How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle?


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.”

Photo by Linda Burnett.

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.

Senior Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin looks on as Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac assists Sofer Yerman. Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar


Ritual Committee member Fred Isaac and I look over one of the older sifrei Torah. The sofer estimated that this scroll is at least 150 years old and may be older. Since the record of its acquisition has not survived, all we can do is guess. Photo by Linda Burnett, all rights reserved.




The Voice of Torah

Image: Julie Arnold chants Torah at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV. At her side is Rabbi Sanford Akselrad. Photo courtesy of Julie Arnold.

The first record we have of anyone reading Torah from the scroll to a congregation is in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 8:

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law. And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose… They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. – Nehemiah 8: 1-4, 8

The Hebrew phrase sefer Torah [the book of the law] is still the way we refer to a Torah scroll. The sefer Torah from which Ezra read to the people was very similar, if not identical, to the Torah scrolls in synagogues worldwide today.

A Torah scroll has only consonants and spaces in it: imagine reading this article without vowels, capitalization or punctuation:

trh scrll hs nl cnsnnts nd spcs n t mgn rdng ths rtcl wtht vwls cptlztn r pncttn

Between the 6th and 10th centuries CE, in Tiberias and Jerusalem, a group of scholars called the Masoretes worked to make sure that the text was preserved properly. Part of their work was setting up a system of markings to show vowels, punctuation, and emphasis for the Torah text.  These markings are called te’amim. They are not written in the Torah scroll – nothing is ever added to a Torah scroll! – but instead they are available in a book called a tikkun korim [correction for readers] which the Torah reader uses to prepare – think “notes for homework.”

The te’amim function as punctuation and emphasis and they are expressed by the Torah reader in musical tunes called “trope.” Those tunes are established by tradition and will differ depending on where one’s teacher learned the craft. My te’amim teacher, Cantor Ilene Keys, uses one of the Lithuanian traditions for trope. (For more about that tradition, and about its place in my life, see The Chain of Tradition.)

So when we sit in synagogue and listen to a Torah reading, we are hearing not only the text itself but also the generations of effort to safeguard that text:

Ezra the Scribe copied down the scroll with great care;
his heirs are the soferim [scribes] who make each new Torah scroll
with such great care that it is usual for it to require a year of work.

The person reading the text “stands on the shoulders” of their teachers,
who guarded the text by teaching the te’amim and the proper use of the tikkun.

And each reader has spent significant time in the past week,
studying and preparing to vocalize the text:
learning the trope, learning the words,
practicing to say each word clearly and correctly.

Thus is the ancient text transmitted from generation to generation.

A Beginner’s Guide to the Torah Scroll

Hakhnasat Sefer Torah
(Photo credit: Avital Pinnick)

Ten facts about Torah scrolls:

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer Torah, a book of Torah. It’s pronounced “SAY-fehr toe-RAH,” or in the Yiddish/Ashkenazic pronunciation, “SAY-fehr TOE-rah.” It means “book of Torah.”

2. A sefer Torah contains exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a special script. There are no vowels and no punctuation. One must study in order to be able to read or chant from the sefer Torah.

English: Hebrew Bible text as written in a Jew...
Numbers 10:35 in a sefer Torah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. It takes a sofer (SOH-fehr) (specially trained scribe) approximately 18 months to produce a sefer Torah. It takes so long because every letter is written by hand, every detail has to be checked and rechecked, and there are special rules for writing the name of God. As a result of this care, the text has been preserved over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text in a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If he or she makes a mistake on an ordinary word, they scrape the word off the parchment with a knife and continue. If they make a mistake writing the name of God, that entire panel must be cut from the scroll and a new panel sewn in in its place.

5. A typical sefer Torah weighs 20-25 pounds, although some are as heavy as 50 pounds. A sefer Torah is both massive and fragile.

6. Reading from a sefer Torah is a public act, normally performed on Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbat and holidays. The text may be read or chanted to a traditional melody called trop. It is always translated, or a translation is provided, for all who do not understand the Biblical Hebrew.

7. We carry the sefer Torah around during the Torah reading service in a ceremony called Hakafah, (hah-kah-FAH). You may see people reaching out to touch the torah with the fringes on their prayer shawls, or with their prayer books, and then kissing the object that touched the Torah. We do this out of reverence for what the Torah represents, thousands of years of tradition, learning, and revelation. We do not worship the Torah scroll.

8. During the Torah service, and at other times, we stand when the sefer Torah is out of its cabinet, often referred to as the Ark or the Aron. We always face the sefer Torah if possible, so during Hakafah we turn to follow its path around the room.

9. On Simchat Torah, (“Joy of the Torah”) a fall holiday, we celebrate finishing and restarting the yearly reading of the Torah with singing and dancing, often with the sefer Torah itself.

10. Every synagogue has customs and rules about who may handle a sefer Torah. Generally speaking, only a person who qualifies as a member of a minyan may hold a sefer Torah. When in doubt about the custom of a particular synagogue, ask the rabbi.

Simchat Torah for Beginners

Simhat Torah Flag

A few basic facts about the holiday:

WHAT IS SIMCHAT TORAH? Simchat Torah – “Joy of the Torah” – is the festival marking the day that we finish reading the Torah scroll and begin reading again from the beginning.

WHEN DO WE CELEBRATE SIMCHAT TORAH? This holiday falls immediately after Sukkot in the fall.

HOW DO WE CELEBRATE? Celebrations begin during the evening service.  We take out the Torah scrolls and parade them around the synagogue in seven hakafot [Torah processions.] We sing about the Torah, and may dance with the Torah scrolls. Children carry special “Simchat Torah flags” (see the example above) and may also receive candy. After the dancing, Torah readers read from the end of the scroll, and then from the beginning of the scroll.

WHERE DO WE CELEBRATE? Simchat Torah is celebrated mostly at the synagogue.

WHAT’S THE POINT? The Torah is the most precious possession of the Jewish People. We’ve had it for thousands of years. Many Jews spend their lives studying it, reading it, arguing about it, and struggling with it. When we come to the end of the scroll, we celebrate the fact that once again, we have read the whole scroll, and even more, once again we are beginning again. Our love affair with the Book never ends.