Lifting the Torah scroll during Sabbath services—a ritual known as "Hagbah," which means to lift in Hebrew—is considered a tremendous honor. It can also be a perilous undertaking.
The average Torah scroll, which contains the Five Books of Moses, handwritten by a quill on parchment, can weigh about 25 or 30 pounds. Scrolls are mounted on long wooden poles; they are often hard to handle, and even harder to hoist. Some scrolls, encased in wood and silver, weigh 40 or 50 pounds or more.
Accidents happen, and when they do, custom calls for significant acts of contrition, including fasting. Lots of fasting.
"If you drop the Torah, the implications are dire—the shame is enormous—and traditionally one needed to fast for 40 days," says Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. The offender has plenty of company in hunger, as anyone who witnesses the Torah tumble must also refrain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset.