12 Facts about the Torah Scroll

Image: A Sefer Torah belonging to Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Susan Krauss.

1. The proper Hebrew name for a Torah scroll is Sefer 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 accurately over the centuries.

4. The sofer writes the text with a special ink on parchment produced from the skin of a kosher animal. If they 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. A sefer Torah is sewn together with a special thread made from the sinews of a kosher animal. (For more about this process, read How is a Sefer Torah like a Space Shuttle?)

7. 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.

8. Most Jewish communities only read from the Torah during daylight hours. This practice dates back to the time when there was no technology that provided sufficient light for doing it at night.

9. 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.

10. 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.

11. 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.

12. 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.

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Waxing Gibbous: Torah “Secrets”

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, nor is it far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us hear it, that we may do it?’ But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it. – Deuteronomy 30: 11-14

There’s a big old nearly-full moon in the sky tonight (the scientific name is “waxing gibbous.”) It may be the first of July in the Gregorian calendar, but it is also nearly the middle of the month of Tammuz in the Jewish calendar. The full moon comes at the middle of every Jewish month.

This week we also have a “double star” event in the sky, a conjunction of Jupiter and Venus. The astrologers are excited over it (“romantic yearnings” – I looked it up!) Some scientists think that this may have been what was happening in the sky when ancient astronomers got all excited roughly 2015 years ago to make what the New Testament calls the Star of Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:1-12)

It is not Jewish tradition to try to foretell the future. (We are, in fact, forbidden to consult fortunetellers.) We’re supposed to cope with life as it comes. That’s because we are taught that we are already equipped to deal with whatever comes, through our study of Torah. That’s what the passage from Deuteronomy above is telling us: there is no secret to Torah. Everything in it is right there, if we are willing to study, and it is sufficient to live out a good life.  It isn’t in a foreign land, or in the stars, or in the deeps of the sea, rather it is right in our mouths, right in the words of Torah.

Rabbis don’t know “secrets of Torah.” We study as much Torah as we can – we devote our lives to it – and we make it available to others. The luckiest, happiest rabbis are the one whose students surpass them in learning.

What Torah have you been learning lately? With whom do you study?

Tweeting #Torah to the Top

My Twitter feed will go a little crazy starting at midnight Friday morning, Pacific time. I’m part of a group of Jews who for the past few years have tried to tweet #Torah to the top of the “Trends” on Twitter before Shavuot. It’s an Internet-age way of acting out the ascent of Sinai – and it’s a lot of fun. We’ve been doing it since 2009.

You’re welcome to join in! For more info and some suggested tweets, you can check out the Facebook page for this project. But really, all that is involved is that you send tweets about Torah, or tweets of Torah, and use the hashtag #Torah. It started at midnight, your local time, and it will continue until sundown Friday, when Shabbat begins.

If you’d like to follow me, you can do so at @CoffeeShopRabbi. If you’d like to see our “ascent of Sinai,” just search on Twitter for #Torah. Those tweets are sometimes quite wonderful.

See you on Twitter!

Kissing the Torah: Idolatry?

The Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about idol worship:

I will lay the corpses of the Israelites in front of their idols and scatter your bones around your altars. – Ezekiel 6:5

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. –Isaiah 44:9

Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. – Jeremiah 11:12

And of course, there is the direct commandment against idolatry in the Torah:

You are not to have any other gods before my Presence. You are not to make yourself a carved-image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; you are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them, for I the Eternal you God am a jealous God. – Exodus 20:3-5

So sometimes visitors are surprised to attend services in a synagogue and see Jews carrying the Torah with reverence, touching it, and even touching it and then kissing their fingers. Isn’t that idolatry?

I like what my friend Rabbi David J. Cooper has written about this: “…if it does seem like idolatry to you, you should definitely not kiss the Torah.” If any custom or even a mitzvah feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Wait, study, and talk with a teacher that you trust. If it continues to feel wrong, trust your conscience.

Many people, myself included, kiss the Torah. I also touch the mezuzah when I go through a doorway. Here are two things to know about this practice:

Kissing any religious object (the Torah, a mezuzah, the fringes on a tallit) is not an obligation. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to do it. It is a practice that is meaningful to some Jews and not to others.

There are many reasons for this kissing. If you ask four Jews “why kiss?” you will probably get at least five answers.

Why do I kiss the Torah when it passes by me? I kiss it out of love and reverence for what it represents.  To me, it represents the centuries of Jewish striving towards holiness, centuries of struggling with a book that is passed through imperfect human hands. The Torah itself is not holy; it is a signpost that points towards holiness. When I touch it and kiss my fingers, I remind myself that it is my compass, pointing towards that which I seek.

Other Jews will have other answers. If you are Jewish, dear reader, what do you do when the Torah passes by you during the service? Do you kiss it? Why or why not?

For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:

What Goes On in a Jewish Service? (Especially for Beginners) 

Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.

Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.

What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.

What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.

What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.

 

Ask the Rabbi: Should I Keep Kosher?

A reader asked: “I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. Should I keep kosher? How do I get started?”

First of all, thank you for asking. It’s always good to ask. I have some questions for you before I answer directly, though.

You say that you are in the process of conversion to Judaism. Are you studying with a rabbi? If you are, this is really a question for your rabbi, not for some random rabbi on the internet. Sit down with your rabbi and talk it through. If you don’t feel that you can ask your rabbi, then perhaps you haven’t found the right rabbi yet. Go meet some more rabbis! You need to work with someone with whom you can talk.

If you do not yet have a rabbi, you need to get one. Saying “I’m in the process of conversion” isn’t really accurate; the first step is to find your rabbi, one with whom you feel comfortable and who is willing to work with you. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve read, how much you know, how many holidays you’ve celebrated: until you get yourself a rabbi, you have not yet gotten serious about conversion. A lot of the conversion process takes place within the relationship of rabbi and candidate. If you are not sure how to find your rabbi, I’ve written about it in Choosing a Rabbi.

I know that this answer may be annoying or a disappointment. But it is really the truth: you need to talk this over with your rabbi. Here’s why:

When you become a part of the Jewish people, you do so as part of a specific community of Jews. Different communities have differing customs. If you check out the kashrut (kosher) customs in several different Jewish communities, there will be differences. The sage Hillel teaches us “Do not separate yourself from the community.” You need to learn the customs of your community. So talk to your rabbi, and follow his or her guidance.

You will get different answers from different rabbis. Depending on the congregation and the movement – and depending on the rabbi! – he or she might do any of the following:

  • suggest some reading about kashrut, and discuss it with you before you disrupt your kitchen and your household.
  • caution you about taking on too much too quickly, and direct you to explore other mitzvot first.
  • match you up immediately with someone in the congregation who is knowledgable and who keeps a kosher kitchen, so that you can learn from them.
  • direct you to a class on kashrut and encourage you to get on with it.
  • talk with you about your reasons for interest in kashrut and explore with you what observance might be right for you and fit in with your community.

So there’s my answer for you: talk to your rabbi. If you don’t have one, get one. Conversion is a long complex process, involving growth and change in many areas, and you need more than an anonymous rabbi on the computer. You need someone with whom you are willing to be honest, and who can read body language as well as email.

Make the most of your exploration of Judaism, and of the sacred partnership with your sponsoring rabbi. Good luck!

From Generation to Generation

Women_of_the_Wall_Holding_Torah

I’m going to attend a bat mitzvah next weekend. A young woman from my first student pulpit is being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, a “daughter of the commandment.” While I’ve been growing up as a rabbi, the little girl who used to call me “Wabbi Woot” has been growing up into a young woman of great intelligence and dignity. She will lead us in prayer and read to us from the Torah scroll.

I’m excited, because this is one of those moments in the rabbinate when I can see something that is often invisible: the chain of tradition. Rebekah has learned some of her Torah from me: not her portion, but the lived Torah that is the fabric of Jewish life. I’m going to watch her ritualize her movement into adulthood in the Jewish community, knowing that some of my Torah goes with her.  Not mine alone, by any means: she has internalized Torah from her parents, her grandparents, and her many teachers. But for me, as a relatively new rabbi (ordained in 2008) it will be a very solemn moment, watching a bit of my Torah pass to the next adult generation of Jews.

Where did I get my Torah? I got it from the rabbi with whom I converted, Rabbi Steven Chester.  I got it from my mentor and friend, Dawn Kepler. I got it from the cantor who taught me Torah trope, Cantor Ilene Keys. I got it from my first study partner, Fred Isaac. I got it from the rabbi I worked for at the URJ, Rabbi Michael Berk. I got it from all my teachers at Hebrew Union College. I got it from the elders at the Home for Jewish Parents in Reseda, CA. Today, I get it from colleagues and yes, from my students.

100 years from now, I don’t expect anyone to remember Rabbi Ruth Adar. But I know that just as the chain of tradition goes back behind me into the mists of history, to the teachers of my teachers all the way back to the Chazal, the great rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud, so too the Torah I transmit will be alive and well in 5875 and however far into the future Jews continue to exist. Rebekah and my other students will teach their children, and their students, and a little of my Torah will travel with them far into the future.

Every moment, every encounter, each of us has an opportunity to teach Torah. We teach it most strongly with our behavior, with the tone we take in dealing with other human beings. We teach those with whom we interact and anyone who happens to be watching. The majority of the transmission of Torah does not happen in the yeshivah: it happens in the marketplace, in the parking lot, in the casual conversations of everyday. This is true for every Jew, not just the professionals.

Hold that Torah gently. Do not try to hold it alone.

What’s a Mitzvah?

“What’s a mitzvah?” a reader recently asked.

If you look it up in the Hebrew dictionary, it will tell you that a mitzvah is a commandment.

“Commandment” in English implies that it comes from outside, and it isn’t my choice. And yet each mitzvah IS a choice: I can keep it, or I can neglect it. It’s up to me. These duties are rooted in Torah, but they are acted out in my life, and in the lives of my fellow Jews.

I prefer to think of mitzvot (that’s the plural) as my sacred duties. Whether they are as lofty as saying my prayers, or as mundane as paying workers on time, they increase the holiness in the world, and they are choices I make every moment of every day. I do not get a gold star for doing them. They are just what I do as a Jew.

This month I’m asking myself: which of my sacred duties have I neglected? Which have I done poorly, done for ego, done only when someone is looking? Which have I treated as truly sacred?

How can I do better?

This post is inspired by #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, also known as @imabima.