Our Friend, Torah

by Alyx Bernstein

A SVARA-nik sits on a chair with a bright yellow pillow and a blanket over their legs. They are leaning over an open Talmud in their lap, which they are annotating with a pen and pointing to. They are reading intently from the text.

This learning is dedicated in memory of our trans siblings. May their righteous memory be for a blessing. 

Last year, I was given a remarkable gift. A member of my community was giving away their book collection and, in the process, I managed to get a complete set of the Babylonian Talmud. To say I was excited would be an understatement. I had not imagined I would own the entire Vilna Shas (the traditional printing of the Talmud we use at SVARA) at the age of 21. Until this point, I had acquired a masechet here and there from classes I’d taken (all from different publishers). I had a complete pocket set of mishnayot, and even an entire Yerushalmi set I’d snagged on sale, but not the entire Vilna Bavli Shas—the holy grail of a Talmud scholar’s collection. I was ecstatic. 

But when they finally arrived, I was somewhat disappointed. The covers were worn, faded, and taped together. I knew that I could never really use them in a class because they were too delicate to be lugged around in a backpack. And yet, when I opened them up, saw the familiar columns of text, smelled that indescribable smell that only really old books have, touched the old leather bindings, I realized, so what? So what I can’t use them? They’re still mine. But as I read from their pages, I realized that this too was a shortsighted view of the text, of the Torah, and of our tradition. 

The 613th mitzvah–the final command of the Torah–is to write a Torah scroll. It is a mitzvah to simply edit a Torah scroll, even just one letter, so that it is kosher, complete, and ready to use. In fact, Rabbi Yehoshua bar Abba, in the name of Rav Giddel in the name of Rav, says:

.כתבו, מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיבלו מהר סיני 

One who writes [a Torah], the verse elevates/merits them as though they had received it themself at Mount Sinai (Menachot 30a). 

This is pretty incredible. According to Rabbi Yehoshuah bar Abba, (re)writing the Torah is essentially an act of revelation in and of itself. But Rabbi Yehoshuah bar Abba adds (actually before this statement) a rather enigmatic line:

.הלוקח ס”ת מן השוק כחוטף מצוה מן השוק

One who purchases (לקח) a Torah scroll from the marketplace (shuk) is like one who snatches (חטף) a mitzvah from the shuk (Menachot 30a).

חטף–to snatch (Jastrow p450)–does not have the same connotations as theft, per se, but it’s often not a nice word, either. In Targum Yonatan (a translation of the Tanakh written in Aramaic), the translator uses חָטְפִין (they snatched) in place of חָמְס֣וּ (they did violence to), to describe how the First Temple priesthood violated God’s teachings (Ezekiel 22:26). A sudden death is referred to as being “death by snatching” (חֲטוּפָה, Moed Katan 28a). In one case, the Talmud does actually compare an act of snatching to an act of theft (Bava Batra 33b). However, in other contexts, חטף refers more to the speed of the action–Shmuel tells Rav Yehudah to “חֲטוֹף וֶאֱכוֹל” (snatch and eat), the original fast food (Eruvin 54a). 

Given this context, it’s not clear whether R’ Yehoshuah bar Abba is condemning the purchase of a Sefer Torah, or criticizing the practice as a lesser way of completing the mitzvah, or emphasizing the haste with which one should perform this mitzvah. Rashi (our friend, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) takes the second position: they have done a mitzvah, but writing a sefer torah is more meritorious. The Tur (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher) takes the third position–it is a mitzvah one should do with haste (Tur Yoreh Deah 270). But the Rema (Rabbi Moshe Isserles) rules that simply buying a sefer torah without participating in the process of writing it does not fulfill the mitzvah at all (Rema on Shulhan Arukh Yoreh Deah 270).

According to the Rema, the mitzvah is not to simply acquire or have the sefer torah, but to participate in its creation. In fact, the major halakhic authors and decisors agree that even one who inherits a sefer torah must still write a new one. The Rosh (Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel, the father of the Tur) expands this mitzvah: according to him, it is a mitzvah to write not only sifrei torah, but to write chumashim, mishnayot, gemarot, and commentaries–the tools we use to study Torah in the bet midrash (Rosh on Menachot, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 1). But again, the Rosh makes no mention of purchasing. The mitzvah is to produce and reproduce, to create and recreate Torah for yourself. In other words, Torah is not a commodity we buy, nor a physical thing we own.

And yet, if you listen to people talk about learning in many Jewish spaces, we often use metaphors that commodify the Torah: We possess knowledge. We conquer challenging texts. Worse, we sometimes treat the text like a slave: we master it. Anna Sfard, an education professor at the University of Haifa, called these “acquisition” metaphors of learning (Sfard, “On Two Metaphors for Learning”). In this metaphor, one that Sfard claims goes back millennia, knowledge–in our case Torah–is yet another commodity.

Sfard argues that there are still aspects of the acquisition metaphor that are useful, mostly in conceptualizing learning as a transfer of knowledge from one person to another. The rabbis often lean into this aspect of acquisition, especially in the relationship between generations of students and teachers, the citational culture of the Talmud, and the idea of gneivat da’at/plagiarism. Jewish tradition often refers to Torah and tradition as an “inheritance,” which uses metaphors of property, but in fact expresses that the Torah is for the entire Jewish community, not one individual. 

Pointing out the more extreme examples of the acquisition metaphors matter, because they betray how we think about the text. When we reduce it to a commodity, the text becomes yet another thing we buy. That kind of financial relationship becomes all the more intense when we literally have to “buy” learning. If all we see in purchasing books or classes about Torah is what we will get out of them personally, we lose sight of what they are truly for.

But Sfard also identified another metaphor, gaining vogue in education in the 1980s and 90s, which she called a “participation metaphor.” The participation metaphor embeds learning into a group of learners. Our learning is not something we own, but rather a communal project with everyone, beginner and expert, shared together. The learner becomes a participant–or, as we like to call them at SVARA–a player.

And we can see this type of learning playing out in the Talmud. Chevruta, the bet midrash, the kallah gathering of the rabbis in Bavel (Babylon)–these are all communal learning projects. These are places where people learn together, rather than acquiring knowledge on their own. And we see this idea reflected in the mitzvah of writing a sefer torah–the goal of this mitzvah is not to simply buy or own a sefer torah for ourselves, but to produce Torah, to participate in the tradition of scribing and learning that goes back millennia. 

We see this kind of learning embedded in SVARA’s method, which emphasizes participation in the process of learning text rather than proving we know the text, as we have to do in other learning spaces. At SVARA, ownership becomes not a metaphor for personal dominance, but a form of reclamation. At SVARA, we articulate that this thing that has been held by a select few is, in actuality, a part of our tradition, our history, our text. When I truly, authentically own the text, I become a part of the we–the community of learners, interpreters, and players. I write the scroll for myself and for others. Owning the text is not about what books we have on our shelf. It’s about being a part of a community. 

And so the Talmud and the Rema teach us that Torah is not a commodity. It is all of ours to share and produce. And in a sense, Torah is a part of our learning community. She shares her knowledge with us, pushes us to grow, lets us grow close to her words, her text, her sweetness. Torah becomes someone we can get to know, grow intimate with, be wrapped in, be inspired by, grow in relation with. In this spirit, I want to propose that we all try to talk about Torah and our learning not as something we own, but as someone we love. Not as a commodity, but as a friend. When we shift our language towards metaphors of relationship, partnership, and participation, I believe our Torah grows all the more rich for it.

With thanks to my friend and teacher Avigayil Halpern for sharing the idea that led to this drash. 

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