(photo credit: Israel Weiss http://artframe.co.il)
During the Second World War, particularly as communities realized the magnitude
of the tragedy that had befallen the Jewish People, groups were established to
assist refugees and survivors. One such group was a society in America called
Agudat Ha’admorim, the Association of Hassidic Masters. The president of this
organization was Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman of Boyan (1890-1971), a scion
of the regal Ruzhin dynasty. Va’ad Ha’ezra, the Committee for Assistance, was
one of the branches of this Agudat Ha’admorim. The goal of this arm was to
One the initiatives of Va’ad Ha’ezra was to write a
Torah scroll in memory of the six million Jews who had been murdered in the
The idea was publicized in the summer of 1946 in the rabbinic
journal Hapardes that was published in New York and Chicago. The journal carried
an invitation to the public to purchase a letter in the Torah scroll in memory
of their beloved relatives who had perished.
Proceeds from the sale of
the letters went to helping widows and orphans and the invitation stated that
anyone who purchased a letter in the Torah scroll would be doing a double mitzva
– taking part in the writing of a Torah and supporting the surviving
After the summer, a grand event was held in the Lower East Side
of New York to commence the writing of the scroll. One document that survived
from the preparations for this event is a letter sent by the Boyaner Rebbe to
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch (1880-1950) inviting him to
participate. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, did not participate personally –
perhaps the distance between Crown Heights and the Lower East Side was too great
considering his ailing health – he sent a representative armed with a personal
letter and a cheque for $72 for the cause.
A celebration for the
completion of the Torah scroll took place before the summer of
There have been – and indeed continue to be – many efforts to
memorialize the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, but this effort of the surviving
Hassidic masters stands out. The Zohar records that there are 600,000 letters in
the Torah. Truth be told, our scrolls have far fewer letters – 304,805 to be
exact. Thus the number 600,000 cannot refer merely to a different text of the
Bible, for the discrepancy is too great. The number 600,000 could therefore be
considered a symbolic number.
One of the later mystics, Rabbi Natan Nata
Shapiro of Krakow (Megaleh Amukot, 1585-1633) wrote that this number corresponds
to the 600,000 Jewish souls that exist. Sure there are more people than that,
but each soul can mystically animate more than one person.
Hebrew name for Israel – Yisrael – is an acronym for Yesh Shishim Ribbuy Otiyot
Latorah, there are 600,000 letters in the Torah.
A Torah scroll missing
even one letter is rendered invalid – that is, until that letter is added or
corrected. Similarly, the loss of each Jew leaves us as a people bereft and
unfit for use. The writing of a commemorative scroll was an attempt to complete
the Jewish People with the lost soul-letters.
Today that Torah scroll
continues to be used in the synagogue of the late Boyaner Rebbe on the Lower
East Side. The wooden poles of the scroll bear the following inscription in
Hebrew: “This Torah scroll was written by the Association of Hassidic Masters of
the USA and Canada in memorial of the holy and pure souls that were killed and
burned, thereby sanctifying [God’s] Name, in the years of the pogroms and the
rage, 1940-1945. May their souls be bound in the bond of everlasting
life.”The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies
and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.