A collective shudder ran through rows of worshipers at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville, N.C., during the recent Kol Nidre service. Congregants watched in horror as two Torahs toppled out of the ark and hit the bimah with a loud clattering of silver ornaments. Another Torah was caught as it fell.
Within moments, those seated — regulars and visitors alike — were on their feet at the tragic event. Silent and stunned, they knew that Torah scrolls are revered holy objects that should neither touch the ground nor suffer physical harm.
“It sent tingles up your spine,” Alan Silverman, a former synagogue president who had been holding a Torah minutes earlier as part of the Kol Nidre prayer, told the Forward.
Conservative Beth Israel joins synagogues around the country that have responded to similar issues in the past. Just last year a Torah fell out of the ark during Rosh Hashanah, at a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles.
What happens when a Torah falls? Most people think that everyone has to fast. But does that mean just the witnesses or the whole community? And what if, as in this case, two Torahs fall? And when should this fast take place, since this happened during a fast?
These are the questions that Beth Israel is asking itself.
The practice of fasting, though not mentioned in the Talmud, corresponds to the days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. Fasting shows respect for a sacred Jewish object and helps atone for what may be seen as the disgrace or degradation of the Torah,
Some synagogues have also chosen to give tzedakah, or charity, perform community service or study the laws of respecting the Torah, according to online reports.
Beth Israel will do some of the same. But the incident at the start of the Yom Kippur fast — sundown on the holiest day of the Jewish year — seems to be leading the congregation to larger discussions about the importance of the Torah. And what could be more appropriate during the holiday season?
“We’ve turned the whole thing into a wakeup call and a teachable moment,” said Perry Dror, a Beth Israel vice president and one of the former presidents holding a Torah before the spill.
“It was very shocking,” Dror told the Forward during a telephone interview. He explained that the gabbaim, congregational leaders, had returned the Torahs to the ark after the Kol Nidre prayer and several minutes later, one unsteady scroll shifted and knocked down the others. It was clear those assembled “felt very deeply” about what had happened, he said.
In addition to the emotional and spiritual trauma, there’s physical damage to be repaired: The silver crown of one of the scrolls is bent and the wooden handle of another cracked.
Neither Torah was used during the first days of Sukkot, Silverman told the Forward by phone. But with more holidays approaching, the synagogue leadership has been scrambling since Yom Kippur to repair the damaged Torahs before Simchat Torah, when they will all be needed, as well as to decide the proper response for the congregation.
“The litany of thoughtful emails that have circulated these past several days, addressing many different facets of our relationship to the Torah, indicate that an unfortunate occurrence has opened up a tremendous and rich opportunity for us to discuss, explore, debate and learn about our individual and collective feelings toward Torah,” Silverman said in an email to the Beth Israel leadership which he shared with the Forward.
“If we limit ourselves to a few hours of discussion and several days of fasting, I truly believe we are doing ourselves a tremendous disservice,” said Silverman, a Jewish teacher who leads an ad-hoc committee discussing the synagogue’s educational response. “I believe we have an opportunity to engage in a meaningful and long-term process that, if done with thoughtfulness, can encourage deep personal reflection on the meaning and significance of the Torah.”
So far, the committee is planning a series of educational and spiritual events surrounding the Torah, beginning in a few weeks and continuing through Hanukkah, Silverman said.
The synagogue’s ritual committee also encourages anyone who witnessed the event to choose from the following options: fasting one of 40 days or giving tzedakah as well as, or in conjunction with, participating in a charitable activity in the spirit of tikkun olam, repairing the world. The tzedakah could be used to repair and improve the security of the Torahs.
Contact Roni Robbins at firstname.lastname@example.org