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.




A Kiss is Just a Kiss – Or is it?

Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4

In the Torah scroll, the word “kissed” in this verse is always written with a dot above each letter. This is extremely unusual; words in the Torah Scroll usually have no dots or signs at all. While we don’t know exactly why the early scribes saw fit to write the word this way, from the earliest times rabbis have taken it as a sign to pay special attention to that word in the text.

When the text says that Esau embraced Jacob, falling upon his neck and kissing him, the collection of midrash called Genesis Rabbah offers two interpretations side by side:

  1. Rabbi Simeon ben Elazar said that Esau felt compassion for his brother and kissed him with all his heart.
  2. Rabbi Yannai interpreted the dots to mean that the meaning of the word “kissed” is reversed: Esau bit Jacob’s neck, and it miraculously turned hard as marble. The two men wept because Esau’s teeth and Jacob’s neck both hurt.

This is a classic example of two people reading the same text and having very different reactions to it. This happens with many of the characters in Genesis, particularly with Jacob and Joseph. I have seen students get terribly angry and seem to take someone else’s interpretation as almost a personal insult.

When I have spoken with such people outside of class, trying to understand, it began to make sense. They were identified with a character in the story, and it hurt them to hear another student say that character was a bad guy.

Perhaps Rabbi Simeon was an eldest child, and felt sympathy for Esau. Perhaps Rabbi Yannai could not forget the time that his older brother hurt him.

Torah, particularly Genesis,  is a mirror. We look into it and we see ourselves. Sometimes that is conscious, and sometimes it’s a kinship we feel deep in the unconscious.

Is there any character in Torah to whom you feel particularly close? Have you ever felt hurt by someone else’s reading of a story in Torah?

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.