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Bar and bat mitzvah planning

Cantor banter: Are you Torah-tough?

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

I found out that I have to carry the Torah around the sanctuary during my bar mitzvah. It’s so heavy and I’m not that strong. My little brother keeps telling me that I’m going to drop it and make everyone fast for 40 days. Do I have to hold the Torah?

—Do Shake Weights make you buff?

Dear Shake Weights,

I have an idea. Why don’t you drop your little brother instead?

Just joking!

(Awkward silence)

Don’t worry, you are not alone. Lots of kids and adults worry about carrying that large and heavy Torah scroll. And sometimes they have to walk and go up and down stairs while carrying it, which can be a real doozy.

Contrary to popular belief, the Torah will not be as heavy as you think. Torah scrolls come in all sizes, and it’s pretty common for a temple to use its smallest one when there’s a bar or bat mitzvah. It makes it a lot easier for everyone.

Plus, I’m certain that you’ll have the opportunity to practice holding it as part of your lessons. Personally, I encourage bat mitzvah students to bring in the fancy-shmancy shoes they’ll be wearing during their ceremony so they can get used to walking around with the Torah in tow.

But think about it — if we cantors and rabbis really worried about people dropping the Torah, would we actually let anyone hold it? If it was common, the scroll would never leave the ark…unless it was being held by certified Torah-handlers who are specially trained by ninjas in the middle of the Negev.

It would be extremely, utterly, and exceedingly unlikely (did I use enough adverbs there?) for you to drop a Torah scroll. I know that you, your friends, and many adults worry about it, but have you ever seen it happen before? Have you even heard of it happening? And you’re cousin’s teacher’s dog-walker doesn’t count.

Now, let’s get back to your little brother and the fasting-for-40-days urban legend. Can you imagine fasting for 40 days? I can’t even fathom skipping lunch. Forty days? Fuggetaboutit!

The origin of this “law” comes from a text that is roughly a hundred or so years old, directing all those who witnessed a Torah scroll fall to the ground to fast. Yet, the fast would only occur during daylight hours, which, unless you dropped it in Alaska, means you get to eat at some point every day. Furthermore, giving tzedakah, or charity, could be substituted for fasting. So, in the very rare chance that you do drop it, here’s a helpful link.

In any case, none of this has the force of Jewish law. It’s up to the local rabbi to decide how to handle such a situation. And since it basically never happens, we don’t spend much time worrying about it. I think the fact that people are concerned with it is a good thing, though. It reflects how much we value and respect the physical Torah scroll and the words that are contained inside.

And if you still don’t feel any better, maybe this will console you: in a few years your brother will have a bar mitzvah and you have my permission to drive him crazy.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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