The power of ancient prayers; question… Why do we display three columns when we do hagbah (lift the Torah) at the end of the Torah service?

Dear Friends,

One year into the pandemic and there is still so much uncertainty about what our future will hold.

How will our lives change once a majority of us are vaccinated? How will the new variants – from England, South Africa, to Brazil – affect our efforts?

When will normal life come back? Because, as we say in modern Hebrew, “zeh lo normali” “this is not normal.”

In our tradition, we have always turned to our liturgy and holy texts to find inspiration and hope.

I was recently talking to my father about our ancient prayers and texts and why we find them to be moving.

He said a prayer or holy scripture, such as one of our uplifting psalms, is a mirror of the experience of the author.

An inspired man or woman felt Divinely uplifted, inspired, or comforted and soothed and sought to capture that journey in words.

As the words of psalm 126 that expresses the millennia old yearning for Zion:
“A song of ascents. When the LORD restores the fortunes of Zion —we see it as in a dream — our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them!”

Or psalm 23 that holds the experience of faith and fearlessness:
“A psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me to water in places of repose; He renews my life; He guides me in right paths as befits His name. Though I walk through a valley of deepest darkness, I fear no harm, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff—they comfort me. “

When we read those words, it takes us into the experience and gifts us its consciousness, blessing and truth.

On some level, this is the purpose of all of our sacred texts.
Reb Zalman Schechter-Shalomi, the founder of the Renewal movement spoke about the words of our prayerbook as freeze-dried coffee.

It is a blessing, a hot cup of coffee frozen thousands of years ago. If we approach that place, when we struggle with the realities of our world, all that we have to bring is the hot water (a sincere heart) and enjoy a sip.

Two Shabbatot ago, our president, Juli Geldner, asked me why do we display three columns when we do hagbah (lift the Torah) at the end of the Torah service?

First, I am reminded of a Talmudic passage that describes the seven questions Jews are asked in Heaven. One of them is: did you measure and quantify? Perhaps part of being Jewish itself is being (overly) analytical. We strive to be precise in how we fulfill all of our traditions.

It has become part of our anxiety to follow the ways of our forefathers and foremothers and implement God’s will.

Why three columns?

There is a joke of a certain Mr. Schwartz who is asked to do hagbah one week but the scroll is very heavy and he totters back and forth as all of the congregants utter a collective gasp (this is in fact quite common – sifrei Torah are heavy! I remember that the scroll at my rabbinical school was prohibitively heavy for many students). Mr. Schwartz, feeling embarrassed, worked out for six months, watched as many YouTube videos as he could, and waits to be called up again. Finally, the gabbai approaches him and hands him an honor card. Feeling confident, he steps up to do hagbah. He not only displays the three columns but doubles the amount. He even throws the Torah up, spins it, and catches it again. He walks off proudly. The gabbai (individual in charge of handing our honors) comes over and says, “Very nice, but I gave you the 4th aliyah!

The three columns represent a measure of enough text that everyone can see it and fulfill the mitzvah of seeing the Torah scroll. There is an additional preference to have a seam in the middle. This is solely for practical reasons, to help keep the parchment tight. According to many authorities, three is in fact the perfect number. If it is more than three, like Mr. Schwartz in the story, than the focus stops being the Torah itself and instead is on the feat of the magbiah (the individual holding up the Torah).

Three columns represents not too little and not too much – a good way to approach all our life that may even help us enter into Heaven.

As the snow melts and we collectively hope for the joy of an early Spring, I wish you a peaceful and restful Shabbat,

Rabbi Adir Glick