The 613th Commandment

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(By Nancy Pryzant Picus Director of Jewish Learning The Shlenker School)

Our tradition teaches that we are the heirs to the six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Torah, the last of which is stated in Deuteronomy 31:19:  “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths…”  Centuries later, the great scholar Maimonides interpreted this verse to mean that “every single Jew” was commanded to write a Torah scroll for himself (in his time, this meant every single Jewish male).”

Indeed, at one time, individuals might have owned Torah scrolls.  Because the book in its present form was not common until the time of the Talmud, these scrolls would have been the texts that the earliest Jews used to study Torah.  Therefore, the commandment to write one’s own Torah scroll logically could have extended to reading, studying, and fulfilling the rest of the commandment to “teach it to the people of Israel.”

As modern American Jews, very few of us have either the skills or the means to perform this particular mitzvah, and so we rely upon a newer tradition whereby a synagogue commissions a Torah scroll, and members of the community fulfill the mitzvah by “assisting” the Sofer as he fills in a letter.  Congregation Beth Israel’s “Be a Blessing” is designed for each of us, adults as well as children, to write part of our People’s Torah and thereby fulfil the 613th mitzvah.

As a teacher, I know that learning comes in many layers and many modalities.  By virtue of being a part of the Shlenker and Beth Israel community, I am privileged to participate in the communal mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll.  But I also know that just as each letter has the power to affect that Torah scroll, the simple act of placing my own individual hand on the Sofer’s feather pen will deepen my connection to both the community and the Torah it so reveres.

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