Simchat Torah at Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville, Washington began as planned. Celebrating the conclusion of the previous year’s cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of the new cycle, we read aloud the concluding verses of Deuteronomy and the opening verses of Genesis. Then we began singing and dancing our way through the seven traditional hakafot (processions) around the sanctuary. The music steadily quickened, along with the jingling sounds of the Torah’s rimonim (top ornaments), as we lovingly passed the scroll from congregant to congregant.
It happened during the fourth hakafah.
Jim*, a lumbering 6'3", 50-something congregant, was moving across the floor with his arms around the Torah when he tripped over four-year-old Samantha* and hit the ground with a loud jingly thud. The music stopped; the congregation fell silent; the rimonim skittered along the floor.
By the time I made my way over to Jim, a crowd had gathered. Samantha was unhurt but terrified—she thought that Jim was dead, and that she’d killed him. Jim was out cold, his head resting in his wife’s lap. Somebody called 911. Seeing that others were attending to Jim, I lifted the Torah from the floor, replaced the fallen rimonim, and handed the scroll to another congregant.
After a few minutes Jim felt well enough to stand up and make his way out of the sanctuary.
Somehow, even though it felt awkward, we resumed our dancing. Yes, we all felt relieved—Samantha was unhurt, Jim seemed okay, and the Torah was undamaged. But still, there was this lingering sense that something important was somehow “off.”
For the seventh hakafah, we sang “Hava Nagilah”—“Come let us rejoice!” But in doing so we all felt kind of guilty.
By the time we left the sanctuary, Jim had recovered, nursing a few bruises and a lingering sense of embarrassment. All of us, I realized, were shaken up. Our “ritual selves” had experienced a real trauma after witnessing and hearing our Torah scroll crash to the floor. Judaism considers the Torah God’s greatest gift to the Jewish people; thus it is our duty to safeguard and treat the scroll with the utmost care. And we’re especially not supposed to drop it! We were left with an indescribable feeling of unease.
We needed to do something. But what?
Traditionally, Jewish communities fast when a Torah is dropped. Such fasts, however, are atonement for sin, and to my mind what happened was an accident, not a sin. Nobody had done anything mean or unjust, no one was injured, and our congregation was still plugging away at the sacred tasks of Jewish life. Besides, in Judaism fasts are for purification, but here in the Pacific Northwest, talk of impurity tends to focus on skies and streams, not on Jewish communities dropping scrolls.
And, when it comes right down to it, I thought, what we had dropped was a thing—an object made of wood and ink and parchment. The Torah’s truth, wisdom, and holiness remained uncompromised. So was dropping it really all that bad?
I resolved to research the matter.
To my surprise, I discovered that Jewish law provides no hard-and-fast rules concerning what Jewish communities should do after dropping a Torah. The local rabbi decides on the response.
That’s just great, I thought. Here I look to Jewish law for guidance, and the only guidance I get says that there are no rules, and the decision is up to me!
On closer examination, however, I discovered that there are a number of minhagim (traditions) regarding what to do after such an incident. They include:
- Fasting for 40 days—daylight hours only (rare)
- 24-hour fasts for three days after the incident—Monday, Thursday, Monday (the days of the week, besides Shabbat, on which Torah is read; Jewish law discourages fasting on Shabbat).
- Fasting for the remainder of the day on which the Torah was dropped
- Making a donation to the synagogue
- Added hours of Torah study
In various Jewish communities, these prescriptions have applied to the person who dropped the Torah, to everyone who saw it fall, or to the entire community.
These responses didn’t help much, either. I’d already concluded that a fast didn’t seem appropriate, and I especially didn’t want to add to Jim’s embarrassment. He felt horrible enough already.
So I emailed a plea for advice to my rabbinic colleagues. And as the responses rolled in, I began to realize that my initial dismissal of Judaism’s traditional remedies—atonement and purification—was quite mistaken.
Initially, I was reluctant to view our dropping of the Torah as a sin. But after receiving the views of colleagues, I began to reconsider it. Isn’t our contemporary understanding of sin rooted in a Christian rather than a Jewish understanding of the concept? In Judaism, sin isn’t a state of being, but rather something we do—a misdeed. The Hebrew word for sin, cheyt, doesn’t refer to an inherent element of the human condition, but rather to what an archer does when she doesn’t make a bulls-eye—it means being off the mark, off track, in need of some adjusting.
In this sense, we did commit a “sin” at our Simchat Torah celebration. We made a mistake—we dropped the Torah. It was unintentional, an accident, and something we would strive to prevent in the future. Still, our community needed to take responsibility for it.
And yes, we, the community, dropped the Torah. Obviously, it fell to the floor from Jim’s arms, but we all could have—and should have—been watching out for him. We’re all responsible for what happens in our community. In such a situation, pointing fingers at any single individual would have been un-holy and un-Jewish.
On Yom Kippur we confess for misdeeds collectively as a community: “Al cheyt shechatanu l’fanecha, for the sin which we have committed before You….” After a Torah falls to the floor, it is also our collective responsibility to make things right again.
Initially I had also rejected the idea that our community needed purification after dropping the Torah. However, our modern view of impurity, like our view of sin, differs from that of Jewish tradition. We tend to think of impure things as being somehow “dirty” or bad. But in Judaism, the term tum’ah, impurity, describes religious defilement rather than moral or hygienic dirtiness. Thus, when a person comes into contact with a dead body, or has a mysterious skin disease, or realizes only after the fact that the “mystery food” wasn’t chicken and is forbidden, Jewish law does not consider him or her bad or dirty, but in need of ritual closure before resuming normal routines.
Yes, something was “off” in our congregation after we dropped the Torah. We were feeling a real sense of tum’ah (ritual impurity)—the need for ritual purification to make things right again.
Over the next few days, several congregants also wondered how we should respond. Like me, they found little comfort in Judaism’s traditional responses. Meanwhile, congregants who witnessed the incident greeted me with knowing and beseeching expressions: “I couldn’t believe it!” some said. “Wasn’t that horrible?” “Should we be fasting?” This event wasn’t going to go away on its own.
About a week after the incident, I sent an email to the congregation sharing my learning and reflections. The best way to atone for the dropping of our Torah, I suggested, would be to initiate a three-part program based on the practice of hagbah—lifting the Torah scroll in the synagogue to show its text to the community.
The first part of our “Hagbah: Lifting the Torah to Great Heights” initiative would be a one-shot, low-pressure fund drive to purchase some much-needed new covers and ornaments for our Torah scroll (Samantha’s family and Jim joined me in making the initial gift).
Second, on the following Shavuot (the holiday celebrating God’s gift of Torah to our people), we would hold a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot” (an intensive Torah study session which is a traditional way of celebrating this holiday) to explore as a community the unique role the Torah plays in our lives.
And, for the third part, we reaffirmed our commitment to sing and dance with our Torah scroll in the synagogue on Simchat Torah next year. After all, we reasoned, what better way could there be for our community to heal?
In short, the Hagbah initiative is our way of beautifying the Torah scroll, studying its words, and celebrating its presence in our lives. Lifting the Torah in these three ways, we believe, will serve both as an act of atonement, helping us grow as we take responsibility for our mistake; and as an act of purification, a ritual transformation to remove our feelings of unease. Most importantly, it genuinely expresses some of our most cherished Jewish values.
The congregation has responded to the initiative with great relief and appreciation. Jim is as active at temple as always; these days he gives a wry smile and introduces himself as “the guy who dropped the Torah.” Samantha is back to her sparkly four-year-old self, having apparently forgotten about the whole thing. We’re healing well.
Next Simchat Torah, both Jim and Samantha will hold the scroll during the first hakafah, and our entire congregation will “spot” them every step of the way. Now we know that it is up to all of us, individually and as a community, to lift up the Torah and hold it high.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman is spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami in Woodinville, Washington and of Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge Island, Washington.
* Names were changed to preserve anonymity.