Restoring our Torahs

The congregation is blessed to have very special Torah scrolls that have been in our community for many years. Each is a beautiful work of scribal artistry. On this page you can learn a bit about each one, and our efforts to bring them all back to regular use. The descriptions and background information have been provided by the Sofrim at Sofer on Site.

Lithuania

This scroll was written in a nice Beit Yosef script circa 1910 in Lithuania. Although the parchment is glazed on the back it is still a light weight scroll. If you were Bar or Bat Mitzvah at Temple Beth-El between 1950 and  2012, you probably read from this scroll.  It is now need of significant restoration.

Russia

 This Torah was written in a nice Beit Yosef script circa 1920-30 in Russia. The letterwork on this scroll is particularly delicate. The parchment is glazed and it is a heavy weight scroll.  Some work is needed throughout this scroll to bring it back into service for regular reading.

Czech Republic

This Torah originated in old Czech Republic and was written in a good Beit Yosef (Maharal) script circa 1810. There some very rare Kabbalistic letters present (a tradition that sadly is no longer available to our generation) that can attest to its age. The parchment is not glazed and it is light in weight. The scroll has been restored in the past.  Although it needs considerable restoration now, there are many dark, beautifully legible sections in original scribe’s masterful hand.

Ukraine

This Torah scroll was written circa 1890 and it originates from the Ukraine. The parchment is not glazed. It is heavy in weight and it was written in the Ariza’l (Alter Rebbe) script common to scrolls of the Kabbalists.  This scroll was judged Kosher B’D’eved at its last three inspections and is in regular use.

Poland / Germany

This Torah was written in a good Beit Yosef script circa 1930. It comes from Poland/Germany, it is heavy in weight and the parchment is glazed. This scroll was judged Kosher B’D’eved at its last three inspections and is in regular use.

Background
Torah scrolls (sefer Torah – sing., sifrei Torah – plural) are written by a ritual scribe (Sofer – sing., ofrim – plural) on carefully prepared sheets of parchment made from animal skin. The most common type of animal used is cow (all of our Torahs are written on cow skin). In the area of the Mediterranean, deer skin is commonly used. Rarely, one finds parchment made of sheepskin.

Ideally, each sheet is without blemish. In Europe, however, where Jews were not able to own land, and graze their own herds, sofrim often were unable to get enough suitable skin from the people who did own the land. In some scrolls, including one of ours, you will see blemishes, or even holes and patches in the sheets because the sofer was unable to obtain the preferred quality of parchment.

In years past, the scrolls have been an integral part of our school curriculum as we learn about the conditions under which each might have been written and what life was like for Jews in that place and time.

The weight of the finished sefer Torah depends on the dimensions of the sheets. The sheets of some scrolls (including one of ours) were prepared to uniform, fine thicknesses that can only be achieved with mechanical assistance today.

To write a sefer Torah, one must have achieved a high level of scribal artistry and spiritual awareness. The scribe prepares his quills, mixes the ink and rules the parchment according to thousand‐year‐old methods. Spiritual preparation, too, is an essential part of each day’s work.

The shapes of the letters (the “font” if you will) vary from school to school according to the teachings of the rabbis in whose tradition the sofer works. The way of writing each letter is steeped in teaching.

In modern times, it takes about a year for a sofer to write a sefer Torah. During hard times in the past, the process could have taken much longer, depending on the availability of materials and the freedom to write.

Maintaining a Torah Scroll
A Torah scroll needs to be opened regularly and unrolled so that each section has a minimum of 5 minutes to breathe on a flat surface. This happens naturally with a scroll that is in regular use. Since Temple Beth-El has  been using only one of our scrolls regularly, we have now implmented  a practice of rotation, and regular unrolling of all five scrolls and allowing them to breathe for 30 minutes before rolling to the next section.

Several things can affect the readability of a Sefer Torah over time:

  •  If the scroll is not regularly unrolled for use, the ink takes the shape of the rolled parchment. When the parchment is unrolled, or even expands or contracts with the temperature of the room where it is stored, the ink can detach or crumble.
  • For many generations, Sofrim sealed the back of the parchment with a glaze made of natural materials, including egg white. After a couple of decades, the glaze crumbles and often, affixes itself to the print of the sheet rolled against it. For this reason, the practice of glazing was stopped about 30‐40 years ago.
  • Today, we think of reading a Sefer Torah in clean, well‐prepared place, lit with electric lights. In other times and places though, scrolls often needed to be read in secret, and sometimes on the ground to protect it and the readers. One sometimes also sees the remnants of candle wax that dripped accidentally on the sheets.

Temple Beth‐El’s Sifrei Torahs are true living treasures. As we learn more about them and how to care for them, we will grow wiser, not only in our understanding of the words written there, but in appreciation of the craftsmen who wrote them and our own roles in ensuring they continue to be available to be read by future generations.

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