By Rachel Raz
In 1996, astronaut Dr. Jeff Hoffman brought a small Torah scroll with him onto Space Shuttle Colombia. This was the first time a Torah scroll was taken into space. On Shabbat, while orbiting Earth, he chanted from the book of Genesis in Hebrew,
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman was one of the first American Jewish astronauts to fly into space. Over five missions, he chose to take several Jewish artifacts with him such as mezuzot that he posted on his bed, dreidels that he spun during Hanukkah, and atarot of his sons’ tallitot that they used for their Bar Mitzvah and years later, for their weddings. The highlight was a small and light-weight Torah scroll that he took with him on his fifth and last mission.
As we prepare to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the Time of the Giving of the Torah, Dr. Hoffman’s story reminds us and the young generation that now (and maybe more than ever), thousands of years after Sinai, while we are engaged with the most advanced human exploration and innovation, the Torah, the Jewish tradition and wisdom retains relevance and importance. In a video recording from his flight, Jeff explained the significance of bringing a Torah into space. At this historic moment, Jeff said, “Space didn’t make the Torah special … rather the Torah made space special, bringing humanity into space.”
By bringing the Torah into space, Jeff brought a physical link between Jews from the past, present and future and the core essence of Judaism embodied in the Torah; Jewish ethics, collective memory and narrative. Jeff’s story reminds us that like Moses on the Mountain, Jeff was not alone at this moment on Space Shuttle Columbia. His Jewish community from Texas and his family waited for him below. Jeff’s story is the story of his family and the Jewish people who guided and supported him along the way, becoming an integral part of his space travel. His Rabbi at that time, Shaul Osadchey, came up with the idea to take a Torah to space, and with his leadership and persistence, combined with the help of the community, they were able to achieve their goal of finding a small Torah appropriate for space travel by Jeff’s last space mission. Jeff speaks fondly and reflects on his parents’ and educators’ involvement and support. He recalls going with his father to the planetarium in New York and exploring space together. He vividly remembers a night on an open football field with his father and friends, observing Sputnik through a telescope. He deeply appreciates his third-grade teacher, who after seeing him doodling rockets during class, provided books about space and encouraged him to share his learning with fellow classmates. Parents, educators and community are instrumental in the story of Jeff and the Space Torah, as they are instrumental in our own individual and communal stories.
I first met Jeff Hoffman over a year ago at Hebrew College in Newton Massachusetts. He was sharing his professional and personal journeys with our Rabbinical students as part of a seminar about Science and Theology, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In an ever-changing world, with advanced technology and constant innovation, Jeff reminded us of the relevance of our wise and ancient teaching, and also of the power of the Jewish family, the Jewish people and the educators who shape our lives and journeys. When I met Jeff, I learned that very few people know about this fascinating, inspiring and profoundly important story. We are now working together on a documentary film that will preserve and share Jeff’s journey and inspire many people around the world to pursue their professional dreams along with deepening their Jewish learning and connection to the Jewish people.
Rachel Raz is the Executive Producer of the forthcoming documentary about Astronaut Jeff Hoffman and the Space Torah. She also serves as the Director of the Early Childhood Institute of Hebrew College and is the founder of JEEF, the national Jewish Early Engagement Forum.