Selling a Sefer Torah

Introduction I:
This topic is a highly sensitive one. It deals with the unquestionably most sacred tangible object of the Jews — a Sefer Torah. Because of this, my discussion must be handled delicately. I would hope that no one who reads this believes that I am relating to the subject casually and without the requisite respect.

Introduction II:
I am not a posek (awkwardly translated as “decisor of Jewish law”), i.e. a Torah-learned person who is qualified and certified to render authoritative Halachic decisions. Rather, I am a student of Torah whose mind works most comfortably by free association instead of sequentially and logically. As a result, I may reach certain conclusions not considered by the accumulated centuries of material found in the traditional commentaries.

Introduction III:
The crucial text I want to examine is an admittedly surprising statement in the Talmud  (Makkot 22b) by the great sage Rava, who lived during one of the most prolific periods of Torah — fourth century Babylonia:  “See how foolish people are — they stand before a Sefer Torah but do not stand before a great person.” I will return to Rava’s words below after examining some other texts.

The crucial issue I want to study is: Under what conditions and for what reasons may a community sell a Sefer Torah?

The classic text concerning this issue is codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 153:6), based on a passage in the Talmud (Megillah 27a). “We may sell a synagogue, and, similarly, all holy objects — even a Sefer Torah — in order to provide for students of Torah or to marry off orphans with the proceeds of the sale.

A few comments:
1. For whatever the needs of the proceeds of the sale may be, it is clear that those people  responsible must first thoroughly review their own budget and balance sheet to be certain that there are no other options. Selling a Sefer Torah should be seen as a last resort.

2. If the total needs will cost less than the gain from the sale of a Sefer Torah’s, let the community begin by selling the Torah’s silver ornaments. (In a similar vein, and Lehavdil, in 1968, a popular movie, The Shoes of the Fisherman, became a big hit. Anthony Quinn played the character of a pope who was a man of the people. On his wanderings, he was profoundly struck by the poverty and other needs beyond the Vatican walls. He responded by selling the treasures of the church.)

3. The Tosafists of Medieval Provence and Spain commented (Bava Batra 8b) that perhaps redeeming captives should be added to scholarships and marriages and it was not specifically listed because perhaps it was so obvious. (In fact, Rabbi Shmuel Levi Kelin (Vienna, 1720-1806) in his Machatzit HaShekel commentary, on the Magen Avraham’s commentary to the Shulchan Aruch, removes the “perhaps” and writes that redeeming captives is an absolutely proper use of the funds. It is a case of potential saving lives. In our own day, we readily recall the astronomical costs involved in 1948-1950 bringing the masses of immigrants from Arab lands to Israel, and more recently, the rescue of Jews from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopian Jews.

4. There is no need to feel distressed that the synagogue will be in some way be devalued or diminished for having sold a Torah. To the contrary, there should be a sense of the joy of doing a Mitzvah because of all the benefits the beneficiaries will receive from the proceeds from the sale. This is somewhat similar to Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi’s comment about Tzedakah to Rabbi Yehuda (HaNassi) in the Talmud (Shabbat 119a, based on Deuteronomy 14:22, punning on the root ע-ש-ר ayin-shin-resh): Give away a tenth so that you will become wealthy (spiritually if not with a fatter portfolio.) Or as Churchill said it, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” The synagogue’s reputation has not declined. To the contrary, it has increased significantly its moral stature.

5. Furthermore, and despite the great pride a synagogue may feel for having several or many Sifray Torah, the maximum ever needed on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Tevet of Channukah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 684:3) and one or two other special Shabbatot is three Sifray Torah. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 144) explains “We do not roll the Sefer Torah while the congregation is present, but if there is only one Sefer Torah and they need to read in two, then they roll it, and the dignity of the congregation is set aside.” [It is considered disrespectful and undignified for the people just to sit there doing nothing while the Torah is being rolled — except in this case.]

To conclude:
1. We need to compare the text in the Talmud and in the Shulchan Aruch. They are essentially the same, except the final words: The Talmud text has “to get married from the proceeds of the sale”; the Shulchan Aruch text reads “to marry off orphans with the proceeds of the sale.” Both texts naturally emphasize Judaism’s focus on marriage, but the “orphan” text provides, I believe, an opening to a wider understanding of why, if need be, synagogues should sell a Sefer Torah if there are no other available funds. All we need to do is talk to the Jewish community chaplains and the many social workers at Jewish Family Service to recognize the orphans in our communities.

They know and work with the Jewish orphans in our communities, among them are: Elders on limited incomes sometimes still living in the old (now-run-down and/or dangerous) neighborhoods, Jewish prisoners, institutionalized mentally ill Jews, in their homes, simply poor Jews unable to earn a living, obviously just too poor and aging before their time just because they cannot afford even the most inexpensive medication, homeless Jews, some individuals with certain incapacitating disabilities, victims of domestic violence, and addicts including gamblers and Oxycontin abusers. Historically, the Jewish community was historically slower in comparison to the general community to recognize and deal with many of these groups of Jews. That is mostly a thing of the past in the American Jewish community. In recent years, there has been a swift and commendable, often astonishing, response.

2. Both the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch texts speak of using proceeds for Torah study. In our day this should be obvious. It means scholarships and subsidies, for example: (1) Providing relief from the prohibitive cost of day school tuition; (2) relief for families that cannot afford the extra cost for afternoon religious school; (3) the same for the ever-higher cost of sending a child to a Jewish camp or on a summer program in Israel, and of no lesser significance (4) subsidizing the financial needs of adults — laypeople, teachers, and a full range of professionals – to attend significant conferences and take advantage of opportunities for study in North America, Israel, and elsewhere.

Rabbi Joseph Caro stated it best (Bet Yosef to Tur 153, quoting Rabbeynu Asher): Since we may sell a synagogue to purchase a Torah and other texts, we may certainly sell it (a Torah) for the purpose of Torah study, since what good is it buying texts and a Torah if we are not able to study from them? [In this case, by comparison,] the student is more important than the Torah, {the emphasis is mine} as is stated in the last chapter of Tractate Makkot.

Finally, we return to Rava’s words above:  See how foolish people are — they stand before a Sefer Torah but do not stand before a great person.

Something must have really been bothering Rava to have the chutzpah to describe Jews as foolish. My sense is that it was this: For all the undeniable holiness of a Sefer Torah, it is still a thing. In comparison, people, breathing, living, human beings – but a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:6) – are of greater, in fact cosmic importance, in the Grand Scheme of God’s World. It is not the incredibly meticulously copied words in a scroll that take precedence, but the realization and personification of those words in people that is the essence of what Judaism is teaching.

Should some people think that this law about selling a Sefer Torah – to give aid and hope and a second chance at life to so many Jews in need, to facilitate Jewish children and adults to becoming committed Jews by any and all agencies and techniques, to allow them to study Torah, and to give all of them the freedom and opportunity to live a full, Menschlich life – is a hypothetical statute written merely as a didactic tool to stress a certain point – we are aware of several congregations who have understood this to be a practical Halachah and have sold Sifrei Torah for the purposes stated above.

About the Author
Danny Siegel is a well-known author, lecturer, and poet who has spoken in more than 500 North American Jewish communities on Tzedakah and Jewish values, besides reading from his own poetry. He is the author of 29 1/2 books on such topics as Mitzvah heroism practical and personalized Tzedakah, and Talmudic quotes about living the Jewish life well. Siegel has been referred to as "The World's Greatest Expert on Microphilanthropy", "The Pied Piper of Tzedakah", "A Pioneer Of Tzedakah", and "The Most Famous Unknown Jewish Poet in America."
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