Sunday, April 24, 2005

Torah Scroll

I arrived in Wellingon on Saturday morning, just in time for the Saturday morning service at Temple Sinai, my old synagogue. I was invited to come up to the front and say one of the blessings for the Torah reading. Every week a portion of the Torah (the five books of Moses (more or less the same as in the Christian's Old Testament) handwritten onto a scroll, is read out to the congregation. Between reading the blessings, I got to have a good look at the scroll through my bookmaker's eyes.

The Torah scroll at Temple Sinai is an old one from Czechoslovakia hidden during the Holocaust, along with others that after the war were repaired and sent out to far flung Jewish communities around the world. It is big and heavy with beautiful Hebrew calligraphy.

A Torah scroll is handwritten and made by a sofer (scribe). He (I doubt that women get to do this work) prepares the parchment using the skin of a kosher animal, usually a cow, by soaking it in limewater for 9 days. Then he stretches it on a frame and scrapes it until it is dry and sands it until is a flat smooth sheet for writing on. I don't know how many cows it takes to make a Torah scroll but I'm sure it's a lot!

The sofer makes the ink by blending nuts, copper sulphate crystals and gum arabik with water to make it very black. He only makes two teaspoons at a time so it is always fresh. He also carves a sharp nib on a goose feather quill.

When the quill, parchment and ink are ready, the sofer goes for a ritual bath to purify himself, seeking to become a human vessel for Divine words. If he makes a mistake the parchment is buried and the sofer starts that section again (no pressure). It takes a year to write a scroll. After checking for accuracy, the sections of parchement are sewn together using the leg sinews of a kosher animal.

The sofer doesn't finish writing the Torah though, the last few words are saved to be written in when it is dedicated to a community, a very joyous occasion. Being up close with a Torah scroll, I am always awed by the immense project and immaculate handiwork that make it a holy object, a repository for Divine words that is not a neutral medium as most codex books.

Thanks to Joellen, for sharing this information about scroll-making with me.

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