September 23, 2016 § Leave a comment
Some years ago, before I became a rabbi, I had the opportunity to go to a URJ Biennial convention, to join 3,000 Reform Jews in study, song, and worship. Even though I was part of a fairly large congregation at the time, I had no idea that it could be so moving to pray with such a large crowd. The Biennials are simply awesome, in the best sense of the word.
Along with all the events, the convention had a hall dedicated to the vendors of every kind. They had every imaginable form of Judaica, from paintings to books, from kippot to challah covers. And, of course, there were vendors for congregational services.
One of the vendors there was a Torah scribe – a Sofer. He was selling his Torah-checking services: a congregation could hire him to come and check their Torahs for missing letters, tears, and other forms of damage. I was fascinated by his work, and he was happy to answer my questions. He patiently explained how the Torah scroll is made.
The scrolls themselves are made of parchment paper obtained from a kosher animal, usually sheepskin or deerskin. The ink is hand blended by the Sofer – he declined to explain how – and then the letters are hand-written using a feather quill from a kosher bird.
To create the smooth, even lines of Torah text, the Sofer etches guide-lines into the parchment. This process that was once done entirely by hand with a straight-edge and a razor; now they have a machine. And, unlike English, in which all the letters ‘sit’ on the line, in Hebrew the letters all ‘hang’ from the line.
A sofer will follow the Masoretic tradition when writing the text. The Masoretes standardized the Torah text, so that all Torahs written thereafter will have exactly the same content, following the same rules of transmission.
The accomplishment of the Masoretes should not be underestimated: note, for example, that the Dead Sea Scrolls – the scrolls that were found in caves near the Dead Sea, that date back to the time of the late Temple period – have a number of variations in the texts, and we are not entirely certain as to why. The Masoretes included some known errors in the text – they made the decision that it is better to keep the error intact than to create new ones by guessing what was the correct version.
Personally, I also like that they gave up on the possibility of perfection. Of course the Torah scroll has small errors in it – that is how life unfolds.
The Sofer writes out the Torah by hand. He will only write the Tetragrammaton – the four-letter name of God, which is the most holy name and is not pronounced – after visiting a mikveh that same day. The mikveh is a pool of water gathered from living waters – either a lake or stream or rainwater – for the purposes of ritual purification. If no mikveh is available, or he does not wish to go that morning, then he can skip the name and write it later, but there is an upper limit as to how many lines he may write beyond that point.
After he is finished writing the whole Torah, the text is checked by another scribe. They also have computers to do this task, but according the Sofer, ‘humans are more accurate than machines.’
The Torah, after it is written out, is attached to two poles, called etzim. These poles are what allow us to roll it in one direction or another without getting tangled. The use of a scroll, in fact, is an old form of technology: it is the form of printing that predates books. If you’ve ever noticed in paintings and drawings of the ancients, they are always reading from scrolls. That’s because books haven’t been invented yet.
Books are medieval; they originate from hand-written folios and then eventually become volumes made on the printing press. The Talmud, for example, is standardized in its printed form in a folio layout, and it continues to be printed that way today. One difference is that each page has a number, with a front and a back, rather than the continuous pagination of books today, because it may or may not be bound together. And each page has a small repetition of the page before it, in order to identify the order of the text.
The act of reading Torah before the congregation is at least 2000 years old, and possibly older.
We have the story in Ezra, for example, of the discovery during the post-exilic period of a scroll of law that had been lost; Ezra records the decision to read it before the congregation of Israel at regular intervals.
According to the Babylonian Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin 21b, “We learn that Rabbi Yose said: Had Moses not preceded him, Ezra would have been worthy of having the Torah given to Israel through him. And even though the Torah was not given through him, its script was changed through him.” Ezra specified that the Torah text should be written in the Assyrian block letters – the ones we use now.
Dividing the Torah into weekly portions dates back to the rabbinic period. In this week’s portion, we are told about the procedure for bringing the first fruits to the ancient Temple: the person brings a basket, sets it before the priest and makes a declaration.
The ancient rabbis, writing after the destruction of the Temple, disagreed about what was included in the declaration before the priest. At the time that they were writing – primarily from the second to sixth centuries of our common era — the first fruits were no longer brought before the priest, and they were seeking to preserve a cultural memory of what had happened in the time when we were still in the land.
They were the ones who decided that studying about the first fruits was the equivalent to bringing the first fruits. So, by their logic, in reading this text, you have fulfilled the commandment of bringing the first fruits to the ancient Temple.
Similarly, with regard to the sacrificial offerings that were brought in ancient days: the rabbis determined that the prayer of the heart would be an appropriate substitution. Thus, it is possible to atone for our sins by engaging in fasting and self-reflection on Yom Kippur.