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September 16, 2014 / 21 Elul, 5774
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The Voice of a Child


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Children should be seen and not heard. It was a maxim that I heard many times throughout my childhood and which caused me a fair amount of frustration. When, I often wondered, would I cross that invisible line and move out of the periphery to which I was assigned, into the arena of adulthood and be given the chance to express an opinion that people would listen to? Life ran its course, I became an adult, was granted the right to express my opinion and found out that very few people listen to me. Interestingly, in contrast to the past, popular psychology today has touted the need to build a child’s self-confidence so successfully that children are both seen and heard quite clearly. Despite this, I wonder how many communities would make a decision based on the perception of a child. Judaism does.

Last Shabbos the clear, strong voice of the baal korei (reader) rang through the attentive synagogue as the weekly section of the Torah was read out loud. Suddenly it came to a standstill. There was a moment of utter silence and then the sudden swish of numerous prayer shawls, the thud of footsteps and the mutter of deep voices. Peeping through the lattice that separates the women’s section from the men’s, I watched the crowd of men thicken around the table on which the open Torah scroll lay.

Apparently, there was a problem with the Torah scroll. A kosher Torah scroll is treated with great respect. For example, it is not permitted to leave it unattended; a person is required to stand in its honor and may not turn his back to it. A non-kosher Torah scroll is not awarded the same level of respect. If even one letter of a Torah scroll is problematic, the entire scroll is invalidated until the problem is fixed. Most authorities maintain that a non-kosher scroll cannot be used to read the weekly portion. Since the reading must take place from a written text, reading from a non-kosher scroll is akin to reciting by heart making the reading invalid and the blessings recited over it said in vain and the Torah reading must be repeated.

Taking the above into account, every Torah scroll that is written is scrutinized for accuracy. Today, computers help out. A megiah (checker) scans the scroll into a computer running a program that checks the letters and their sequence. The computer then points out possible problems: sometimes a letter hasn’t been written correctly. Some Hebrew letters are very similar: yud, vav and nun sofit are all shaped similarly to a number one, but vary in length. Other letters are written by combining one or more two letters: for example, an aleph, which looks something like an X, is actually made up of three letters: a slanted vav, and two yuds, one above the vav and one below. Sometimes a letter is actually missing and the computer picks this up too. The scroll is then checked by the megiah himself. It seems very unlikely that any problem with the letters could creep in after all that, but, sometimes the computer and the megiah do miss problems and sometimes the problems develop later. The ink used to write a Torah scroll is usually a mixture of tannic acid, which is derived from gallnuts formed on the leaves of oak trees by wasps, copper sulphate to give it a strong black color, and gum arabic to make the glue slightly elastic so that the ink doesn’t crack when the scroll is rolled. Sometimes the letters can become smudged or cracked—after all, the scroll is being used regularly.

In this case, my son informed me, one of the congregants, a Torah scholar of standing, had spotted a letter vav that he claimed was too long—so long that it could be mistaken for a nun. That being the case, the reading was suspended while the men debated whether the letter really did pose a problem or not. In a synagogue in which number of Torah scholars rivals the number of stars in the sky on a moonless night, there was no lack of differing opinions. I watched fascinated as varying opinions of men who spent their days and night toiling in the sea of Torah were whispered urgently. Finally, the decision was made: since the mistake was debatable, a child would be asked to identify the questionable letter.

Incredibly, in cases where it is unclear what a letter actually looks like, a child of three or four years old, who has just begun to read and so has a basic knowledge of the shape and form of Hebrew letters, but is not advanced enough to figure out on his own what the defective letter ought to be, is called upon to be judge. The young child is given the responsibility to make a decision that will not only affect an entire congregation, but will change the status of a Torah scroll turning it from a kosher scroll to an invalidated scroll that will need to be fixed.

Shmuli, the eleven-year-old son of a friend of mine, was dispatched to hurriedly bring his four-year-old younger brother, Elchonon, to the synagogue. Within minutes he was back, walking with the purposeful stride of someone who has an important mission to accomplish, bearing his brother high in his arms. The gabbai (sexton) pushed a chair close to the table on which the scroll lay. The men huddled around him and I lost sight of his blond curls. All I could see where his tiny feet clad only in white socks, so quickly had he left his house. Elchonon peered into the holy letters of the Torah scroll as the baal korei, showed him a few different letters and asked him to name them. Initially hesitant, his correct answers fueled his confidence and he began calling out the name of the letters with aplomb. The baal korei then showed him specifically a range of different vavs and nuns to make sure that he was able to differentiate between the two similar letters whose sole difference was a few millimeters in length. Then the baal korei pointed to the problematic vav which some men claimed looked like a nun.

“Vav”, Elchonon proclaimed. The tension eased. The men drew back from the table. As the feeling of sweet relief washed over them, many began to smile. Elchonon’s father accepted a few slaps on the shoulder and, of course, Elchonon’s grandfather was the proudest. A smile of pride lit up his face as he bent to caress the soft blond curls. And I smiled too: because the voice of a child has a place in Judaism.

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