Monday, June 15, 2009

Rashi Vs. Rabbeinu Tam - Round II

There are two major discussions between Rashi and Rabeinu Tam that relate to Safrut and in this post I will talk about the second. My first post can be found here.

You've probably noticed that in some houses the Mezuza is set in the doorpost in a complete vertical position, while in other households it is slightly bent. Why? Which is the correct way?

The two possibilities I just mentioned are not the opinions of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, so please bear with me.

The Discussion

Rashi and Tosafos dispute what is the proper way of storing holy items. Rashi understands that Mezuzot and Torah Scrolls must be stored in the vertical position. Rabeinu Tam goes the opposite way and holds that the proper way to store a holy item is in the horizontal position, and according to him to store it in a vertical way it's improper. So what's good for Rashi - vertical - is bad (yes, Pasul) for Tosafos and vice-versa.

As a side note, some of the Tefillin found in the Qumran excavations had the scrolls arranged horizontally, like Rabeinu Tam
(see picture in the right - The Qumran tefillin: the open capsule with the inscribed parchment slips in it. See more here), indicating that this discussion preceded the times of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam (who lived 1000 years ago, opposed to the 2000 year old Qumran scrolls).

Practical Halacha

The Shulchan Aruch decided like Rashi and thus all Sephardic Jews affix their Mezuzas in the vertical way. Also, the Sephardic Sefer Torah is stored in a "box" and always stays in the vertical position, even when being read in public - another ramification of Rashi's opinion that holy items must be stored vertically.

The Rema however mentions Rabeinu Tam's position and introduces a compromise: not vertical nor horizontal but in a diagonal position. That is a classical Jewish solution - in face of two opposing opinions we do like a third one, but jokes aside, this proposition was universally accepted by all Ashkenazi Jews to this day. That explains why the Bima in the Ashkenazi Shuls is slightly bented and also why they store their Torah Scrolls in a slightly diagonal position in the Aron Kodesh - they follow the Rema's solution in every situation.

(Incidentally, the Tur offers another solution, to bend the Mezuza's parchment like an L in order to follow both Rashi and Rabeinu Tam in one go but no one follows this view, most likely because it would damage the Mezuza's Klaf (parchement), a far larger problem.)

The Belz Minhag

But there's an interesting exception to this rule in the Ashkenazi world - the exquisite Minhag (custom) of the Belz Rebbe's family of storing the Sefer Torah horizontally. When I heard about this I was open-mouthed and I did a little research about this.

It turns out that the Belz Shuls and yeshivot around the world store their Torah's in the usual way - vertically. Only the Rebbe's Torah Scroll is stored according to Rabeinu Tam's opinion, horizontally, and this Torah is currently stored in the famous Belz Great Synagogue
(picture in the right). Why?

Reb Meir of Primishlan, a famous Hassidic Rabbi, once said that the first Rebbe of Belz, Reb Shalom Rokeach, had "sparkles of the soul of Rabbeinu Tam" and this had so much impact in the Rebbe that he decided that if he would one day build a Synagogue he would store the Torah according to his "soul-mate", Rabbeinu Tam. He did eventually build a synagogue and stored the Torah horizontally, and this custom was kept by the subsequent Belz Rebbes. If you find this hard to accept, take a look in Rabbeinu Tam's original piece:

וכן אני מורה הלכה למעשה, לעשות נקב במקדח ולתתה [את המזוזה] ברוחב המזוזה, ואם נתנה לאורך המזוזה – פסולה, וכן פרשיות של תפלין לרוחב הבתים, ולא לגובה, כמו מזוזה. וכשאבנה ארון [בבית-כנסת], אם אזכה, ארחיבו לפי העמדת ספר-תורה מיושב, כספר-תורה שהיה מונח בארון
"When I build a Synagogue, if I will merit, I will store the Torah Scroll horizontaly (...)", said Rabennu Tam. So the Belz Rebbe felt compelled to follow Rabeinu Tam's dream when he built his synagogue. However, his Mezuzot and Tefillin were all vertical - only the Sefer Torah, which was specially highlighted in abovementioned passage, was stored according to Rabbeinu Tam.

(By the way, it took him 15 years to build his Synagogue and he was part of the construction crew, highlighting how important this was for him. It also took 15 years to build the new Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, pictured above, and the current Belz Rebbe was also actively involved in the building process, along with his Hassidim)

So as you see, this ancient discussion between Rashi and his grandson is still relevant, 1000 years later!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

can you email me your sources? for the sefer torah standing or diagonal?
zvi.holland (at)