Dear Rabbi Simon
What is the source and the meaning of the custom to point the pinkie at the Torah Scroll when it is lifted after reading from it in public (or before, in the Sephardic tradition)?
Your question is interesting because it relates to a widespread custom whose source is rather obscure.
The Shulchan Aruch (OH 134:2) states: It is a mitzvah for all men and women to see the written text of the Torah, to bow, and to say, “This is the Torah that Moshe placed before the Children of Israel.” Halachic authorities explain that this verse is to be said only upon seeing the actual text of the Sefer Torah.
It is said of the Arizal that when the Torah was held up for the entire congregation to see, it was his custom to look closely at the text so that he could read the letters.
Me’am Lo’ez (written in the Judeo-Spanish Ladino vernacular by R. Yaakov Culi, d. 1732) on Deut. 27:26 seems to be the only source that mentions the custom of pointing the pinkie finger towards the text, adding that it is customary to kiss the pinkie after pointing. Though not mentioned in other halachic sources, and by no means universal, as you note this has become a widespread custom.
A number of reasons for the use of the pinkie have been advanced. One suggestion is that the Sefer Torah symbolises the Divine Presence, as in “this is my G-d and I shall glorify Him” (Ex. 15:2). However in order to distance ourselves from the iconography of the Christians, and more so the pagans, we do not actually point with the index finger, but rather simply raise the pinkie.
A more elegant reason may be suggested based on Rabbenu Bechaye (to Lev. 8:23), who sets out the significance and symbolism attached to every finger and to each part of the body. He discusses the utility of each organ and in particular the fingers, each of which is associated with one of the five senses. The pinkie is associated with the sense of hearing (as it just about fits into your ear, doesn’t it?). We may conjecture that this is related to the custom of pointing towards the Torah with the pinkie.
Some hold up the tzitzit as well. (I have seen this in Sephardi communities.) It has been suggested that this derives from the instruction (Num. 15:39) to observe the tzitzit and to remember all the mitzvot. When seeing the sefer Torah held aloft this an appropriate time to recall the mitzvot.
Rabbi Rashi Simon