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Writing Sefarim – Do it if You Can!

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Parsha Halacha – Parshat Nitzavim
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The Torah portion of VaYelech contains the last of the 613 Commandments—that of writing a Torah scroll (see Rambam, Laws of Sefer Torah 7:1), as the verse in this portion says, “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel. Place it into their mouths, in order that this song[1] will be for Me as a witness for the Children of Israel.” (Deut. 31:19)
Moshe fulfilled this mitzvah before he passed away, as the pasuk says (ibid 31:22 and 24), ”Moshe wrote this song on that day and taught it to the children of Israel… Moshe finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion.”
According to the Rosh (Laws of Sefer Torah, Siman 1), this mitzvah can be fulfilled nowadays by purchasing holy books (sefarim) from which to learn. (Some say that the Rosh means that, in addition to a Torah scroll one should also purchase sefarim. See Responsa Minchat Elazar 2:54.)
This article will focus on the importance of writing and publishing sefarim (holy books).
The Peleh Yo’etz (Entry “Doveiv” in Ya’alzu Chassidim,[2] entry 530) makes the following points about the importance of writing (and publishing) one’s Torah insights:
·        It Was Revealed to You for the Sake of Others
“One to whom G-d reveals Torah wisdom and doesn’t write it down (and disseminate it to the public as a book) is stealing from the One who revealed it to him (i.e., G-d). The reason G-d revealed that wisdom to him is so that he disclose it to others by writing it down, as the verse says, ‘G-d reveals His secrets to those that fear Him (Tehillim 25:16).’ And ‘Let your wellsprings flow to the outside (Mishlei 5:14).’ In fact Rabbi Elazar of Worms (1176–1238) wrote that such a person will have to answer to G-d in judgment for this failing.” (See Sefer Chassidim 530)
·        Achieves Atonement
“When a person writes his learning in a book, this atones for him in the way that a sacrifice atoned in the times of the Holy Temple.”
·        Don’t Assume People Know It
“One may say, why should I write my insights down? If they are true, someone must have already written them. And if they are mistaken, why should I reveal my foolishness to the public? This is not correct. Every person who, with Hashem’s help, has a Torah insight which appears to be correct in his eyes, is obligated to record (and publicize) it. It is possible that no one ever had [or recorded] this particular insight.”
·        Don’t Be Too Humble
“Even one who considers himself a lowly person should do this as sometimes ‘a diamond can be found in a poor man’s basket.’[3] One should do his best and write whatever he is able.”
·        Compilations or Pilpul
“It is especially good to write compilations about laws, rules of the Torah, and Halacha, or inspirational teachings that bring life (mussar). These are very helpful as they can bring these lessons to thousands of people. Even if one writes deep complex novella (pilpul), it is very likely that there will be (at least) one thought that will be learned and appreciated by many.”
·        Merit in the Grave
“Publishing one’s Torah insights (or compilations) will bring the author merit in the next world after his passing as whenever his teachings are repeated, ‘his lips murmur in the grave’ (i.e., his soul’s positive impact will be felt in the world).”

Getting Approbations (Haskamot)

It has become customary in many circles to seek an approbation (haskama in singular, haskamot in plural)) from a Torah sage before publishing a Torah book. These approbations are then printed as an introduction to the book. The Chatam Sofer (C.M. 41 and vol. 6, siman 61) explains the reason for this custom thusly:
Before the printing press was invented, there was no need for people to seek approbations since authors would write books and only the books that were deemed by the Rabbis and public to be worthwhile were copied by the copyists. No one would bother copying (by hand) a book that was full of errors or misinterpretations. After the invention of the printing press, however, anyone was able to print a book en masse. It may be full of errors that the author will himself regret in his old age. Or it may be written with an improper ulterior motive. Some people publish their own writings and claim that it was written by an early sage.[4] Worse, many books were written by heretical Jews in beautiful Hebrew prose, and they were full of heretical beliefs, and so countless numbers of Jews were led astray. It would be proper therefore to buy a book only if it has a letter of approbation in it from a sage of Israel. People who fear sin should follow this path. Despite this, it is not mandatory to receive an approbation since in previous generations it was not done.
Rabbi Menashe Klein echoes this ruling in his Mishnah Halachot (vol. 2:53 and 74 and vol. 3:78).
He writes that the Chatam Sofer was not happy that Rabbi Mordechai Banet (his contemporary) refused to give approbations to sefarim. The Chatam Sofer wrote to him that this could lead to people printing their sefarim without approbations which could, in turn, cause many problems (as explained above). Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer would personally read the sefarim given to him for his approbation. It was even customary for leading sages of Israel to seek approbations from other sages so that “regular” authors follow their example and do the same. On the other hand, some leading sages would not seek approbations since they were already giving approbations to others and were obviously considered to be sages among the Jewish people. Rabbi Klein writes that if he had the power, he would recommend that no one buy any sefer unless it has the approbation of three leading rabbis, each from a different country. Rabbis should be appointed to the task of giving such approbations. This system will function as an internal censor for Torah writings.

Nowadays

I heard from Rabbi Dovid Bleich that nowadays when the lines between observant Jewry and other denominations are clearly drawn it is no longer necessary to seek an approbation for a Torah book. (That being said, one should have a Torah expert peruse the book to ensure there are no errors.)
In fact, the Peleh Yo’etz recommends (entry Ga’avah) that one not seek approbations for a sefer they have written. He considers this to be arrogant as if one is saying “honor me” since the approbations mostly include praises of the author. (Obviously, when there are other concerns as explained above, it is proper to seek approbations).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe

The Lubavitcher Rebbe strongly encouraged people to write and publish new Torah insights. Here are some of the remarks he made about this matter:
·        Bringing to Light
In the holy tongue (Lashon Kodesh) publishing is called hotza’ah la’ohr,bringing to light. This is an appropriate term when describing the printing of a Torah volume as the printing reveals the light of the Torah to the world. Although the Torah is always light, there are many levels of light, e.g., a candle, the moon, and the sun. So, the publishing of a Torah volume greatly expands the reach of the light of that Torah (Torah Menachem 5742 vol. 2 pg. 2237).
·        Obligation to Have New Insights
According to the Arizal, every Jew is obligated to reveal new insights in all aspects of the Torah, both Halacha and Aggadah (Midrashic teachings) as well as both in the revealed and esoteric levels of the Torah. As such, everyone should work on revealing these insights to the best of his ability. One should publish them even if one is not absolutely certain as to their authenticity. (See the end of Tractate Brachot in the Jerusalem Talmud where it says ‘All Torah banter is good.”) In addition, even if one is publishing these insights to increase one’s honor, he should do so because this kind of learning will eventually lead to learning for G-d’s sake (lishma) (Torat Menachem 5748, vol. 2., Pg. 327).
·        Increases Torah Learning
When a volume of new Torah insights is published, Torah learning is increased as others who see the volume will have a natural jealousy to do the same. This kind of jealousy is positive, for it spurs people to achieve greater heights in their Torah learning (Bava Batra 21a and ibid).
·        To Elevate a Soul
On the occasion of the passing of Rabbi Moshe Hecht from New Haven, Connecticut (in 1992), the Rebbe encouraged family members and students of his to publish a volume of Torah insights and inspiration as an everlasting memory for his soul (ibid 5752, vol. 2, pg. 232).
·        Beautiful Printing
One should try to have sefarim published with nice paper and nice typeset as one should always try to beautify one’s mitzvot. In addition, it is best to use block letters (standard Hebrew letters) rather than Rashi script (ibid, pg. 203 and 5749 vol. 3:101).

May we all merit to gain and share new Torah insights!

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom Umevorach and a Gemar Chatimah Tovah!

[1] See Rashi who writes that the “song” is referring to the Torah portion of Ha’azinu. The Vilna Gaon points out (in Aderet Eliyahu, Parshat Ha’azinu, Ofan HaSheini) that the song of Ha’azinu has 613 words to allude to all of the mitzvot of the Torah. (The Be’er Yitzchak on the Aderet Eliyahu points out that it actually contains 614 words the extra one symbolizing the Torah in general.) Thus, Rashi may also mean the entire Torah that is alluded to in the song of Ha’azinu.
[2] This sefer, by Rabbi Eliezer Papu, is an explanation on the Sefer Chassidim
[3] Based on Zohar vol. 3:157b
[4] It seems that the Chatam Sofer was referring to the Responsa Besamim Rosh which was published by Rabbi Saul Berlin, who was associated with the so called enlightenment movememt, in the city of Berlin in 1793. He claimed in was authored by the Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, of 14th Century Germany and Spain). In fact, it seems that Saul Berlin had authored it himself and had inserted various heretical ideas which he hoped to spread among the Jewish people. See Chatam Sofer Y.D. 326 who disputes the “ruling” of the Besamim Rosh that one may mourn for a relative who committed suicide.
May we all be sealed for a good sweet year!

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