Image: The new Torah scroll dedicated Temple Sinai of Oakland, CA on January 29, 2016. Photo by Susan Krauss, who retains all rights.
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime event: my congregation dedicated a new Torah scroll. The congregation commissioned the scroll a while back because our existing Torahs were worn with constant use. The lightest and most manageable one was frayed and aging fast.
A Sefer Torah is like a Space Shuttle: it is full of remarkable technology, simultaneously strong and fragile. Used properly it can last for a long time, but rough handling will age it sharply and an accident can destroy it in a moment.
A proper Sefer Torah is made of the skins of kosher animals. It takes at least a year to make a scroll, since most soferim copy at most one column (amud) of writing a day. There are 247 amudim. If you assume 1 amud per day, plus no writing on Shabbat or chagim [holy days], the total varies according to the Jewish year but will come close to a year.
(For more details about the making of a Torah scroll, plus other interesting information about the work of a sofer, check out YK’s Sofer Blog.)
After our Torah scroll was scribed by Sofer Moshe Weiss of B’nei B’rak in Israel, it was carried to the U.S. and eventually to California. Sofer Neil Yerman traveled from New York to help us assemble the Torah, attaching it to the etzim [rollers] using thread made of sinew from a kosher animal. A local artist, Sheri Tharp, designed and made a yad [pointer] for the new Torah from oak in a design that suggests both the oaks of Oakland and the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life. The tip of our pointer is carved from tagua nut, also known as “vegetable ivory.”
On the night before the dedication, some of us gathered to help Sofer Yurman attach the etzim to the scrolls. This photo was taken as I helped to attach the etz [roller] to the the Bereshit [Genesis] end. The gid [tendon thread] is tied onto a big sewing needle, rather like a carpet needle. Sticking that needle through the klaf [parchment] is a bit of a shock.
There’s a very homely quality to this technology. There we were, threading needles with tendon-fiber, poking the needle through the scroll as if it were a quilt at a bee. Of the four rabbis in attendance, not one of us had ever seen this done, much less participated in doing it. It was awe-inspiring, thinking that this work would benefit the congregation at Temple Sinai for perhaps a century and a half, or even two centuries into the future.
A Sefer Torah is better than a Space Shuttle in that with care, it is usable for 150 years or even more. It can take you – and your entire community! – to places beyond your wildest dreams.
13 thoughts on “How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle?”
I get the excitement of passing it forward. I think that as you and the other rabbis were sewing/attaching the parchment all of you were in a time warp reaching back into astounding history. What a wonderful time in the life of the congregation to have this new Torah!
I’ve been a member of this congregation for more than 20 years now. You’re right, there was a timeless feeling to engaging in an ancient task and at the same time preparing a scroll for the future.
The sanctity of Torah comes through so beautifully in this essay, Rabbi Adar. Many thanks!
Thank you, Rabbi Fuchs. The holiness of Torah was very much with us that evening.
Rabbi Adar, what becomes of the aged Torah scrolls?
Thank you for a great topic!!!
Hi Rabbi, thank you for explaining how the Torah scroll is attached to the end spools. But, how are the pieces of parchment connected to each other? Glue? Tape? They don’t seem to be sewn one to another. Thank you!
Yes, the panels of parchment are indeed sewn together.