Object of the Month: October 2020

Torah Scroll

Found in Yemen, Arabia

15th century

Jews believe that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were dictated word for word by God to Moses. While the remaining books of the Old Testament, the Nevi’im (the Prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Writings) were inspired by God, the Jews regard the Pentateuch as quite literally, God’s exact words. A Sefer Torah is a kosher (ritually clean) handwritten copy of the formal Hebrew text of the Pentateuch. Both Jews and Christians believe that accurately preserving all God-inspired texts is important; however, Jews hold that the dictated Words of God must receive a higher level of respect and extreme attention to accuracy as they are transmitted to future generations.

A printed copy of the Torah may be used for personal study, but only a Sefer Torah can be used in public Jewish worship. A Sefer Torah must meet high standards in both its construction and transcription. Anything less would not be worthy of the Words of God and should not be used to worship Him.

The materials and tools used in making a Sefer Torah must be ritually clean. The parchment must be from the hides of a kosher animal. Today cow hides are generally used, but M&G’s Torah is made of gazelle parchment.  M&G’s Torah is 121’ long and required about 70 hides. To be kosher the hides must be properly cleaned and tanned. A quill from a kosher bird (or other permitted writing utensil) and a specially prepared kosher ink must be used. Once the parchment panels have been inscribed, they are sewn together with thread made from the sinews of a kosher animal. That thread is also used to attach the parchment to rods, called atzei chayim (the trees of life), on which the scroll is rolled.

The ritual cleanness of materials used in making a Sefer Torah demonstrates reverence to God’s Word, but the accuracy of the text is paramount. Every one of the Torah’s 304,805 Hebrew letters must be precisely duplicated by a specially trained sofer (called a scribe in the New Testament). The sofer begins copying by scoring temporary lines on the parchment to serve as the margins and rule for each line of text. Prior to writing the sofer cleanses in a mikvah (ritual bath) and recites a prayer for scroll writing.  He must then copy each letter exactly from a kosher Torah scroll or another approved source. Since a Sefer Torah scroll embodies the holiness of its message, the focus is on the text itself. Illustrations or artistic decorations are forbidden.

Before beginning work, many sofers today will test their quill and ink by writing the Hebrew word Amalek on a piece of parchment and then crossing it out. Doing so they literally fulfill the command in Deuteronomy 25:17-19 to blot out the name of Israel’s ancient enemy.

When the name of God appears in the text, the sofer must follow additional procedures to demonstrate his recognition of the sacredness of his task and his willingness to make sure it is done with the proper intent and reverence. Corrections can be made by scraping the error from the parchment. But if a mistake is made when writing the name of God, corrections are not permissible. That section of parchment cannot be used.

The sofer proofreads his work but before the Torah can be officially pronounced Sefer it must be proofread by additional approved individuals. Part of this process involves counting letters and lines of text. Generally a Torah is written by a single sofer and takes about a year to complete. The approval process may take additional months. The extreme accuracy of these procedures maintaining the text can be documented by comparing modern Torahs to ancient texts.

The Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-18)

Because ornamentation of the text could distract from the Words of God, embellishment within the scroll is prohibited as seen in M&G’s Torah. However, decoration of objects associated with the scroll (i.e. Torah case, Torah finger, etc.) show respect and honor to the Torah and its message.

The Song of the Sea (known as The Song of Moses) was sung by the Israelites after they crossed the Red Sea on dry ground. It describes their experience, Pharaoh’s army being destroyed by the collapsing waters, and looking forward to the Promised Land. This passage is one of the two places in a Torah where the text is inscribed differently. The brickwork pattern of the columns was designed to represent the parting of the Red Sea and the Jews passing between the waters.

The three approved traditions for preparing a Sefer Torah primarily differ in the forms of certain letters, the fonts, and the spacing. Yemenite scrolls, like M&G’s, are usually written in an older, more square-looking font, with 51 lines in each of 226 columns. Most modern Torah scrolls are Ashkenazi or Sephardic and have 248 columns of 42 lines each. Many modern scrolls use more rounded and ornamented fonts. The text is the same, but the general appearance and textual breaks differ. M&G’s Torah, which dates from the fifteenth century, is part of the Bowen Collection of Antiquities. In the 1930s and 40s, Frank and Barbara Bowen traveled to the Holy Land collecting artifacts like M&G’s Torah, to enhance appreciation and understanding of the Scriptures.

If a Sefer Torah is damaged or mistreated it becomes pasul and cannot be used in public worship. If a sofer can repair the damage, it can again become Sefer. If it is beyond repair or if it has become so fragile that continued use would damage it, the scroll remains pasul. Tradition dictates that a pasul Torah be placed in an earthen vessel and buried with dignity. However, Jewish leaders have officially approved the use of pasul Torahs by educational institutions and in museum displays, if they are given proper respect and protection.

William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer

Selected Bibliography

Basic Laws regarding Torah Scrolls

Jewish Encyclopedia: Scroll of the Law

Sofer: The Torah Scribe

How Is the Torah Made?