Monday, November 7, 2011

Hagbah: Uplifting the Torah in Deed and Thought

One of the most distinctive and memorable elements of a Jewish public service is the hagbah (or hagba - "lifting/hoisting") of the open Torah scroll and displaying it to the congregation.

The custom has its roots, figuratively, in the TaNaKH (the Hebrew Bible). In the book of Nehemiah, when Ezra the Scribe has the complete Torah publically read for the first time (Nehemiah presents this as the Jews having forgotten the teachings while in exile, but many modern scholars think this was the first time all the five books - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy - were assembled into a single document), Nehemiah reports, "Ezra opened the scroll in the sight of all the people" (8.5).

The simple meaning of this verse is that Ezra read it in front of everyone. But by the 8th Century CE it had take on a more ritualized meaning:

After the Sefer Torah is taken out from the ark it is opened up to three columns and shown to all the men and the women to the right to the left, forward and back. When they see the writing, they bow down and say the verse: Ve-zot Ha-Torah asher sam Moshe lifnei b'nei Yisrael (and this is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel). And also the verse Torat Ha-shem Temimah Meshivat Nafesh(The Torah of God is perfect, it refreshes the soul). [Masekhet Sofrim].

Now notice how customs evolve beyond the written word (in this case, double evolve) - according to Sofrim, the hagbah is done before the reading. Now we do it afterward. Other arguments aside (there are a number of halakhic discussions over the centuries as to why - Jews will leave without hearing the Torah read, yada, yada) but I think it changed because it makes better ritual theater to conclude the reading with this showy act, more climactic, more emotionally satisfying.

So what is the meaning? What is the point? Once again, the mesorah does not take up the question until centuries after the ritual becomes enshrined in practice. A couple of explanations I have read include:

a) Showing everyone what has been read (it is considered important you be able to see the text clearly. One authority expects, ratherly optimistically, that you find the letters with which to spell your name) is a way of peformatively saying "This belongs to you -- no secrets here, no initiation required, look, read for yourself!"

b) It serves as a rally-point for the Jews. It is, as it were, our flag - see, this is what unites us into one people (ala Saadia Gaon). This sense of Torah as banner may be why it has been long standing custom to parade the scroll on Simchat Torah with flags for the children.

c) Lifting the scroll signifies its supremacy. It is something from up there! It is our heirophany (an object touched by, or emanating from, God).

Coming at this rather more indirectly, I also find a teaching in the mechanics. Lifting a sefer Torah is tricky. It has, as they would say, "a high center of gravity." Not too heavy, but awkward. Particularly if you want to lift it from below. Lifitng it is more about balance than about brute effort. But its mostly about leverage. The smart magbiah moves the scroll halfway off the table first, then bends at the knee, and gets the scroll vertical using the table as a fulcrum before he/she lifts.

Which brings me to this passage:

The human body is created from the lowest element, the inanimate. The reason for this is that humanity fulfills the ultimate purpose of creation. This is the elevation of divine sparks that have come down into our order to lift something properly, one needs to place their force below the object. We see this clearly with a lever, which is placed securely under the object one wishes to lift. So too, the material that God used to create man was of the lowest form, so that humanity could properly lift it back to its source (Shne'ur Zalman of Laidy, Torah Ohr 4b).

Lifting the Torah is dramatizing this spiritual task. We are the base (material) that must, through effort, balance, and artful application of our minds and bodies, elevate God's creation, the reading (and performance) of Torah is the fulcrum that makes this possible. The scroll symbolizes the holy potential found in everything, and we join oursleves to God by lifting it up, linking heaven and earth, bridging the mundane to the sublime.