This week’s double parsha contains what most Rishonim felt to be the last Mitzvah in the Torah- writing of the Torah itself. (The Ramban includes an additional mitzvah in next week’s parsha- Birkat Hatorah).
This mitzvah has been treated extensively on many different levels that reflect many interesting aspects of religious practice and Jewish history. (See for instance the comments of the Rosh who applies the mitzvah to any Torah literature and not only the actual Sefer Torah itself).
I would like to focus on the unique formulation of the mitzvah in the Rambam. The Rambam lists the mitzvah in his Sefer Hamitzvot in # 18 (positive):
“The Eighteenth mitzvah is that every man should have his own Sefer Torah”
However when the Rambam is writing his Mishne Torah he describes the mitzvah differently.
“[The mitzvah is] to write the Sefer Torah” (See the Rambam’s list in his introduction to Mishneh Torah).
The difference is in the focus of the mitzvah. Are we commanded to actually write the Torah with our own hands or is simply owning a Sefer sufficient. This type of discrepancy is fairly common in the multiple lists of the Rambam and various suggestions have been made in order to explain his methodology. In this case I think we can apply a principle used by Rav Soloveichik who pointed out that the Rambam in certain places is describing the general idea behind a mitzvah where, in others, he is setting up the technical details of how to fulfill the mitzvah. Accordingly we could say that the overall purpose of the mitzvah is to have a Sefer Torah, presumably to learn from, while the method (or more precisely the preferred method) is to write one.
This would seem to be clear from the next line in the Sefer Hamitzvoth:
“If he writes it himself this is very praiseworthy and recommended and it is as if he received it at Har Sinai. If he is unable to write it on his own he must purchase one or ask someone to write one for him”.
What is the relative advantage to writing the Sefer on your own? Why does the Rambam describe it in such a flowery manner?
The simple explanation is that any mitzvah that one does on their own, as opposed to by proxy has a deeper effect on the individual. We are meant to not simply mechanically perform the acts required but rather the mitzvoth are to effect a real change in our personalities. While on a technical level we may get away with having others do things for us we may be missing the ultimate purpose.
This is a psychological explanation that applies not only to the fulfillment of mitzvoth but can be seen in our every day lives in a multitude of instances. (Chazal even go so far as to tell us that a person would rather have one measure of his own produce rather nine of his neighbor’s).
This is also the simple reading of the Gemara in Kidushin that states that “Mitzvah bo yoter mibshlucho”- It is a greater mitzvah for him than for his agent.
I would like to suggest a deeper meaning to the idea presented above. The previous idea draws a quantitative distinction between self fulfillment and fulfillment by others. I can satisfy the requirements by a shaliach but in order to get the most out of the mitzvah I should do it on my own.
We have cases that the difference is qualitative in nature. The Rambam (Hilchot Shabbat ch. 30) describes the mitzvah of “Kavod Shabbat”. This includes all preparations for Shabbat. If one simply walks into a ready-made Shabbat he will surely fulfill “Oneg Shabbat” as he enjoys his gefilte fish, but he has no part of “Kavod Shabbat” as he did nothing to make (or purchase) the fish. In having someone else do his mitzvah of Kavod Shabbat he misses not only a quantitative edge but has actually missed the mitzvah entirely.
If we review the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah I think that we may have a qualitative difference between writing and purchasing. The added act of writing is not simply a more involved manner of acquiring the Sefer. The Rambam describes it “as if he received it at Sinai”.
Our relationship to a Sefer Torah is not meant to be the same as to any reference library. Any contact with a Sefer Torah is meant to reenact the giving of the Torah. Many of the customs related to the reading of the Torah are based on this idea. The Rambam in his description of the once-in-seven-year reading of Hakehel describes it as a renewing the covenant of Sinai.
When someone sits down and puts quill to parchment and meticulously prints each and every letter of the Torah, he imitates the etching of the luchot. The Torah describes the act of writing or chiseling the tablets. This is not simply in order to produce the final result of a text to read but rather the process of writing is a special an independent manifestation of our connection to Hakadosh Baruch Hu.
Seeing as though I am not a qualified Sofer I ought to get to work preparing the house for Shabbat at least.