During the Sabbath services in the synagogue, one ritual in which congregants participate is the lifting of the Torah scroll high up in the air in order to display the text to the assembled congregation. The ritual is known as the Hagbahah, a Hebrew word which means “to lift.”
The purpose of lifting the Torah before the congregation is so that the people may see the Torah scroll and testify: “This is the Law which Moses set before the children of Israel” (Deut. 4:44).
According to Jewish tradition, this custom is based on Nehemiah 8:5, the occasion when Ezra, before he read from the Law, raised the scroll so that everyone could see the writing: “And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people.”
In addition, when the scroll is lifted, it is customary for people in the synagogue to stretch out their right hand pointing towards the Torah, following the tradition that took place at the time Ezra opened the scroll: “and with their hands uplifted all the people said, Amen, Amen!” (Neh. 8:6).
The ritual of the lifting of the Torah scroll differs within the Jewish community. Among the Sephardic Jews, the lifting of the Torah precedes the Torah reading, while among the Ashkenazic Jews it follows the Torah reading.
The only problem with the ritual is that most Torah scrolls are heavy, weighing as much as 60 pounds. This means that when lifting a Torah scroll, congregants must be careful not to drop it, because when that happens, Jewish custom calls for acts of contrition.
In an interesting article dealing with this Jewish ritual, Lucette Lagnado describes the ritual of lifting the Torah and what happens when the scroll is accidently dropped by the person lifting it.
“If you drop the Torah, the implications are dire—the shame is enormous—and traditionally one needed to fast for 40 days,” says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The offender has plenty of company in hunger, as anyone who witnesses the Torah tumble must also refrain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.
The solution? Some synagogues are opting for lighter scrolls, but they are very expensive. Some scrolls can cost as much as $100,000.
The lifting of the Torah during the Sabbath services in the synagogue is evidence of the high regard our Jewish brothers and sisters have for the Word of God.
Readers who want to know more about the Hagbahah, the lifting the Torah, are encouraged to read Lagnado’s article.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary