When A Torah Takes A Tumble


Fasting is a venerable minhag (custom) instituted by Posekim (Jewish legal authorities) to repair the indignity done to a Torah scroll that touches or hits the floor.

Many Jews pray they will NEVER drop a Torah or see one fall, given that the atonement (a 40 day fast) sounds like a death sentence. In actuality, they were not fully informed. The 40 day fast is not as mishuganah (crazy) as it sounds. Fasting is only required during daylight hours and does not need to be done 40 days in a row.

The Posekim also offered an alternative, knowing that some witnesses would be unable to fast. Everyone who witnessed the event could give Tzedakah (a charitable contribution to their cause of choice) in lieu of fasting.

Even if just one side of a Sefer Torah touched the ground, without physical damage, tzedakah would be given, since the Sefer Torah was disgraced in spirit by any part of it touching the ground.

A Tikkun תיקון is an act of correction or repair in Judaism. Since everyone present witnessed the dishonoring, everyone is required to repair the event on a spiritual level.

Fasting is an act of atonement primarily associated with Yom Kippur. The practice of fasting for 40 days when a Torah takes a tumble, is a minhag symbolizing the 40 days and 40 nights Moses/Moshe fasted on Mt Sinai, while receiving the Torah from GD. In our contemporary times, I found the true story below to be replete with meaningful messages:

Temple Beth Israel in N.C., faced this dilemma on Yom Kippur, at Kol Nidre, no less, when the Sifrei Torah toppled from the Aron Hakodesh, hitting the floor of the bimah. Witnesses jumped up in a collective moment of dismay. “It sent tingles up your spine,” a past president of the board, told the Forward. Many congregations have faced similar dilemmas when a Torah fell out of the ark or was dropped. Beth Israel addressed the question of what to do together. Should everyone fast? Give tzedakah? Perform a community service? Study Torah, with a focus on its holiness?

Everyone present had an emotional response. It was a visceral moment, which jarred everyone’s senses. As feelings poured out, a powerful healing process ensued, that engaged the community in meaningful dialogue and deep moments of reflection. They offered a series of spiritual learning events as part of their healing process. The ritual committee presented the options to for each congregant to fast for one of 40 days, give tzedakah, or perform a community service in the spirit of Tikkun Olam. Tzedakah could be used to repair the Sifrei Torah and increase safety measures for the Sifrei Torah.

Paraphrased from the Forward and Washington Jewish Week

The upshot of a Torah taking a tumble is the community dialogue it inspires. The community has to decide together what steps to take to repair the situation and promote peace of mind.

Thoughts and Discussion Prompts:

1. Can you think of an instance when group atonement for a distressing event would have been beneficial to you or a loved one?

2. What if the event was due to unforeseen circumstances? What if it was unintentional, but caused by carelessness and poor judgement?

I saw a deeper message in this tradition that applies to people as well, not just a Holy object. The Torah tells us we too are holy as “B’tzelem Elohim” —created in the image of GD.

One step taken by Temple Beth Israel was to “increase safety measures” for the Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). That reminded me of the measures we all need to take to create safe spaces within our congregations and communities.

©️ 2019 All Rights Reserved (drasha 10.26.19).

Additional Food for thought:

Some Posekim believed that you should take part in the healing if you see a Sefer Torah on the floor, even though you did not see it fall. They also contemplated a scenario where a witness, who was blind, could not see it fall, but was aware of the affect. (Tzitz Eliezer 5:1:5).

Additional info on the 40 Day Fast:

Ohr Somayach:
Answers a reader’s question on whether the 40 day fast is a real custom or a bubbemeise (tall tale/‘old wives tale’).

Jewish Weekly

Jewish Journal

13 thoughts on “When A Torah Takes A Tumble

  1. Your Midrash is informative and compassionate. I agree that we are holy. The Torah was written for us , not the other way around. Thank you for your hard work and research, Abi. You are a gentlewoman and a scholar. Thanx for being you!

  2. I hadn’t heard fasting for forty days before. I’ve heard of fasting for three days for dropping a sefer Torah (split Monday-Thursday-Monday or Thursday-Monday-Thursday). I also heard from someone that someone in their community carrying a sefer Torah slipped and fell over holding it on Simchat Torah; they community fasted for one morning after the chag. I don’t know if the Torah scroll actually hit the ground there.

    I won’t do hagbah, because I’m too scared of dropping the Torah.

    • There was an original minhag to fast for 40 days during the daylight hours, to atone for the indignity done to the Torah. The 40 days was in accordance with the 40 days that Moshe Rabbeinu spent on Har Sinai receiving the Torah without eating or drinking.

      Ultimately, the minhag morphed into each congregation or shul establishing their own minhagim on how to perform tikkun should a sefer Torah take a tumble.

      Sometimes 40 volunteers from the congregation and the rabbis will fast for one day apiece, or they may settle on tzedakah instead.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. Hagbah is rather nerve racking, but I’ve never seen anyone drop a Torah.

  3. Robin submitted a beautiful and soulful poetic reflection on our subject matter. 🥰

    I’ve only danced at Simchat Torah once

    I moved with a lightweight scroll

    Round the backyard of a member

    Of the tiny congregation to which I belonged

    I held the divinity second only to my love of life and God

    And I did it easily never doubting my steps

    But what is it really to carry the sacred with us

    The dropping of a Torah scroll enjoins everyone present

    To fast for forty days

    And you may say surely that is bad enough

    But Torah scrolls are dropped outright rarely

    Seldom enough that it makes some kind of news

    I ask instead how do I carry God of the 72 names

    Do I rejoice fully in living waters

    Or offer the place of healing to mourners

    Or to myself by calling on HaMakom

    When I drop Torah it is most frequently

    Because we have left the beloved stories of Genesis

    And Exodus for Leviticus

    And I forget what I can learn there this year

    And God do I forsake you

    As I go through daily life forgetting

    To call out when I feel abandoned and to offer praise

    At all times

    Carrying the sacred is our shamanism

    We perceive Mount Sinai in the clarity of its etheric existence

    We cry out in the vernacular reaching nature

    through the methods of Reb Nachman

    To dance with Torah is to say God is one

    Is to lose ourselves in holy words

    And the deeds which arise from our study

    And our love of questioning–

    The very root of faith

  4. So interesting. I’ve never thought what would happen if a Torah fell on the floor. Forty days of fasting seems extreme to me. I’m not sure what the gain would be from the fasting.
    Such an interesting topic. I would love to know what everyone thought.

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