Fasting is a venerable minhag (custom) instituted by Posekim (Jewish legal authorities) to repair the indignity done to a Torah scroll that touches or hits the floor.
Many Jews pray they will NEVER drop a Torah or see one fall, given that the atonement (a 40 day fast) sounds like a death sentence. In actuality, they were not fully informed. The 40 day fast is not as mishuganah (crazy) as it sounds. Fasting is only required during daylight hours and does not need to be done 40 days in a row. The Posekim also offered an alternative, knowing that some witnesses would be unable to fast. Everyone who witnessed the event could give Tzedakah (a charitable contribution) in lieu of fasting.
Even if just one side of a Sefer Torah touched the ground, without physical damage, tzedakah would be given, since the Sefer Torah was cosmically disgraced in spirit by any part of it touching the ground.
A Tikkun תיקון is an act of correction or repair in Judaism. In Kabbalah, tikkun is the spiritual repair of damage to the Olamot (the Four Worlds), as well as the individual soul. Since everyone present witnessed the dishonoring, everyone is required to repair the event on a cosmic level.
Fasting is an act of atonement primarily associated with Yom Kippur. The practice of fasting for 40 days when a Torah takes a tumble, is a minhag symbolizing the 40 days and 40 nights Moses/Moshe fasted on Mt Sinai, while receiving the Torah from GD. In our contemporary times, I found the true story below, to be replete with meaningful messages:
Temple Beth Israel in N.C., faced this dilemma on Yom Kippur, at Kol Nidre, no less, when the Sifrei Torah toppled from the Aron Hakodesh, hitting the floor of the bimah. Witnesses jumped up in a collective moment of dismay. “It sent tingles up your spine,” a past president of the board, told the Forward. Many congregations have faced similar dilemmas when a Torah fell out of the ark or was dropped. Beth Israel addressed the question of what to do together. Should everyone fast? Give tzedakah? Perform a community service? Study Torah, with a focus on its holiness?
Everyone present had an emotional response. It was a visceral moment, which jarred everyone’s senses and disrupted their energy flow. As feelings poured out, a powerful healing process ensued, that engaged the community in meaningful dialogue and deep moments of reflection. They offered a series of spiritual learning events as part of their healing process. The ritual committee presented the options to fast for one of 40 days, give tzedakah, or perform a Tikkun Olam inspired community service. Tzedakah could be used to repair the Sifrei Torah and increase safety measures for the Sifrei Torah.
Paraphrased from the Forward and Washington Jewish Week
The upshot of a Torah taking a tumble is the dialogue it inspires. The community has to decide together what steps to take to promote healing and peace of mind.
Thoughts / Discussion Prompts:
1. Can you think of an instance when group atonement for a distressing event would have been beneficial to you or a loved one?
2. What if the event was due to unforeseen circumstances? What if it was unintentional, but caused by carelessness and poor judgement?
I saw a deeper message in this tradition that applies to people as well, not just a Holy object. The Torah tells us we too are holy, created in the image of GD.
Symbolically, I also saw great benefit in the act of collective healing and repair after witnessing a distressing event, even if only person was affected by it.
One step taken by Temple Beth Israel was to “increase safety measures” for the Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls). That spoke to me on a deeper level of the measures we all need to take to create safe spaces for everyone.
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Additional Food for thought:
Some Posekim believed that you should take part in the healing if you see a Sefer Torah on the floor, even though you did not see it fall. They also contemplated a scenario where a witness, who was blind, could not see it fall, but was aware of the affect. (Tzitz Eliezer 5:1:5).
Answers a reader’s question on whether the 40 day fast for the dropping of a Torah Scroll is a real custom or a bubbemeise (tall tale/‘old wives tale’).