How should someone in the modern world fulfill the mitzvah for every Jew to write his own Torah scroll? If it's figurative or outdated, what's the modern-day equivalent? If one fulfills it literally, by commissioning or writing a Torah, can the Torah be donated or loaned to a synagogue, or must one retain ownership of one's Torah?
This is an interesting question. I do not think that I would call this mitzvah figurative or outdated, though there are not many people who do not have the opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah, as writing a Torah involves years of practice and training to become a sofer (scribe). Assuming one had the skills and/or desire to become a sofer, I imagine that he or she could fulfill this mitzvah quite literally by writing a Torah. As that is not the case for most of us, the modern day equivalent would be to commission the writing of a Torah by a scribe.
Frequently today, when synagogues commission a Torah, it is used as a wonderful way to build community and to offer a tremendous educational opportunity for its members. It often involves having the scribe help individuals from the community actually fill in one of the Hebrew letters in the scroll. It is probably debatable whether each individual that participates would be considered to have fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah in its entirety, though one might be able to argue that the Sofer is acting as a Shaliach Mitzvah (emissary doing a mitzvah on behalf of someone else) in this case.
If a Torah was written or commissioned by an individual, he or she certainly could donate or loan it to a synagogue. Whether the Torah is being used by the individual for study or used by the broader community for study and ritual chanting, does not seem relevant to fulfilling the obligation.
The Rabbis of the Talmud (B. Sanhedrin 21b) derive the commandment (mitzvah) to write a Torah scroll by way of an interpretation of Deuteronomy 31:19. It is entirely possible to fulfill this mitzvah in its literal form today. One can commission a scribe (sofer) to act as one’s agent in the writing of a sefer torah, and that is considered as though one has personally written the scroll. This can be done (and often is done) by communities or groups of people who contract with a sofer to write a single Torah scroll on behalf of the entire group. And halakhic authorities generally hold that doing so satisfies the requirements of the mitzvah.
Still, you wonder whether this mitzvah might be outdated today. In this, you echo a statement by an eminent scholar of Jewish law, R. Asher ben Yechiel, who lived in Germany and Spain some seven centuries ago. He argued that it is no longer obligatory for every Jew to write a Torah scroll, since we no longer use the scroll for purposes of study. Instead, “it is a positive commandment for every Jew...to write chumashim and texts of the Mishnah and Talmud and their commentaries, in order that he and his sons might study them.” (A chumash was originally a written text containing one of the five books of the Torah. Today, that term designates the printed volumes of the Torah and its commentaries that we use for study and for following the reading of the Torah in synagogue.)
Now the matter is not simple. (Few things in Jewish life are simple!) Rabbinical scholars to this day are in dispute over whether we accept R. Asher’s position as authoritative and, if we do, just what it precisely means. One thing we can say, though, is that R. Asher understood this mitzvah in accordance with its purpose. The purpose of the commandment, he tells us, is to facilitate in a palpable and material way the study of Torah, and when the act itself no longer serves that purpose, the nature of the requirement changes. Instead of writing Torah scrolls, which we use only to fulfill the ritual Torah reading, we write books we use to fulfill the mitzvah of talmud torah, the study of Torah.
Let’s bring the discussion to our own time. Today, there is no need for anyone to physically write a text of the Talmud for purposes of study. The Talmud, along with much of our sacred literature, is widely available and easily disseminated in printed and electronic form. I think that if R. Asher were alive today, he might tell us that the best way to facilitate the study of Torah in a palpable and material way is to support the work of the schools and the teachers who dedicate themselves to the fulfillment of that sacred task. How precisely we do this is another question… there are many people and institutions engaged in the work of talmud torah, and they accomplish their mission in many different ways. The point is that, even if you do not personally write or commission the writing of a Torah scroll, you can fulfill the mitzvah to do so by providing material support for the work that the scroll symbolizes.
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