What Is the Space Torah? Originally Published January 3-4, 2020.

Housed at Congregation Or Ami in Houston, Texas, the Space Torah is a Sefer Torah that was actually taken into space by Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, astronaut, in February 1996 on the space shuttle Columbia.

The small kosher scroll was stored in the hold of the ship.  When passing over Israel, Dr. Hoffman read from Bereshit.  (He said he hadn’t known in advance which week they would be traveling, so he learned Bereshit as a nod to the beginning of reading Torah in space.) 

Rabbi Shaul Osadchey of Or Ami had spoken often with Dr. Hoffman of the notion of a space scroll, and the rabbi searched to find one small and light enough.  At one point he was in New York, and heard about a scroll that a rabbi had obtained in Jerusalem 25 years prior.  Rabbi Osadchey went to negotiate with the reluctant owner.  Ultimately, sending it into space was enough of a reason for the New York rabbi to part with it.

Now technically the first reading from the Torah was in English on Christmas in 1968 by the astronauts of Apollo 8, also reading from Genesis.  Dr. Hoffman’s, though, was the first Hebrew reading.

The Space Torah is in use.  Benei mitzvah students especially enjoy leyning from it.  It wears spindle covers (as crowns) shaped like the space shuttle.  And there is a project afoot to produce a film about it.

But it was not the only Sefer Torah to fly into space.  In February 2003 the space shuttle Columbia horribly and fatally malfunctioned during reentry.  On that trip the shuttle held a Sefer Torah as well – one which had been saved from Bergen-Belsen, owned by Israeli physics professor Joachim Joseph, who had used it to study for his bar mitzvah in the camp.  (First) Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon (z”l) had carried the scroll and also an Auschwitz teenager’s artful rendition of the earth and moon with him.  All aboard the shuttle were lost.

In September 2006, astronaut Steve MacLean of Canada, in remembrance of his friend Ilan Ramon, took a second Sefer Torah rescued from Bergen-Belsen on board the Atlantis on a trip to the International Space Station.  That scroll was returned safely to its owner, Henry Fenichel, also a physics professor.

Dr. Hoffman was also the astronaut who took a dreidel with him on his mission to rescue and repair the Hubble Space Telescope.  The dreidel of course was not stopped by gravity, it just kept spinning.