Jewish Law

What’s the Truth about . . . How Much to Open the Torah for Hagbah?

Misconception: During hagbah, when the Torah is lifted in shul, the more columns of text visible to the assembled, the better.

Fact: According to many authorities, when the Torah is lifted, at least three columns of the Torah scroll should be visible; this is not just the minimum requirement, but the ideal number of columns.

Background: In most Ashkenazi shuls, after the Torah reading is completed, two people are called up, often not by name, to roll up the Torah scroll. While this may appear to be a mere “housekeeping” task, hagbah (lifting up the Torah scroll and rolling it closed) and gelilah (helping to close the Torah and then tying the scroll and replacing its cover and ornaments) may be the most important honors pertaining to the public reading of the Torah. The Talmud (Megillah 32a) records a statement of Rav Yehoshua ben Levi that is cited as halachah (Rambam, Hilchot Tefillah 12:18; Shulchan Aruch, OC 147:1). Rav Yehoshua ben Levi says that after the Torah reading, the most distinguished member of the congregation should receive the honor of rolling1 up the Torah scroll, and he will thereby receive the spiritual reward of all those who participated in the reading. In earlier times, gelilah was either given to the most prominent shul members (Gra, OC 147 s.v., gadol; Machatzit Hashekel, OC 147:3; MB 147:6) or the most important rav of the city (Shu”t Maharsham 1:198). Alternatively, it was auctioned to the highest bidder (SA, OC 147:1). In contemporary times, however, the custom is to offer the honor to ordinary members of the congregation (MB 147:7).

The earliest detailed description of hagbah is found in the post-Talmudic Masechet Sofrim, where it states (14:14): “Then he rolls open the sefer Torah until three columns [are visible], and lifts it up and shows the text to the people standing to his right and left, and then he turns it to the front and back, because it is a mitzvah for all of the men and women to see the text, and bow, and say, ‘And this is the Torah which Moshe placed before the Children of Israel’ (Devarim 4:44) and ‘The Torah of God is perfect, restoring the soul’” (Tehillim 19:8).

There are various customs regarding the timing of hagbah (Me’am Loez, Devarim 27:26). In Masechet Sofrim, hagbah precedes the actual reading of the Torah (see Gra, OC 134, s.v., v’nahagu) and to this day, most Sephardim raise the Torah just after removing it from the aron (Ben Ish Chai, year 2, Toldot:16). Ashkenazim, as stated by the Rema (Darkei Moshe 147:4; Shulchan Aruch, OC 134:2; Aruch Hashulchan, OC 134:3), for the most part, perform hagbah after the Torah reading,2 although the Kaf Hachaim says that Ashkenazim in the Land of Israel performed it before the Torah reading.3 Today, there are some Chassidim who follow the Sephardic practice.

The Ashkenazi custom of performing hagbah after the Torah reading seems to be a departure from the original practice. The change is due to the fact that ignorant people thought that seeing the Torah text was more important than hearing it and would therefore leave the shul after hagbah. To ensure that people stayed, hagbah was moved to after the Torah reading (Kaf Hachaim 134:17, quoting Knesset Hagedolah; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Hashalem [Toledano], Dinei Hotza’at Sefer Torah 6).

The importance of seeing the Torah text is evident from a story in Nechemiah, which may be a source for the custom of hagbah. The Jews had returned from the Babylonian exile and were experiencing a religious revival, highlighted by a lengthy public Torah reading by Ezra. After the reading was completed, the verse states: “Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people,4 and when he opened it, all the people stood” (Nechemiah 8:5).

In order to ensure that everyone sees the actual text in the Torah scroll, Masechet Sofrim states that the Torah should be raised and shown in all directions “because it is a mitzvah for all of the men and women5 to see the writing.” The Shulchan Aruch (OC 134:2) includes this requirement of showing the text to everyone; the Mishnah Berurah (134:9) explains that one should slowly turn to show the script to the entire congregation, similar to how he instructs (OC 128:61) the kohanim to turn during duchening. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo 12:28, note 40, p. 153) says that if there are people on all sides of the bimah, the one who performs hagbah should turn to the right and make a full circle, but if there are people only on the two sides, he can just turn right and then left rather than make a complete circle. Similarly, Shevet HaLevi (9:26; c.f., Mishneh Halachot 11:103), emphasizes that the point is to ensure that all of the congregants see the Torah script. The Kaf Hachaim (134:13; c.f., MB 134:11) notes that in Yerushalayim, the custom was to walk around the entire shul with the Torah scroll open so that everyone could see the text.

In order to prevent the magbia from obscuring the view of the Torah text, some early authorities suggest that hagbah be done with the text facing the congregants. However, the Ashkenazi practice today is to have it face the magbia (Bach, OC 134; Rema, OC 147:4; Encyclopedia Talmudit 8:168).6

Various rules have been instituted with regard to the practice of hagbah. The gemara (Megillah 32a) says: “Rav Shefatiah said in the name of Rav Yochanan that the one who rolls the Torah [golel] must position it on the seam [i.e., the seam between two pages of the Torah should be in the middle of the open section].” Rashi understands that this is simply the most appropriate way to tighten the Torah scroll; most later commentators maintain, as the Shulchan Aruch does (OC 147:3), that this is to ensure that no damage occurs to the scroll. If the magbia ensures the scroll has a seam in the middle of the open section, in case the scroll does tear, God forbid, the tear will most likely be along the seam. The early nineteenth-century Sha’arei Ephraim (10:17) observes that people were becoming lax about this rule, and speculated that it is because the magbia no longer pulls the Torah rollers as tightly as it was once done. Thus, he reasons, there is less of a concern about damaging the scroll. Another possible reason for the laxity is because the ruling was instituted when the klaf, Torah parchment, was more fragile and could easily tear, which is less likely to happen today (Josef Lewy, Minhag Yisrael Torah, 1997, 147:3 quoting Divrei Yechezkel Hachadash).

How much of the scroll should be opened?7 Dr. Ron Wolfson’s The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven states, “It is considered preferable for the lifter to show the worshippers as many columns of the Torah script as possible.”8 Is this accurate, or is there a specific number of columns?

Masechet Sofrim states: “Then he rolls open the sefer Torah until9 three columns [are revealed],” which implies “until three” and no more. Similarly, the eleventh-century Machzor Vitry (p. 527) says: “The sefer Torah is unrolled until three columns and then lifted,” indicating specifically three. The guideline regarding the number of columns does not appear in the Shulchan Aruch, but the Magen Avraham (OC 134:3) includes it and suggests that the statement is referring to the precise number of columns that need to be shown, rather than a minimum or suggested amount. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried; 23:25) states one should open the scroll to three columns, implying that that is the required amount. Based on the Magen Avraham and Sofrim, HaShomer Emet10 (7:1) states that the scroll should be opened to three columns. Rav Eliezer Papo (d. 1827), famous as the author of the Pele Yoetz, wrote in his halachic work Chesed L’alafim (135:4) that the Torah should be unrolled to reveal three columns, no less and no more. Shu”t B’tzel Hachachmah (Rav Betzalel Stern, d. 1988; 5:54) explains in great detail exactly how the magbia should turn while holding the Torah and then states that the scroll should be opened to three columns, implying precisely three.

The significant exception is the Mishnah Berurah (134:8), who maintains that three may be the minimum, and the maximum depends upon the physical strength of the magbia.11

This concept of “three columns” with regard to a Torah scroll is mentioned in other contexts as well. In the Geonic era, Sefer Halachot Gedolot (siman 75, pp. 682-683) mentions that when reading from a Torah scroll, one should open it to three columns and no more. Even if two people are reading from the same scroll and it would be more convenient to open it wider, they should open it to three columns.

Unrelated to hagbah,12 the gemara states (Baba Metzia 29b) that if someone is watching another individual’s scroll (not necessarily a Torah scroll), either because he found it or he was asked to watch it, he must care for it by regularly rolling it so that it does not rot and when opening it, he should not reveal more than three columns (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 267:20; 292:20). This halachah implies that opening a scroll no wider than three columns is the most prudent way to treat a scroll.

There is also a hashkafic aspect that should be mentioned. Hagbah is a practice clearly intended to honor a sefer Torah. Not infrequently, the older brother of a bar mitzvah boy is honored with hagbah. Often he proceeds to open the Torah to five, six or more columns. This strongman performance invariably shifts the attention of the congregation from the Torah scroll itself to the magbia, who is showered with praise for his show of strength. Indeed, the book The Seven Questions You’re Asked in Heaven acknowledges that “a good hagbah can show three, four, even five columns. Six columns? You’ll get an admiring yasher koach—literally ‘may you be strengthened,’ or more colloquially, ‘way to go!’” However, after such a display, the Torah reading is no longer the focus.

According to the Ramban, the final curse of the Tochachah in Devarim (27:26) refers to an improperly performed hagbah: “Cursed be he who does not uphold [asher lo yakim] the words of this Torah . . .”13 Among the various opinions in the Yerushalmi (Sotah 7:4) about this verse is that of Rav Shimon ben Yakim, who says the pasuk refers to the chazzan. Ramban explains that chazzan here means a magbia who does not properly show the Torah to all assembled, as required in Masechet Sofrim.

Hagbah is a custom that centers on the Torah itself. It is about showing the Torah proper respect and honor, and impressing upon all those assembled the tremendous and enduring spiritual significance Torah has in our lives.

1. Although the Talmud (Megillah 32a) only refers to one role, the “golel,” today the Ashkenazic custom is to honor two people; one performs hagbah, the other performs gelilah. Of the two, the magbia is usually considered the main functionary and has the more important function (MB 147:5, 19; Chayei Adam 31:13). The custom is to even permit the honoring of a child with gelilah in order to train him in mitzvot (MB 147:7). However, the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 147:9) views the golel as having the more important function.

2. As pointed out by the Mishnah Berurah (134:8), Rav Yaakov ben Asher in the Tur (an Ashkenazi) included hagbah after the Torah reading in siman 147, while Rav Yosef Karo (a Sephardi), refusing to tamper with the order of the Tur, left the halachot there but added a section about hagbah before the Torah reading in siman 134.

3. The Jews of Cochin, India have a unique custom. They have a second bimah on the balcony in front of the ezrat nashim where the Torah is read. Hagbah is done twice, first down below in the men’s section and then again near the women’s section.

4. He was standing on a platform. See Nechemiah 8:4.

5. The inclusion of women implies that synagogues were constructed in such a way that the women could see the Torah being raised and that women were present for the reading of the Torah. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 134:2) includes the requirement that women see the Torah text. Hashomer Emet (7:2) emphasizes that women must be able to view the text by citing two earlier sources: Rav Simchat Yehuda on Masechet Sofrim and Magen Avraham (OC 282:6), who says that possibly women are obligated in hearing the Torah reading (and hence in seeing the lifted Torah) because it is similar to Hakhel, which women must attend.

6. The exception is on Simchat Torah, when there is a custom in some communities to do hagbah on some of the sifrei Torah with the text facing out. See Avraham Yaari, Toldot Chag Simchat Torah (Jerusalem, 1989), 75-77.

7. The Italian Jewish communities have a special silver bar called a sharbit that fits over the two wooden atzei chayim, Torah rollers. The bar holds the Torah open to a fixed amount, usually revealing three or four columns. Furthermore, to prevent someone from accidentally dropping the Torah, there are generally two people performing hagbah, one on each side.

8. (Woodstock, 2009), 48.

9. There is an alternate version in some manuscripts and in the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 134:3) that has “al” (on) instead of “ad” (until).

10. A work on the laws of Torah reading by Rav Avraham Chaim Adaidi, nineteenth-century Libya and Israel.

11. The Mishnah Berurah (147:7) cautions that a weak person should never be honored with hagbah. In Spanish/Portuguese congregations, hagbah was entrusted only to a select group known as levantadores (Spanish for “raise up,” it referred to “master lifters” of the scroll), thus honoring them and minimizing the risk of someone mishandling the Torah (Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed. [2008], vol. 8, s.v., Hagbah p. 207). The fear of dropping the Torah or mishandling the parchment led some Italian communities in the eighteenth century to abolish hagbah altogether, a practice defended by the Chida (L’David Emet, 5746, p. 13).

12. This idea is based on a devar Torah that was written and distributed by Rabbi Dov Hakohen Tropper of New York, in memory of his son Pinchas, who passed away at the tender age of eight.

13. Yalkut Yosef (OC 134, note 13) suggests that the Ramban believed this was an asmachta, a hint found in the Hebrew Bible for rabbinical prohibitions or any other halachah, and not a true Biblical reference.

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

This article was featured in the Winter 2017 issue of Jewish Action.
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