Help! I’m Terrified of Dropping the Torah in a Room Full of Jews
Some people are claustrophobic. Others have a fear of heights. Insects. Injections. The number thirteen. None of these things bothers me. I have only one anxiety disorder: Hagbahphobia, the fear that I am going to drop the Torah in a room full of Jews. And I am not alone.
Hagbah is the phys ed requirement in the Jewish religious service. At the end of the Torah reading two congregants are called up to help put it away. Invariably, the larger of the two congregants is chosen for Hagbah, which calls for the lifting of the Torah scroll and unfurling it at least three columns wide for all to see, at which point the other congregant wraps, covers and accessorizes the Torah. The dress-up is known as Gelilah. Hagbah is dad getting the Christmas ornaments out of the attic; Gelilah is mom putting the ceramic reindeer on the tree.
You might think the average teenage Jewish male would revel at the chance to perform feats of strength in plain view of the young Sarahs, Rebeccas, Rachels and Leahs in the house, but for many the possibility of dropping the bulky, cumbersome parchment inspires dread. It is a fear rooted in the Talmudic edict that a Jew who drops the Torah, and all in the congregation who witness it, must fast for 40 days.
I grew up in a Maryland suburb outside of Washington, D.C. When my brother Jonathan and I reached bar mitzvah age we quickly became the bulls eye in the crosshairs of Richard Lakein, our synagogue’s gabbai, the congregant who assigns roles in the Saturday morning service, marketed as “mitzvahs.” For reasons never explained, Richard Lakein decided that my brother Jonathan and I were the perfect able-bodied candidates for Hagbah.
Like a good baseball manager, a gabbai has to know who he has available in the bullpen. Depending on the time of the year the bulk of the Torah parchment might rest almost entirely on to one side or the other. From June to September a gabbai with the seichel of a Joe Torre immediately knows who the lefties in the crowd are, and from Simchat Torah to Hanukkah he rides his righties every week. Richard Lakein had the physical bearing and temperament of a mathematician, which is exactly what he was the rest of the week; but on Saturday morning he managed his Hagbah rotation like Billy Martin, eschewing the stats and going back to the same whipping boys over and over again.
Every week, as the Torah reading reached its conclusion, he would make a show of surveying the entire crowd. He would walk up and down each aisle deliberately, scanning each and every face, looking for the essential hagbahness in each congregant. But Jonathan and I were always the chosen among The Chosen as we buried our heads in our siddurim, feigning piety, petrified of making eye contact, the result always the same.
First Richard would ask me, the elder son, whether I would do Hagbah. I would shake my head no. Then he would turn to Jonathan, head still buried in the good book until my father would jab him in the ribs. Question repeated, offer declined. Richard Lakein would raise his eyebrows to us, Professor Snape letting Harry Potter know: There will be a next time. Our heads back in our books, this time to avoid our father’s withering glare. Eventually Jonathan and I took to having weak bladders just before the Torah reading ended. We’d stand at adjoining urinals and feign activity, then loiter outside the chapel until we’d hear the congregation sing “V’zot HaTorah, asher sahm Moshe…” The conversation on the way home:
“What is wrong with the two of you?”
“It is a sin to decline a mitzvah.”
“Why does he have to ask us every week???”
“You’re lucky he doesn’t ask you to read from the Torah. You think that’s easier than lifting it up?”
“Why don’t you volunteer to do it?”
“You know why. Don’t be a schmuck.”
My father, a man with a tremendous grip, a man who gardened, worked on the car, never hired a moving company, crushed walnuts with his bare hands, claimed to have a trick wrist that prevented him from taking Hagbah.
My father’s closeted Hagbahphobia made me wonder if there was a genetic component to our shared aversion. In fact, Hagbahphobia is widespread. One person said he is scared of Hagbah “but because I am one of the strongest people in my congregation I have learned to manage my fear.” Several other Jews interviewed confirmed they avoid Hagbah at all costs.
Hagbahphobia is not a bar to ordination. One person said that his rabbi “is so deathly scared of Hagbah he leaves the chapel whenever it is performed. If he cannot escape in time, he turns his head away and refuses to watch.” A friend told me that when one guy picked up the Torah and said “Jesus this is heavy!” the rabbi shot back, “for Christ’s sake don’t drop it!”
Some Jews deal with their hagbahphobia by making sport of the ritual, scoring the weekly lift on a scale of 1-10 based on speed, power, style, and most importantly the number of columns displayed. Others reject the hagbahchismo of a maximal wingspan displaying seven or eight columns when three will suffice. “Just get up there and do it and sit down,” said one longtime shulgoer. “You have to be a complete loser to prove your manhood while lifting the Torah.”
There were several eyewitness accounts of seeing a Torah get dropped. Some of the junior congregation/summer camp genre, which shouldn’t really count. Nobody who saw a major league drop reported fasting for 40 days.
In recent years I have depended on the only truly reliable form of Hagbah avoidance: abstinence – from synagogue, especially Saturday morning services. Recently, however, while attending the bat mitzvah of my wife’s cousin, I was asked to perform Hagbah. I was in Charleston, South Carolina. Around me sat my wife’s extended family. My wife and my mother in law flanked me. My son and daughter stared at me, amazed that I was going to be on stage. I had no choice but to jump off the cliff.
I remembered my father’s advice on technique: Never try to lift it straight off the table. First bend your knees, bring the Torah down as you bend, lean it against the podium. Now straighten up, tilting the Torah upright as your rise. Keep your eyes trained on the top edge of the parchment. Elbows square with your wrists. No sudden movements. Just back up slowly and take a seat so Gelilah can wrap things up ASAP. Shake hands with everybody and go back to your seat. Wipe away the flop sweat. Mazal Tov.
Photo by josh.ev9
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