Why Read Torah from a Scroll?

Helping rookie Torah readers is one of the great joys of my work. Most new readers approach leyning (Torah reading) with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, and find a true sense of satisfaction from their achievement.

Of course, a great deal of the challenge of leyning is that—unlike the haftarah—the Torah must be read from a kosher scroll that includes neither vowels nor musical cantillation marks (trope). This means that the reader must not only be able to read the text fluently, but must also memorize elements of the reading.

Occasionally a student will ask me why we must read Torah from a scroll. While this practice is based in halakhah, there are also a number of non-galactic reasons that I find particularly compelling.

As many of you know, creating a Torah scroll is a painstaking process. All of the tools and materials used by the scribe are from natural materials and prescribed by ancient practice. Thus, each scroll is at once unique (since it is handwritten with organic materials), yet tied to a tradition of scribal arts that has remained nearly unchanged for two thousand years. This is particularly striking since we live in an age of ever-changing mass-production and digital reproduction. In an overwhelmingly “virtual” world, a Torah is the genuine article!

Of course, the incredible care that goes into producing a Torah scroll is a reflection of our reverence for its contents. Whether or not we believe that the text of Torah was literally written by the “finger of God,” we recognize it as one of the earliest and most powerful records of the human encounter with the Divine. As Jews we long to share in our ancestors’ experience—to be raised up from the mundane routine of our daily lives and to be part of something much greater than ourselves. Our Torah reading ritual allows us to do just that—a person who leyns effectively becomes the voice of Torah for the congregation.

All of this may leave us with the question, “If the Torah is so important, why read from an unmarked scroll when it most certainly increases the chance of making a mistake in the text?” A historical reason for this is that the unmarked text predates the advent of vowel and trope markings, but I like to tell my students that Torah reading is like an “extreme sport”—it is like haftarah reading without the net and harness. Torah reading asks us to take a risk, to go beyond what we know of ourselves and what we believe we can do. It is not about being perfect but about stepping out of our comfort zone to meet the text.

In leyning as in our lives, the text is our guide, but we also must draw on our experience and talent—we must add our own voice. The risk may be intimidating at times, but it is what is required of us if we are to reach our most radiant potential as Jews.