What do you do with an unusable Torah?

June 15, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the Rabbi.

Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Why is it that in Australia and some other Anglo-Jewish communities that some Jewish ministers are called “Reverend” and others are called “Rabbi”?

A. The traditional title is of course “rabbi”, though the role of the rabbi is not identical with that of the modern clergyman or minister.

Rabbis were always concerned for human beings and their welfare, but the rabbinic role was that of sage, scholar, teacher and judge.

The title “Reverend” (strictly speaking it is not a noun but an adjective, and those who are particular will not say, for instance, “Reverend Cohen” but “The Reverend Isaac Cohen”) came into use in 19th century Anglo-Jewry to denote a religious functionary who lacked full rabbinic qualifications.

When Jews’ College was founded in London in 1855 by Chief Rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, the curriculum was broadly based without the intensity of Talmudic studies customary in yeshivot. What resulted was summed up by the Jewish Chronicle many years later in the words, “The Anglo-Jewish minister was a peculiarly British phenomenon who flourished in the nineteenth century. The congregational rabbi is an entirely different figure.”

Some ministers were competent Talmudists; most were not. The emphasis was not on traditional learning but on practical skills – liturgical duties; preaching in passable English; pastoral work and presiding at life-cycle events; teaching children the rudiments of Hebrew and Jewish practice; and in some places synagogal administration: some men had to be both minister and secretary of their congregations.

Since the title that went with the position was “The Reverend…”, the British Chief Rabbis began to be called “The Very Reverend…”. Israel magazine wrote in 1899 that this produced a unique anomaly – if all the ministers were “The Reverend…”, this made the Chief Rabbi a general without an army.

A few ministers went across to the continent to gain deeper rabbinic knowledge, but returned still unable to use the title “Rabbi” until eventually there was “a storm in the hierarchical chair,” as one of them, Hermann Gollancz, put it. Even the principal of Jews’ College, Adolph Buechler, frankly called the Anglo-Jewish minister “the half-baked product of unsuccessful training”.

The last half-century has seen a sea-change, and today students take it for granted that they should aim for full rabbinic ordination. This is of course no denigration of the non-rabbinical ministers, but today they are few and far between.


Q. Did Moses just write the Torah in Hebrew or did he or someone else translate it into other languages?

A. Rabbinic tradition says that he authorised translations of those sections which applied to the whole world and not just to the Jewish people.

One could ask why, if this was the case, the sages of a later generation decreed a fast on the day when the Greek translation – the Septuagint – was made (the story of the translation as narrated in the Letter of Aristeas says that 72 Jewish elders, six from each tribe of Israel, produced the work).

One answer is that the Greek translation was of the entire Torah, not just those parts that have universal application.

Further, the motivation was different. Moses wanted the world to acknowledge God, and believed that in order to facilitate this, the nations needed to know God’s Word. Ptolemy Philadelphus (c. 285-247 BCE) of Egypt, who commissioned the Septuagint, was not concerned to spread belief in the Creator but to promote the assimilation of Jews into Hellenistic culture.

The rabbis who ordained the fast were seriously concerned that the Greek translation would supersede the Torah; Moses’ concern was to make the translation an aid to Torah and not its replacement.

The rabbis also worried that the Greek translation was not completely accurate and could mislead people, in the same way in which in our day people often limit themselves to the English translation and miss the nuances of the Hebrew original.

Very often we see the truth of the Italian saying, “A translator is a traitor”.


Q. What is done with an unusable Torah scroll?

A. Some shules keep such scrolls in the Ark and carry them around on Simchat Torah.

It is often not practicable to try to repair them as even if a scribe rewrites the faded or missing letters it is a long and laborious process with a risk that more letters will flake off.

The only solution is generally to bury the unusable scroll in an earthenware vessel (Sh. Ar., Hil. Bet HaK’nesset 154:5). The vessel is used in order to delay the decomposition of the scroll.

Rav Moshe Feinstein points out a difference between this situation and that of a human body, where delay in decomposition is not permissible (Ig’rot Moshe YD III, 143:411). The burial of the human remains allows “kapparah”, the atonement of the soul.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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