Thursday-Monday) on the entire community; the Chida concludes that each local rabbi should decide what is appropriate for his community.

The discussion among the posekim continued with some suggesting that owing to the seriousness of the bizayon (disgrace), all members of the congregation, even those not present, should fast if a sefer Torah falls. Some were of the opinion that if one entered a shul and saw a Torah on the floor, even if he did not see it fall, he should fast. What about a blind person who was present and sensed what had happened although he obviously did not see it (see Tzitz Eliezer 5:1:5)? All of these scenarios are discussed.

Once the custom became popularized, many questions arose. What to do if the Torah fell inside the aron? What if it fell on the steps of the aron? What if only one side of the Torah rolled to the ground? Does a Torah need to be checked if it fell? What if a pasul Torah fell? What if the individual carrying the Torah fell but the Torah remained securely in his hands? What if a Torah falls on Yom Kippur? What if the parchment of a Torah not yet sewn together falls? et cetera.4

Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (1797-1876) discusses three instances in which Torah scrolls were defiled to various degrees and the appropriate response. In a case in which a Torah was stolen and then found, he ruled that there was minimal desecration and only the gabbai who irresponsibly did not lock the shul properly should fast or give tzedakah (Divrei Chaim 2:CM:33). In discussing an incident in which thieves had ransacked a shul and left the Torahs in the garbage, he suggested, based on Taanit 16a, that such an event occurs because of the sins of the congregation and thus a fast of repentance, in this case a BaHaB fast, was warranted for the whole congregation (Divrei Chaim 1:YD:59). In a final instance, he responded to a community in which, due to negligence, the Shabbat lights caused the aron and four Torahs to burn. He determined that they must give tzedakah and he imposed a public fast on all the men in the congregation. Additionally, he stated that the shamash should fast four times, once each season (Divrei Chaim, likutim in vol. 2:1).

The layers that have been added continue to develop. Irrespective of who fasts or for how long, this custom is a testament to the respect the Jewish people afford a sefer Torah.

In practice, the custom is to fast one or three BaHaB days, and this applies either to the one who dropped the sefer Torah or to all present at the time. For example, the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (28:12) says that if one drops a Torah he must fast, and the custom is that those who witness it must fast as well. Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvot V’Hanhagot 3:169) suggested to a congregation in which a Torah fell on Rosh Hashanah (which, he says, makes it more severe) that the one responsible should fast BaHaB, and the rest of the congregation should observe a one-day fast. Rabbi Ben-Zion Meir Hai Uziel (Mishpatei Uziel 1:YD:19 addressed the case of a Torah that fell on Shabbat morning in a shul in Tel Aviv in 1934. Because it was accidental and the source for fasting applies to a sefer Torah that is deliberately burned, he did not require fasting, but wrote that one should find other ways to atone for the accidental desecration. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo 1:12:39) ruled that if the Torah fell from the aron and not from the hands of an individual,  there is no need to fast. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe, OC 3:3) systematically aligned the various customs with the proposed bases for the practice. He concluded that the (one-day) fast is most obligatory for the one who dropped the Torah, particularly if there is any possibility of negligence, and that the custom is that those who saw it fall should fast as well. Members of the synagogue not present or those present who did not see it fall do not need to fast (Rishumei Aharon 1:YD:240:7). He says this was all applicable for the case he was asked about in which, while one Torah scroll was taken out from the ark, another one fell to the ground.

In general, authorities do not rule that one must fast forty days for dropping a sefer Torah. The notion of a forty-day fast is mentioned in several contexts.5 For example, Moed Kattan 25a records an incident in which Rav Huna’s tefillin strap inverted and as penitence he fasted forty fasts.6 Bava Metzia 33a records an incident where Rav Huna felt insulted by Rav Chisda, and each fasted forty days because of the resentment that resulted from the misunderstanding.7 Rav Yosef and Rav Zeira8 are each described as having fasted three sets of forty-day fasts as part of petitioning God for certain things (Bava Metziah 85a). Fasting as part of prayer is still practiced—the Alter of Slabodka was reported to have told one of his promising students: “I fasted forty days that you not go off the straight path.”9

The Rema (OC 334:26) suggests a forty-day BaHaB fast for one who violates Shabbat, and the Chayei Adam (Shabbat 9:12) says this is even for accidentally violating Shabbat. Similarly, for accidental sexual sins a forty-day fast is suggested (Rema, YD 185:4).

The idea of a forty-day fast is occasionally, although rarely, mentioned in the context of dropping a Torah. Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson (1808-1875; Divrei Shaul al Aggadot haShas, Sanhedrin 43a, s.v. v’cruz) wrote that if a Torah falls, God forbid, we fast forty days. He further said that he saw this in “L’David Emet of the Gaon Azulai [the Chida], who states that the reason [for fasting forty days] is because the Torah was given in forty days.”10 I have been unable to find this in L’David Emet.

Rabbi Yosef ben Naim (1882-1961) discussed (Tzon Yosef 67) a case in which on Chol Hamoed Sukkot an individual removed a Torah from the aron for hakafot and a nearby Torah fell. In the course of his lengthy discussion, he quotes from a 5688 issue of the journal Ohel Moed where Rabbi Yaakov Shur derives from the story of Rav Huna that a forty-day fast is warranted for such a severe desecration. In explaining the severity, he also cites the Ramban (Devarim 27:26) who states that a person who does not guard a Torah from falling is under a curse (arur).

On the other hand, there are those who prefer alternatives to fasting so as not to burden or weaken people. In general, the Shulchan Aruch (OC 571:1-2) limits who should voluntarily fast and the Mishnah Berurah (571:2) advocates a “Ta’anit haRa’avad,” a display of self-restraint by leaving over a portion of a tasty dish, or ta’anit dibbur in lieu of a “real” fast.

Rabbi Ephraim Greenblatt (Rivevot Ephraim 6:14) reports an incident where tefillin fell and the mashgiach instructed a ta’anit dibbur in lieu of a fast. Rav Greenblatt found that the Steipler Gaon (Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, d. 1985) had ruled similarly. Piskei Teshuvot (40:2; cf. Rivevot Ephraim 5:128) says that the custom in recent generations is not to fast even one day if tefillin fall, but rather to give tzedakah, increase Torah study, observe a ta’anit dibbur, and the like.

The reverence with which the Jewish people treat the Torah is evident from the custom that developed to fast when a Torah falls. There is no discussion in the ancient sources about how to react to such a scenario. The Jewish people, rather than the rabbis, sensed a need for an appropriate response and instituted a fast. No source prior to the fifteenth century mentions fasting, yet this custom has become so entrenched that nearly every posek in the last 200 years discusses it and has had to respond to questions about it. The layers that have been added continue to develop. Irrespective of who fasts or for how long, this custom is a testament to the respect the Jewish people afford a sefer Torah.

1. This custom was even reported about in the Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2012, p. A1, where Lucette Lagnado wrote that “Rabbi Daniel Sherbill of Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach is still haunted by that day in 1995 when a scroll tumbled to the ground after its ornate housing, or ‘ark,’ was opened. It was the High Holidays, and he was leading a congregation near Chicago. Dozens of members fasted for forty days, from sunrise to sunset, he says.”

2. These rules do not apply to a mezuzah (Mishneh Halachot 5:195).

3. The Magen Avraham differentiates between tefillin, for which one does not fast if they fell while in their case, and a Torah scroll, for which one fasts even if it fell within its case. As a source, the Magen Avraham notes that despite a prohibition of hanging tefillin, this is permitted if they are in a case (Shulchan Aruch, OC 40:1). A pet peeve of mine, learned from my rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Wehl, z”l, is when people “hang” their tefillin shel rosh by the knot as they put it on their head, thereby letting the holiest part, the bayit, dangle, rather than holding it front and back as they put it on. Note that the Taz (OC 40:1) rationalizes this practice, while many other later authorities disagree with him (Kaf HaChayim, OC 40:1).

4. For these and other details see Tzitz Eliezer 5:1 and 11:77:5; Gilyon Maharsha (YD 270); Halichot Shlomo 1:12: note nun; Torah Loda’at 2:379-382; Rabbi Daniel Z. Feldman, “The Development of Minhag as a Reflection of Halakhic Attitude: Fasting for a Fallen Sefer Torah,” Tradition 33:2 (1999): 19-30; and Rabbi Meir Brandsdorfer, Kol HaTorah 75 (Tishrei 5773): 188-9.

5. See Shulchan Aruch, OC 568:4 that fasting straight for two days and two nights (or, the Rema says, for a strong person, three) is the equivalent of forty non-consecutive fasts of repentance. Rabbi Moshe Zacuto (c. 1612-1698; Iggerot haRemez 37) was asked about a Torah that fell and answered based on mystical considerations. He felt that eighty-one fasts were in order, but that a two-day/two-night fast was the equivalent of twenty-one fasts and they should do that three times. This is quoted by the Chida (Shut Chayim She’ol 1:12). Legend has it that Rabbi Zacuto once fasted forty days in order to forget the Latin he had learned.

6. This was above and beyond what was required. See Beit Yosef (OC 27) and Magen Avraham (27:17) for a discussion of what is obligatory.

7. According to the Maharsha’s version of the gemara text, the resentment lasted forty years. In which case, it may be that all of the appearances of “forty” in this story are exaggerations.

8. Standard editions say 100 days but the Maharshal emends it to say forty.

9. Rabbi Nathan Kamenetsky, The Making of a Godol (2002), p. 831.

10. The Maharsha (Chiddushei Aggadot, Moed Kattan 25a), in explaining why Rav Huna fasted forty days, states that tefillin are the crown of the Torah, and the Torah was given in forty days.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is a professor of brain science at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in the Fall 2018 issue of Jewish Action.
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