Saturday, April 28, 2012

Was Moses a Dog Trainer?

From The Wall Street Journal comes this ancient tale of operant conditioning:
Rabbi Robert Wolkoff has a recurrent nightmare. A congregant is lifting a holy Torah scroll high up in the air when it starts to tilt toward the ground. 

In the dream, the rabbi lunges forward to catch the scroll, screaming, "Watch out, watch out." Then he wakes up in a cold sweat.

Jewish congregations are struggling with the heavy weight of Torah scrolls as they look for more ways to include women and older men in the sacred act of lifting a Torah. That's prompting some to look to acquire lighter Torahs, WSJ's Lucette Lagnado reports.

It isn't all in his head.

Lifting the Torah scroll during Sabbath services—a ritual known as "Hagbah," which means to lift in Hebrew—is considered a tremendous honor. It can also be a perilous undertaking.

The average Torah scroll, which contains the Five Books of Moses, handwritten by a quill on parchment, can weigh about 25 or 30 pounds. Scrolls are mounted on long wooden poles; they are often hard to handle, and even harder to hoist. Some scrolls, encased in wood and silver, weigh 40 or 50 pounds or more.

Accidents happen, and when they do, custom calls for significant acts of contrition, including fasting. Lots of fasting.

"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.


Of course, Moses did not actually set out the 40-days of fasting rule, but it is pretty old religious law going back at least many hundreds of years, and it probably helps explain why so many Torahs are in such remarkably good condition today despite extreme old age, war, travel, and other hardship.

But, of course, not everyone is comfortable with  a serious punishment hanging over their head, are they?

And so, in this softer world of disposable everything, the suggestion has been made that instead of 40-days of fasting as punishment for dropping the Torah, that money be paid instead -- a tzedakah contribution to a worthy cause.

But will that keep Torahs safe?  Will the person who serves as Torah lifter, or hagbah, fear a fine as much as 40-days of fasting?   Willcash be deterrent enough?

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