Hagbah: Lifting the Torah

What is the meaning of Hagbah, the Lifting of the Torah?

On the bimah a member of the congregation holds the Eitz Chayim, (the wooden handles of the Torah scroll), one in each hand, pushes down on the handles raising the Torah off the table, and with knees bent s/he brings the scroll to an upright position and lifts it high.

Off the Bimah, I breathe in, expectantly.

The person lifting the Torah turns so that everyone in the congregation may see three columns of script. I breathe out and take in the pattern of today’s parasha (Torah portion).

This ancient custom, which allows everyone to view the Torah script, has its Biblical beginning in Neh. 8:5, “And Ezra opened the Book in the sight of all the people … “

I was curious about how the experience of Hagbah felt to those who have claimed the honor, so I spoke to Ezra Hausman and David Lobron who have lifted the Torah many times and to Amy Mazur who has done it twice. Each of them glowed with pleasure as s/he reflected on the experience.

David has been performing the task of Hagbah for many years—before he came to Dorshei Tzedek and before he learned to chant Torah. When he had not yet learned to leyn (chant Torah), lifting the Torah was David’s way of connecting physically with the holy book. Because he is strong he often was sought after to perform this task. “It felt really good to be able to contribute to the service and to feel needed for an important job,” he said. Seeing a need that he could fulfill he thought, “It is good that I am here.” David sees this ceremony as crowning the reading of Torah. He mused, “It feels democratic because it shows the words of the Torah to the whole community, helping to make the reading a truly communal experience.“ After he learned to leyn at Dorshei Tzedek, the intellectual, spiritual, and the primal element of lifting all came together in a profound unified experience.

Ezra spoke about the intimacy and physical connection with the Torah that he cherishes when he performs Hagbah. “I love this role in the service … seeing the words of the scroll up close and then lifting it and sharing the written words with the congregation. I love participating in the … relationship with individuals, our community and the Jewish people as a whole.” Following in the steps of his namesake, Ezra experiences pleasure and continuity as he opens the Book in the sight of all the people. He said, “… some individual sat down and wrote each of our Torah scrolls by hand, meticulously enacting an ancient ritual that has helped to pass our tradition from generation to generation. By lifting the Torah before our community I feel like I am part of that tradition, without all the tzures of having to sit and write all of those letters.

Amy Mazur vividly remembers the power of performing Hagbah the first time she stepped up to the bimah to lift the Torah. Earlier when she had had an aliya and stood next to the Torah, following the Hebrew script on the scroll, she had felt a surge of connection to all the people who were reading this text on this Shabbat.

When she lifted the Torah and turned to reveal the Hebrew script and the shape and pattern of the words to the congregation she experienced the joy of sharing with this community. She recalls faltering for a moment that first time she lifted the Torah and feeling fully, profoundly supported—physically and emotionally—by others on the bimah with her. After the Torah was returned to the Ark, Amy remembers stepping down from the bimah, returning to her seat and feeling the hands of the congregation reaching out to her in connection and appreciation. She stepped up for the honor of Hagbah again this spring. Amy hopes that others will come forward to experience the exhilaration of lifting the Torah.

Talking with Amy, David and Ezra has increased my appreciation for the joy and love of Torah and of community that support the strong arms that lift Torah each Shabbat as we sing:

Vezot hatorah etz hayim hi lamahzikim bah vetomhecha lme’ushar
This is the Torah.
It is a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it.
Those who uphold it may be counted fortunate.

Marion Ross, for the Ritual Committee