Question: I recently prayed in an Ashkenazi synagogue and I observed that the entire congregation stood during the Torah reading. Is this custom correct to follow?
Answer: The Mordechi (Shabbat, Chapter 222) writes that the Maharam would stand during the Torah reading. This custom is quoted often in the works of the Poskim. The source for this custom can be found in the book of Nechemia (Chapter 8) which records that Ezra the Scribe opened the Sefer Torah in order to read it to the nation, as the verse states, “And Ezra the Scribe stood upon a wooden platform which they constructed for this purpose and Matitya, Shema, Aniya, Uriya, Chilkiya, and Ma’aseya stood on his right side etc. And Ezra opened the scroll before the eyes of the entire nation, for he stood above the entire nation; and when he opened it, the entire nation stood.” The verse seemingly states explicitly that it was customary to stand when the Torah was read.
On the other hand, in the Order of Rav Amram Gaon (Volume 2, Chapter 25), he writes to rebuff this custom and he writes that those who interpret the verse to mean “the entire nation stood” are mistaken in the understanding of the verse, for the Gemara (Sotah 39a) states that Rava bar Rav Huna taught that immediately upon opening the Sefer Torah, it is forbidden to speak even words of Halacha, as the verse states, “And upon being opened, the entire nation stood” and standing refers to being silent. This means that “standing” discussed to by the prophet can actually refer to being silent. Thus, Rav Amram Gaon writes that there is no source for the custom some places have of standing during the reading of the Torah.
Nevertheless, the Agudah writes that although the word “standing” in the verse actually refers to being silent, a verse can never lose its simple understanding which is that the nation stood on their feet. Thus, although we derive from this verse that it is forbidden to speak at all during the time the Torah is being read, we can derive an additional law which is that one should stand during the Torah reading.
Halachically speaking though, most Poskim, including Rav Amram Gaon, the Rambam (in his response Chapter 46), and Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 141), rule that there is no obligation to stand while the Torah is being read. Only several Ashkenazim observe this custom since it is quoted explicitly by the Rama (in his gloss at the end of Chapter 146). Nevertheless, even those Ashkenazim who do follow this custom are doing so only as an added stringency and not the letter of the law (according to most Poskim). Such a custom does not exist at all with regards to Sephardic Jews, for even the saintly Ari z”l would sit during the Torah reading (see Kaf Ha’Chaim, ibid.). All great Sephardic luminaries behaved in the same manner. Indeed, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l would customarily sit during the Torah reading.
Summary: Sephardic Jews sit during the Torah reading. In Ashkenazi communities, there are those who customarily stand while the Torah is read since one must feel like one is receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, when the entire nation stood around the mountain, as the Torah is being read.