By Harriet P. Gross
A few years back, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” was the hot read among Jewish book clubs. The story: A patriarchal mountain of an Egyptian is uprooted and forced to emigrate when a new government strips the Jews of their former status and dignity.
The author: Lucette Lagnado, a youngster when the change came, told this tale of her own father. He never adjusted to American life; she grew up to be an author of widely read books and a distinguished Wall Street Journal investigative reporter. In that role, she opens out segments of Jewish life not just for those who wouldn’t know them otherwise, but to us Jews who still and always have much to learn.
Case in point: her recent WSJ article about Hagbah — the ritual lifting of a Torah after the reading from it is complete.
“Hagbah is considered a tremendous honor,” she says. “It can also be a perilous undertaking. The average Torah scroll can weigh about 25 or 30 pounds. Accidents happen … ”
In explaining what happens after an accident, Lagnado cites Jonathan Sarna, renowned professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis, who warns that when someone drops a Torah, there is not only enormous shame, but enormous fasting: 40 days, from sunrise to sunset. And not only the butter-fingered one suffers; everyone in the congregation who is a witness must also carry out the prodigious punishment.
This potential reality is the reason that excludes men with bad backs from the honor. And even in the most egalitarian congregations, few women are called upon for Hagbah.
One who has done it, a physical trainer who lifts weights and also teaches Pilates, says that when she first picked up a scroll, “I was shaking. My own child told me, ‘Please! I don’t want to fast for 40 days!’” She watches men hold scrolls high over their heads and concludes, “It’s sheer faith that lets them get it up there.”
The possibility of disaster exists even absent Hagbah. Lagnado talked to one rabbi who said that while he was leading High Holiday services in a synagogue near Chicago, a Torah fell out when the ark was opened, and several dozen congregants fasted for 40 days after that. And during the Simchat Torah Hakafot in a Massachusetts shul, a congregant tripped and dropped the scroll he was dancing with. This was a Modern Orthodox congregation, so its rabbi decreed a different mode of atonement: a one-day communal fast plus much prayer, accompanied by generous charitable giving.
But ritual lifting is the primary concern, mostly because the many old and much beloved European Torahs are very heavy — and the Sephardic ones, with their silver-embellished wooden cases, are even heavier. Lighter scrolls are available today, but as Lagnado notes, in the cost department, “Less is often more. The lighter or smaller the Torah, the heftier the price tag.”
The usual Torah measures 22 inches tall. One about half that size — just 12 inches — needs much smaller Hebrew characters, which will require scribing with extreme care, which means slower writing, which will take much longer. That can add about $10,000 to the price of a conventional scroll, whose cost begins in the $35,000 to $40,000 range and may climb into the stratosphere after that.
There is one scribe who says he uses lighter parchment and can produce 12-1/2 inch Torahs, weighing only five pounds, for about $30,000 each. His primary customer? The U.S. military, which purchases them for Jewish chaplains.
At the extreme other end is a 4-foot, 58-pound Moroccan scroll regularly lifted by members of the Manhattan Sephardic shul, and its rabbi never worries: “We are a young congregation, “ he says. “We have a bunch of guys who came out of the Israeli army.”
But this provides small comfort for the New Jersey rabbi who suffers from a recurring dream: a congregant lifts a Torah “high up in the air, when it starts to tilt toward the ground. The rabbi lunges forward to catch the scroll, screaming ‘Watch out! Watch out!’ before he wakes up in a cold sweat.”
I was unhappy with Lagnado’s second book, “The Arrogant Years: An Egyptian Family in Exile” (she termed this a memoir, as if the first were not) because of the black brush with which she tarred all Jewish old-age homes after being highly dissatisfied with the New York one in which her mother spent her final days. But I’ve decided to forgive her after this “uplifting” Hagbah story.