A Sefer Torah That Fell
‘As Though Bitten by a Snake‘
Our Gemara recounts that Rabbi Elazar once sat on a bed and remembered that a Sefer Torah was previously on it. He slid off and sat on the ground and seemed as if he had been bitten by a snake.
A Fast for the Disregard of Holy Objects
The Chida emphasizes that the custom to fast when tefillin or a Sefer Torah falls (Chayyim Sha’al 12) is not mentioned in the Talmud or Rishonim. “However,” he writes, “it is the custom to fast even if one’s tefillin fell, and certainly for a fallen Sefer Torah.”
In his opinion, a person should fast because he didn’t properly care for the tefillin or Sefer Torah. Thus, only the person who was holding the holy item must fast, not those who witnessed it falling; they did nothing wrong. However, rabbanim sometimes rule that the entire congregation should fast since the fast highlights the obligation to be meticulous in honoring a Sefer Torah.
The Difference Between Tefillin And A Sefer Torah
Responsa Yad Eliezer (126) argues that we fast because a holy item fell, which is a sign from Heaven calling for introspection and repentance. When a person drops his tefillin, only he fasts, but if a Sefer Torah falls, the whole congregation must fast since a Sefer Torah belongs to the community and its fall is a sign for everyone (see Moznayim Lemishpat 5 by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, zt”l).
Chazon Nachum (86) adds that the fast for a Sefer Torah that fell is an expression of the pain one should feel for its desecration.
Many poskim, though, write that the congregation does not have to fast. We also do not consider this practice to have the halachic status of a custom since it is an infrequent event and how can we say that the custom is one way or another about a rare event? (Zecher Yehosef, Orach Chayim 31).
Some poskim rule (see Responsa Maharshag, Yoreh De’ah 53; Responsa Riva 27) that those present when a Sefer Torah falls should “redeem” their fast with charity (see Tzitz Eliezer 5:1:3).