There was a crack and a gasp and then a murmur that traveled in a wave back through the rows of seats at Temple Beth Am’s Library Minyan on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.
The Torah scroll that had just been placed back in the ark had toppled headfirst to the ground, landing on and cracking one of its top spindles before someone could snatch the scroll and stand it upright again.
The Torah scroll is the most revered physical object in Jewish life, and it is never supposed to touch the ground.
“It is considered a communal trauma when a Torah scroll falls to the ground,” Rabbi Adam Kligfeld wrote in an e-mail to the entire congregation after the holiday. “To see the object to which we ascribe the most holiness, and the symbol that is so central to Jewish life and tradition, fall to the ground is not a small thing.”
Kligfeld, senior rabbi at the 1,000-member Conservative synagogue on the Westside, was himself at an overflow service across the street at the time of the mishap, but frazzled worshippers brought him the news after services, looking for guidance on how to respond.
Traditionally, anyone who sees a Torah scroll fall engages in 40 days of sunrise-to-sunset fasting, corresponding to the days Moses was on Mount Sinai to receive the Torah.
Even though most of the 250 people in the room didn’t actually see the scroll fall, and though the parchment itself reportedly did not hit the floor, and even though the fasting is a custom, but not a law, and giving tzedakah (charity) is also considered a tikkun (remedy), Kligfeld wrote that he wanted his congregation to engage in a meaningful, communal sacrifice.
“It is a recognition that, even in an accidental situation, there is a tear in the fabric of the community that must be fixed,” he wrote.
Kligfeld asked congregants each to sign up for one day of fasting on 40 designated days between Sukkot and Chanukah.
Within less than an hour of the e-mail going out, Temple Beth Am members — both those who were in the Library Minyan at the time and those who were not even in the building — filled all 40 days, and not long after, most days, including Thanksgiving, had multiple fasters.
“Rabbi Kligfeld tapped into not so much a sense of shock, but an urge and a need on the part of the kahal [community] to commit ourselves body and soul into a project in a deeper way than one would merely by donating money,” said Scott Taryle, the lay head of the Library Minyan, which does not have a rabbi.
The scroll already has been repaired and was safely in the ark for Yom Kippur services.
Why all the fuss about something that is, after all, simply a physical object?
“The Torah is who we are and everything we are as a people. Without the Torah, we aren’t anything,” said Judith Weinstock, a minyan member who had a clear view of the mishap from her front-row seat.
The Torah is the closest we come to tangible holiness, said Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood. Missaghieh said she is still traumatized by her memory of an incident some years ago, when a Torah scroll fell to the ground as she was handing it off to a parent during services for third- to sixth-graders.
“Jews don’t make objects holy because God doesn’t have a body or a face, and God is beyond physical description. The only thing that can compare to the holiness of God is the Torah. And when it is dropped, it’s like the breath comes out of you. I’m not saying the Torah is God, but it our closest representation of holiness that is physical on earth,” Missaghieh said.
Kligfeld said he considered the question of whether revering a physical object so strongly bordered on idol worship, but he recognized that the power of certain symbols is undeniable — as much in the visceral reaction to a flag raised in pride, or a flag trampled or burned, as for the Torah, he said.
The handling of a Torah is prescripted by Jewish law and custom. The Torah is cloaked in fine cloth, and adorned in silver. When the ark housing it is opened, or when the Torah is carried through the congregation, all stand and reach out a hand or a clothing fringe to place a kiss on the mantle. The parchment may not be touched by hands, and of course, extra care is taken when the Torah is lifted.
In fact, the overhead lift during services — hagbah — is when those up on the bimah are most vigilant about preventing a fall.
But at the Library Minyan, the Torah fell at an unexpected moment.
Rabbi Mitch Malkus, head of school for Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy, had just handed the Torah to the gabbai, who helps run services, to place it back in the ark alongside another Torah. But as the second Torah was being placed in, the first one toppled out, and the gabbai reached out to break the fall. Malkus said the back panel of the ark had been replaced with a white panel for the High Holy Days — the Torahs, too, were cloaked in all white — and it is possible that the diagonal on which the scroll rests was a bit different than usual.
The accident was over in a split second, and with everyone standing and the bimah raised only a few steps, only a few people saw it happen. But Malkus said services were not the same afterward.
“It happened, and then the energy went out of the room. It just deflated,” he said.
Malkus, who was coordinating services that day, explained to the congregants what had happened and that Kligfeld would address the situation after the holiday.
Kligfeld said that after consulting texts and teachers, he crafted a response he hoped would be a powerful bonding opportunity for the community, and would offer a prolonged time during which to contemplate the significance of the Torah. After the 40 days of fasting, he plans to convene a congregational gathering to study the laws of Sefer Torah.
“A time in the congregation where the Torah became vulnerable will end up being a time when the Torah becomes central,” Kligfeld said.