Who Owns a Donated Torah Scroll?

The Halacha deals with the question of whether a donated Sefer Torah is simply on loan or whether the synagogue/community owns it outright.The Shulhan Aruch (Orah Haim 153:20) rules that if one’s father donated a SeferTorah to a synagogue, one may take back possession of the Torah and the congregation has no recourse against him. Rabbi Yosef Colon (Shu”t Maharik, § 70) writes that although the Torah is physically in the possession of the synagogue, sometimes for many years, there is no presumption of ownership(“Hazaka”) on the part of the synagogue. Nevertheless, he quotes the opinion of Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Yam Shel Shlomo), who says that if one donated a Torah scroll without any stipulations, it could be assumed that it then belonged to the synagogue.

The Mishna Berura (Orah Haim 153:98-100) quotes both opinions and concludes that ideally the donor should stipulate the exact ownershiparrangement with the synagogue, and this was the custom in Morocco. Rabbi Yosef Berdugo (Shufre D’Yosef), siding with Rabbi Shlomo Luria, writes that in the absence of an express stipulation, the Torah would go into the possession of the synagogue. Conversely, Rabbi Haim Serero (Shu”t Rabbi Haim David Serero, § 16) and Rabbi Petahya Berdugo (Nofet Tzufim) maintain that there is no intention on the part of the donor of handing over ownership to thesynagogue. Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron (Shu”t Binyan Av, Hoshen Mishpat, vol. 1, § 1) clarifies that the current practice is that when one donates something to a synagogue, one still retains ownership of it. However, it is preferable to articulate the terms of the donation so as to avoid any misunderstandings or Halachic quandaries.

Summary:     Unless expressly stipulated, a donated Sefer Torah is considered to be on loan to the synagogue and its ownership is retainedby the donor. It is proper to stipulate the ownership arrangements prior to donating an article of value to a synagogue or community.