Q. Sephardim and Ashkenazim have different customs concerning Hagbahah and Gelilah, raising and rolling the Torah scroll. The Sephardim carry this out before the Torah reading and the Ashkenazim after it. Which is correct?
A. The Sephardi custom is the older. The original procedure as set out in Massechet Sof’rim 14:14 is, “When the Torah scroll (is about to be read) he rolls out the scroll to show three columns, raises it and shows the people standing to his right and to his left, and then turns it forward and backwards, for it is a mitzvah for all the men and women to see the writing and say while bowing, V’zot HaTorah – ‘This is the Torah which Moses placed before the Children of Israel’ (Deut. 4:44), and ‘The Torah of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul’ (Psalm 19:8)”. The second verse is no longer said.
At Bevis Marks Synagogue, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London, V’zot HaTorah is said four times. Nachmanides links the custom to a passage in Deut. 27:26, which describes the scene when six of the tribes on one side and six on the other, responded Amen to the series of blessings and curses uttered by the Levites who were standing between them.
Raising the scroll (Hagbahah) and rolling it (Gelilah) (originally, unrolling it) were highly prized mitzvot coveted by the worthiest and most pious members of the congregation, as these mitzvot both allowed a congregant the privilege of physically handling the Torah. At times wealthy people offered generous donations for Hagbahah and Gelilah and then passed the actual honours on to other members of the congregation.
The Ashkenazim had abandoned the original position of Hagbahah and Gelilah by the 15th or 16th century; the Rema remarks that Ashkenazim do not do as laid down in Massechet Sof’rim (Darkei Moshe to O.Ch. 147:4). The Ashkenazi practice is to carry out these mitzvot after the reading.