Thousands Expected at Bnei Brak Funeral for Torah Scrolls

11 torah scrolls were damaged in a fire that broke out in the synagogue of the Vyzhnytsia hassidim on the first day of Sukkot.

Bnei Brak today will witness a rare, if not downright extraordinary, funeral. The local media, both printed newspapers and posters plastered on announcement boards, have kept the mourning going in preparation: "Deep mourning," one poster ran. "Scrolls burn and letters fly," another declared. But the funeral, expected to be attended by thousands, including the most important of rabbis, is not for the mortal remains of mere men, but for 11 Torah scrolls damaged in a fire in the synagogue of the Vyzhnytsia hassidim, on the first day of Sukkot. The scrolls will be buried in special urns of clay, amid special prayers and speeches by the rabbis.

Police say the fire in Bnei Brak's largest synagogue began because of a short circuit in the ventilation system of the Holy Ark. The synagogue was full of people, and two were slightly injured by smoke inhalation.

Bnei Brak residents Oct. 6, 2010 Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

But what the police call an accident is for the people of Bnei Brak "the disaster." The Vizhnitzer rebbes canceled most celebrations of the holiday, and one of the world's largest hassidic movements went into mourning. The grief was further exacerbated by the ultra-Orthodox websites, which ran stories on "testimonies from the inferno" and posted pictures of the damaged scrawls being carried out of the building by hassids, presented as if they were scorched human bodies.

Although the Jewish law of halacha proscribes public mourning and repentance when a Torah book is even so much as dropped to the ground, not to mention burns in flames, the Bnei Brak incident is perceived as particularly terrifying by the ultra-Orthodox communities.

The conflagration of the books in the main synagogue of a major hassidic movement, on a holiday, just days before Simchat Torah when the books are taken out and danced with - all this convinced many that supernatural powers far beyond a mere short-circuited wires were in play. The rabbis have demanded of yeshiva boys to intensify their Torah studies in the wake of the fire.

Many in the community believe the punishment was meted out specifically to the Vyzhnytia hassids, and they were busy trying to discern the sin. One of the rebbes announced the disaster happened because many hassids talk to each other during prayers. Others tie it to an inheritance war between heirs of the elderly ill rebbe of the movement, Rabbis Yisrael and Menachem Mendel Hagar, which has dividing the movement into camps. The synagogue where the fire took place belongs to the stronger contender, Rabbi Yisrael.