By Rabbi Zushe Winner for COLlive
All Sifrei Torah, Ashkenazi or Sefardi, have the exact same words and letters with the exception of one letter in the Torah in which there is a long standing debate. The spelling of the last letter of the word "dakah" in this week's Torah reading (Devarim 23:2) has two opinions, some spell the word with the letter hei and others spell it with an alef, the latter is also the Chabad custom.
In the book "Pathways of the Prophets" (Artscroll, 2013) by Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, he raises questions about the propriety of the custom to spell "dakeh" with an aleph. Under the subtitle "The Chabad Sefer Torah" (p.351), Rabbi Reisman states "The Ashkenazic custom, like that of all non-Taimoni Sefardim is to spell dakah with a hei" and goes on to say that "it is preferable not to use this Sefer Torah".
However, it must be noted that in reality this is not a Chabad invention but goes back to the earliest records of Sifrei Torah as noted by Rav Zevin in his comments in Otzar Haposkim (Vol. 1, p. 335) as cited by Rabbi Reisman. In addition to the solid sources mentioned there, the Sassoon Library in London has several manuscripts of Tanach that were written by reliable Sofrim between 500 and 1100 years ago, spelling dakeh with an aleph (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 6, p. 102).
In fact, the early minhag of Ashkenaz was to spell dakeh with an aleph, as mentioned in Or Torah by Rav Menachem Di Lunzano and Rav Eliyahu ben Ezriel of Vilna (Hamburg, 5498). In the scholarly journal Peamim (5762, vol. 92, p. 168-9) Dr. Mordechai Glatzer writes that in all twenty one medieval Ashkenaz manuscripts on record in Hebrew University dakeh is spelled with an aleph, only later on in the eighteenth century the Sefardi Mesorah to spell it with a hei spread to Ashkenaz.
Many Chumashim printed in Europe from the eighteenth century onwards would put an addendum, after spelling the word dakeh with a hei, stating - "in the Ashkenazi Sifrei Torah dakeh is written with an aleph". This is consistent with the report (Hayom Yom, Elul 7) that the Sefer Torah of Rav Meir of Rotenberg, one of the early Halachic authorities of Ashkenaz Jewry, had dakeh with an aleph. Ironically the Chabad custom in this case is actually preserving the original Ashkenazi Mesorah!
Rabbi Reisman's goes on to discuss the suitability of others using a Chabad Sefer Torah. He states "the consensus of poskim is that it is preferable not to use this Sefer Torah, but that a Beracha may be made when no other Sefer Torah is available", he even suggests a way to check if it is a Chabad Sefer Torah. However a review of the Halachic literature will find this stringent view is actually a minority opinion. Even the Chida (Ledavid Emes 11:16) who is a main source for this stringent viewpoint actually decided in his main Halachic work Birchei Yosef, Shiurei Bracha (Yorah Deah, 275:4) like the Poskim that the aleph doesn't disqualify the Sefer. In fact the consensus of Poskim that hold that dakeh should preferably be written with a hei, do not have this hesitancy in using a Torah in which dakeh is written with an aleph.
The classic work on Safrus - Keses Hasofer - writes that one should not "correct" a Torah that has an aleph (unless other psulim were found), even though he is of the opinion that dakeh should be written with a hei as is common Ashkenaz practice today. Similarly you will find in Sharei Efraim (6:42) the authoritative work on Hilchos Krias Hatorah, "do not correct it if it is with aleph, and certainly don't take out another Sefer Torah".
Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechava Daas, 6:56) was asked about Sifrei Torah from Yemen which also spell dakeh with an aleph, and after reviewing all the different opinions he concludes that one can read from these Sifrei Torah without hesitancy even though the Sefardi Mesora is to write dakeh with a hei. None of the above Poskim hold that it depends if there are no other Sifrei Torah.
Certainly, they don't suggest that before making a Beracha, a Torah should be checked if it is completely consistent with one's specific Mesora. That is the accepted Minhag today in Eretz Yisreal and elsewhere (Shoalin Vedorshin, Rav Schlesinger 6:68; Kovetz Eitz Chaim – Bobov, vol. 16 p. 80)
In addition Rabbi Reisman suggests that in order to verify if it is a Chabad Torah, one need not search for the word dakeh, but one can look at "the left leg of the hei at the end of the Name of Hashem" since it is different than a regular hei. Generally the hei "has an upside-down yud as its left leg", but by the last hei of the Name of Hashem it is written "as a straight yud". This as well is inaccurate, since checking the hei will not verify how the word dakeh is written. In fact it is common practice in all Sifrei Torah written with Ksav Ari to write that left leg of the last hei "as a straight yud", even if the word dakeh in that Torah is spelled with a hei. Some who follow the Ari have by all letters hei in the Sefer Torah, the left leg written like a small yud or vov, the same as in the left leg of the Name of Hashem (Kol Haramaz, Minchas Elazar 5:26).
The article also states that the Beis Yosef Ksav "is the custom of most of Klal Yisrael" and that the Ksav Ari is "the custom of the Kabbalists". Actually almost all Chasidim, Kabbalists or not, use the Ksav Arizal. Sefardim have their own custom using Ksav Velish. Only Ashkenazim who retained the original customs use Ksav Beis Yosef. The wholesale dealers in Safrus say that they often sell more of the others then Ksav Beis Yosef.
It must be noted that the tone of Rabbi Reisman's writing could be interpreted in a way that is negative towards Chabad although it certainly was not his intention. The article states that the Chabad Chasidim are loyal to their tradition "even where this may differ from the custom of the rest of Klal Yisrael".
Would it be appropriate to state that Sefardim or Teimanim are so loyal to their Minhagim "even where this may differ from the custom of the rest of Klal Yisrael"? Some may consider such a statement as suggestive of these specific communities being less than an equal partner as "the rest of Klal Yisrael". Each community may have a Mesora that differ from the others, but Klal Yisrael is one unit made up of all components of Klal Yisrael – "Ein beklal ela ma shebifrat".
The beauty of Limud Hatorah is the kaleidoscope of viewpoints on each Halacha, reflecting the Torah scholarship and traditions of different communities – Chasidim and Misnagdim, Ashkenazim and Sefardim - all being part of one Klal Yisrael.
--Rabbi Zushe Winner is the Rosh Yeshiva of Tomchei Tmimim - Chovevei Torah in Crown Heights and director of Chabad Lubavitch of West Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, NY