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October 31, 2022

Dressing the Torah

When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70, it might have seemed the Jewish people were lost. Without that central institution, where would they worship? How would they worship? But Jewish worship was not limited to what occurred at the temple. There was already worship at local synagogues, where great emphasis was placed on the Torah. In fact, Nehemiah 8 tells the story of another time when the Jewish people were without a temple. There, too, the emphasis is placed on the Torah when Ezra stands before an assembly of Jews, opens the sacred scrolls, and reads aloud. So when the Second Temple was destroyed, and the Jews found themselves again without a temple, it was natural that the study of the Torah should take a central place in Jewish worship. The episode from Nehemiah is re-enacted twice each week in synagogues around the world when the Torah scroll is brought out and read aloud. The Jews’ reverence for the Torah is shown in the way it is treated and handled. Like in the story of Ezra, the Torah is lifted so everyone in the congregation can see it. Next, a second person approaches to assist with “dressing the Torah.” This involves adorning it with ritual objects. The scroll is “dressed” in a belt, a velvet cover, a breastplate, and a “crown.” When reading the Torah, touching the manuscript is forbidden. A special pointer is used by the reader instead. The elaborate ritual and careful treatment reflect a deep sense of reverence and honor for the Torah scroll. That honor is apparent in a rabbinic saying, "We think we are lifting the Torah, but actually, the Torah is lifting us."

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