Even after synagogues were allowed to reopen during the COVID-19 crisis, many people continue to form small Minyanim in their porches or backyards. Some are unable to go to the synagogue because they are in a risk group, and, additionally, the distancing requirements significantly limit the amount of people who can pray in synagogues, thus necessitating the continuation of Minyanim outside people’s homes. Under such conditions, the question arises as to whether a Sefer Torah may be brought from a synagogue for the purpose of a private Minyan. Is this permitted, or is this considered disrespectful to the Sefer Torah?
The Talmud Yerushalmi (Masechet Yoma, chapter 7) relates that on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol would publicly read the Torah as part of the special Yom Kippur service in the Bet Ha’mikdash, and a Sefer Torah was brought out of a synagogue for this purpose. This was allowed, the Yerushalmi states, because the Kohen Gadol was a distinguished figure, and it was thus honorable for the Torah to be brought out of the synagogue to be read by the Kohen Gadol. Otherwise, a Sefer Torah may not be brought out of the synagogue, and an exception was made in the case of the Kohen Gadol’s reading of the Torah on Yom Kippur.
The Maharam Padua (d. 1565) expanded the scope of this exception, ruling that a Sefer Torah may be brought out of the synagogue not only for the Kohen Gadol, but also for a distinguished Torah scholar. Accordingly, the Rama (Rav Moshe Isserles of Cracow, 1530-1572) rules (in Orah Haim 135) that a Sefer Torah may be brought out of the synagogue for an "Adam Hashub" – "distinguished person." The Mishna Berura (Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin, 1839-1933) writes that this refers to a distinguished Torah scholar, and he adds (in Sha’ar Ha’siyun) that the Rama’s ruling is based on the position of the Maharam Padua.
A further expansion of this exception was made by the Or Zarua (Rav Yishak of Vienna, 1200-1270), cited by the Rama in his Darkeh Moshe (Orah Haim 135). The Or Zarua went so far as to say that a Sefer Torah may be brought from the synagogue for the sake of an ill patient or prisoner in a jail cell who is unable to attend the synagogue and hear the Torah reading. The Mordechi (Rav Mordechai Ben Hillel, Germany, d. 1298), however, disagreed with this ruling of the Or Zarua, and maintained that a Sefer Torah may not be brought from a synagogue for the sake of a patient or prisoner. This is the ruling followed by the Mishna Berura, who adds that even on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a Sefer Torah should not be brought from the synagogue for somebody who cannot come to the synagogue, except in the case of an "Adam Hashub."
Importantly, however, the Mishna Berura writes (in Be’ur Halacha) that if there is a Minyan consisting of people who, for whatever reason, are unable to attend the prayers in the synagogue, then the Sefer Torah may be brought from the synagogue so it could be read in this Minyan. Even the Mordechi, who does not allow bringing a Sefer Torah for the sake of a lone individual who cannot go to the synagogue, would allow bringing a Sefer Torah for the sake of a Minyan formed by people who cannot attend the synagogue. Hacham Ovadia Yosef, in Yabia Omer (vol. 7), concurs with this ruling.
Therefore, under circumstances where people are forced to form Minyanim on their porches or in their backyards due to health concerns or limits on public gatherings, it would be permissible to bring a Sefer Torah from the synagogue to be used in such a Minyan.
However, the Maharam Padua adds that when a Sefer Torah is brought from the synagogue, it should be kept in a specially-designated chest, out of respect for the Sefer Torah. Therefore, if a Sefer Torah is brought from the synagogue for a private Minyan, arrangements should be made to have a special chest to serve as the Aron. It does not have to be elaborate, but it should be especially designated for this purpose.
It should be noted that the Zohar takes a far stricter approach, outright forbidding moving a Sefer Torah out of a synagogue for any purpose, even to bring it to another synagogue. The Kaf Ha’haim (Rav Yaakob Haim Sofer, Baghdad-Jerusalem, 1870-1939), based on the Zohar, rules that one should never move a Sefer Torah from a synagogue, for any purpose. In his view, even the common practice at Sefer Torah dedications to bring the Sifreh Torah out of the synagogue to symbolically greet the new Sefer Torah is strictly forbidden. In fact, some Poskim understood the Zohar as forbidding moving a Sefer Torah even from one room in the synagogue to a different room. Nevertheless, as we have seen, other Poskim, including Hacham Ovadia, felt otherwise, based on the sources mentioned, and permitted bringing a Sefer Torah out of a synagogue to be used in a Minyan of people who are unable to come to the synagogue.
Hacham Ovadia writes that when a Sefer Torah is transported for this purpose, then if it is carried Be’sin’a (discreetly), such as by car, then even one person may transport it alone. If, however, one is transporting the Sefer Torah Be’farhesya (publicly), then ten men must escort the Sefer Torah. If ten men are not escorting the Sefer Torah, and one person will be carrying it alone, then he must invalidate the Sefer Torah before transporting it. This should be done by unstitching the parchment, and then redoing the stitching before it is read again. One should not invalidate the Sefer Torah by spilling wax on the text, or by scraping off some ink.
This entire discussion relates to a Sefer Torah in a synagogue, and which people now wish to bring out of a synagogue. When it comes to a Sefer Torah which one has in his home, the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909) writes (in Torah Li’shmah, 58) that such a Sefer Torah may be brought elsewhere without any restrictions. He notes that the Yerushalmi, which is the source of this entire discussion, speaks only of bringing a Sefer Torah out of a synagogue, and, moreover, the Yerushalmi says that this is forbidden (except in the unique case of the Kohen Gadol, as discussed) because "the Sefer Torah should not come to you; you should go to the Sefer Torah." The entire issue is the fact that it is disrespectful to move a Sefer Torah to a person, instead of the person going to the Sefer Torah. But if a person has a Sefer Torah in his home, and it is needed by a Minyan, then quite obviously the Sefer Torah needs to be brought to them, because the home is not the place where the Minyan is meant to take place. Therefore, there is no prohibition at all against bringing one’s personal Sefer Torah from his home so it can be read in a Minyan.
The Aruch Ha’shulhan (Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein of Nevarduk, 1829-1908) writes that when a Sefer Torah is brought somewhere, it must be read at least three times at that location before being returned. Although this is a widely-held assumption, later Poskim note that this does not appear anywhere in earlier sources. Indeed, Hacham Ovadia dismisses this requirement, and rules that it is permissible to move a Sefer Torah – under the conditions discussed above – even to read it just once.
It must be emphasized that the permissibility of moving a Sefer Torah out of a synagogue applies only when this is a necessity. And even then, as we have seen, the Zohar forbids moving a Sefer Torah, and even the lenient opinions require meeting certain conditions. Certainly, then, a Sefer Torah should not be moved out of a synagogue for the sake of convenience. Small Minyanim in porches and yards, with Sifreh Torah, are permitted under the difficult circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, but this situation must not be seen as an ideal, or even an acceptable option that may be continued once we will, please G-d, be able to return to our normal state of affairs. When there is no necessity to pray in small private Minyanim, the Sifreh Torah must be brought back to, and kept in, the synagogue. Moreover, the Gemara teaches that prayers in the synagogue are more readily accepted because of the unique sanctity of a synagogue. In fact, one who cannot pray with a Minyan should endeavor to pray in a synagogue, because of the special status of prayers recited in a synagogue. Therefore, we must remember that although small Minyanim in porches and yards are the appropriate solution during the COVID-19 pandemic, as soon as we can all return to the synagogue, we must eagerly and enthusiastically do so.
It should also be noted that it is ok to move a Sefer Torah under all circumstances if there is an Aron Kodesh to store the Sefer Torah.
Summary: If a Minyan of people are unable to come to the synagogue, and are forced to form a Minyan elsewhere – such as in the case of the Minyanim on porches and in backyards during the COVID-19 pandemic – it is permissible to bring a Sefer Torah from the synagogue for this purpose. If the Sefer Torah is bring transported privately, such as by car, then it may be brought by just one person. If it is being transported publicly, then it requires an escort of at least ten men, and if not, then it must be first made invalid by undoing the stitching, and then stitched anew at its destination. It must be emphasized that moving a Sefer Torah out of a synagogue is permitted only under such circumstances – when it is needed for a Minyan of people who are unable to pray in the synagogue; this may not be done for purposes of convenience.