by Rav Gil Student, Director of RAA Halacha Commission
As ”stay at home” restrictions begin to loosen in certain places, and within weeks will probably begin to loosen in the New York area also, we need to reimagine what shul will look like in the interim stages before we fully return to normal. The OU, Agudath Israel of America and several poskim have published on the subject, each in their own way. I would like to explore possible alternatives in reading the Torah during a time when we must still wear masks and people living in different homes must stay more than six feet apart (some recommend eight or ten feet).
I. How Many People?
In normal times, we need multiple people to stand at the Torah reading. The Talmud Yerushalmi (Megillah 4:1) says that it is forbidden to have one person alone read the Torah for the community. Since the Torah was given at Mount Sinai through an intermediary (Moshe; Devarim 5:5), it should also be read in public with an intermediary. In Talmudic times, there was an Aramaic translator who served as intermediary between the reader and the congregation. If the reader translates himself, or if there is no translator like the current common custom, then a gabbai must stand with the reader.
Maseches Soferim (14:14) is at once stricter and more lenient than the Yerushalmi. It says that it is improper for the reader to stand alone. Rather he should be accompanied by two people, so together they are three like the Patriarchs. According to this, we need three people at the Torah but it is only preferable, not fully required. Rav Mordechai Yaffe (Levush, Orach Chaim 141:4) bridges these two approaches by suggesting that the three who stand with the Torah represent God, Moshe (the intermediary) and the Jews at Mount Sinai.
The Mishnah Berurah (141:16) says that the requirement for three people at the Torah is an ancient custom. However, common practice today is to include a fourth to help the reader and/correct him.
At a time of social distancing, the requirement for four people at the Torah seems quite challenging because they must remain at a distance of many feet (in addition to wearing masks). If the Torah reader has three male adults living with him, they can all stand together. Otherwise, since this seems like a custom and not a law integral to the Torah reading, it must be set aside in order to read the Torah safely.
II. Reading and Blessing
In normal times, three people are called to the Torah on Monday, Thursday and Shabbos afternoon, and seven people are called to the Torah on Shabbos morning. Whoever is called to the Torah stand nexts to the reader and reads quietly from the Torah scroll. How can this be done while maintaining social distancing?
Rav Moshe Sternbuch, in a responsum on Porch Minyanim dated 8 Nissan 5780 (section 4), argues that someone called to the Torah does not have to read from the scroll. Because the common practice is to call someone blind to the Torah, clearly the person called does not need to read from the scroll. Therefore, argues Rav Sternbuch, the person called to the Torah can recite the blessing from a significant distance, even from another porch. According to Rav Sternbuch, normal decisions of whom to call to the Torah can be followed without the person called going near the Torah.
Rav Asher Weiss (Minchas Asher, Corona, 2nd edition, no. 26) disagrees with Rav Sternbuch. He distinguishes between being called to the Torah and reading from it. If you are called to the Torah, you must go to it even if you will not read from it at all. Therefore, we cannot call someone to the Torah who will remain at a distance.
According to Rav Weiss and those who agree with him, how do we read the Torah during a time of social distancing? Rav Weiss suggests that the Torah reader receive each aliyah and recite the blessings before and after each reading. Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 143:5) says that, in earlier times when the person called to the Torah had to serve as the reader, if only one person in the synagogue knew how to read then he would receive every aliyah. Similarly, in our unusual circumstance of social distancing, the Torah reader should receive each aliyah. The Agudah guidance also suggests this practice in Phase 1.
Rav Yitzchak Yosef, in a responsum dated 28 Nissan 5780, suggests that seven men each prepare to read their aliyah from the Torah. This removes the necessity for a reader, so each person called to the Torah can be there alone. If that is too hard, then six people should prepare three verses and be called to the Torah to read those verses. Then the seventh person reads the remainder until the end of that week’s Torah portion. The Agudah guidance also suggests that, in Phase 2, each person called to the Torah read his own portion. It adds that each person should hold the Torah with a physical barrier (e.g. a tallis) or the Torah should be sanitized in between each aliyah.
Rav Yosef says that if that is too hard also, then the congregation should remove two Torah scrolls, one for the reader and one for each person called to the Torah. In this way, the reader can read from a scroll and the person called to the Torah can also read from a scroll, switching off with the next person, so at all times only one person is with a Torah scroll. If even this is not possible, then the reader should receive each aliyah.
III. Carrying and Kissing the Torah
The OU guidance and Agudah guidance raise another issue — too many people touching the Torah scroll. I believe they are concerned with the transfer of germs through handling of a Torah scroll by different people. One suggestion is for the Torah reader to perform every function from beginning to end. He opens the ark, removes the Torah scroll, takes it straight to the table, receives every aliyah, covers the scroll (gelilah) while it is on the table, lifts the scroll and return it to the ark — without anyone else approaching the scrolls nor attempting to kiss it. This is one suggestion in the OU guidance. The Agudah guidance adds that another individual help the Torah reader with gelilah.
I did not see mention of the Torah being handled by members of a subsequent prayer service. Presumably the Torah scroll should be sanitized before its next use and/or the Torah reader should wear gloves.
The Torah is a tree of life. We must make sure that reading it transmits only good things by taking proper precautions, guided by halachic and medical authorities.
(All of the responsa discussed above can be found at KolCorona.com/halachot)