The Torah – a sacred scripture of Judaism – requires special skills and rituals to copy, preserve and restore. While the creation of Torah scrolls is, sadly, a lost art in Europe, the holy work continues in the United States and in Israel.
Leaders and members of Temple Shalom in Wheeling had a rare opportunity in late January to see a sofer (the Hebrew name for a certified Torah scribe) at work. Rabbi Yochanan Salazar, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi from North Miami Beach, Fla., visited Wheeling to evaluate the local congregation’s collection of Torah scrolls and to make any needed repairs to the historic sacred texts.
The sofer’s role involves doing “very precise and tedious work,” he said. Each Hebrew letter must be written in a specified way, conforming to the tradition. The font of the handwritten text is an Assyrian script that “became popular during the Assyrian exile,” he said.
While each letter has a specified shape, slight variations in forming those letters “show the cultural aspect of the country” in which the scribe is working, Salazar explained. As a result, another sofer can identify the region and country, particularly in Europe, where a Torah was written by the style of the letters, he said.
Today, a Torah, in good condition, from Europe is more valuable than scrolls written elsewhere because Torahs are no longer being made in Europe, said Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner of Temple Shalom. Salazar determined, by examining the style of the lettering, that at least one of the scrolls at the local temple was written in Poland or Russia before World War II. The last scribes who wrote Torahs in eastern Europe died in the Holocaust, he said.
Temple Shalom has nine Torah scrolls, Jacowitz Chottiner said. One was acquired recently from a temple that closed in Steubenville. Two others came from former congregations in Bellaire. Some of the Torahs are from the former Synagogue of Israel in Wheeling and from the Woodsdale Temple (the predecessor of Temple Shalom).
Each scroll is stored in a protective fabric cover. The Torah is covered in white, symbolizing purity, during a special service before Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and remains in the white cover for the high holy days season, Jacowitz Chottiner said. There is no set color for the coverings used during the rest of the year.
“Ours happened to be red,” she said, noting that the Torah from Steubenville has a blue cover.
A Torah “should last hundreds or thousands of years,” Salazar said, citing the age of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Torah scrolls at Temple Shalom include ones that are approximately 90 to 100 years old, he said.
Containing the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy), the Torah is written in Hebrew, with a total of 248 columns across the long scroll, which measures at least 124 feet. Each panel is 2 feet wide; a finished Torah contains 62 to 65 panels, he said.
There are a few places where the column structure is altered slightly to recount a poem, such as a two-subcolumn format in Deuteronomy and a spot in Exodus after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds, Jacowitz Chottiner explained.
The number of lines in each column symbolizes the number of stops that the Israelites made in the desert, with some scholars citing 42 stops and other experts listing 48, she said. Torah scrolls with 42 lines are more common; Temple Shalom’s collection includes two 48-line versions which are more rare and unique, she said.
After writing is completed, the sacred scroll is affixed to a pair of wooden spindles with handles to use for holding or unrolling the scroll. Because the surface of the Torah cannot be touched, a special finger-shaped device called a yad (Hebrew for “hand”) is used as a pointer to aid a person while reading from the Torah, Jacowitz Chottiner demonstrated.
A Torah is written on parchment made from the hide of a kosher animal. The sections, each containing four to five columns of text, are sewn together with sinew from a kosher animal. “Long tendons are removed intact and then processed to look like thread, very strong like nylon,” Salazar said.
The words of the text are written with a quill using ink made from a natural formula, Salazar said. He explained that wasps produce a wax in their cocoons or nests; that wax is added to the ink in the cooking process and helps to preserve the ink.
Suet from candles or furnaces, resin from trees, ashes from certain plants and trees, and honey (which serves as a natural preservative) are added to the ink formula, which is “like grandma’s recipe,” he said. “When a sofer is being trained, the last thing they learn is to make ink,” he said.
Noting “a high rate of attrition in the sofer industry,” Salazar said there are no schools to pass on the tradition; scribes are trained by learning from and serving as apprentices to sofers. An average person takes three to five years of training to become a certified Torah scribe, he said.
The work entails “a lot of laws you have to go through and have to know well,” in addition to the actual, practical aspect of the trade. “It’s a different process,” he remarked.
For a potential scribe, the training is “like being in kindergarten again,” Salazar said. The process involves learning how to hold the quill and mastering “the brain-hand connection” needed to write the letters. “The Hebrew letter has to have a certain shape,” he said, adding, “It’s a very difficult training.”
With the letters conforming to the specified shapes, the words also must fit the column with the margins being justified. “The more experienced you are, the better you space,” Salazar related. “Probably after 10 to 12 years of writing constantly, that’s when you get to the upper level of skill.”
Sofers can make repairs or corrections to existing scrolls and they can write new Torah scrolls. It takes 10 to 12 months to create a Torah, Salazar said, noting that no writing can be done on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath) or during the holy festival season.
The time it takes to write a scroll “depends on the strength of the sofer,” he explained. “You have to copy it from a proper text. You can only write a certain amount …. You can only do five to seven hours a day.”
The sofer must take a ritual bath in the morning before beginning the day’s work; ritualized cleansing also must be done after the scribe takes a break.
Next, Salazar said, “You have to pronounce the word and then write it. You bring imbued holiness into writing. Say it, then you write it.
“You’re not allowed to think about anything else when you’re writing,” the sofer related. “You have to be 100 percent into it when you are writing.”
Special rituals have to be observed before the sofer writes all the names of God in the text. In the Hebrew tradition, there are “seven forms of God’s name considered to have that level of holiness,” Salazar explained.
“You have to wash your hands, a ritual washing and say a blessing,” he said. “It is one of the few practices that has remained about ritual purity.”
When scribes have to write a word for God’s name, they must say they are “hereby writing for the holiness of God’s name,” Salazar said. “You have to say that every time.”
After sections of the Torah have been written, the text must be proofread. Since it’s difficult to proofread one’s own work, a sofer will give the text to another scribe or rabbi to check, he said. Modern technology has produced software to find mistakes, he added.
While fixing broken letters in a 250-year-old Torah a few weeks ago, Salazar discovered an old error. “I’m reading the text and I realize something is wrong,” he said. A word was missing a letter – ” a regional mistake from 250 years ago,” representing a discrepancy between semantics and grammar, he said.
“Ninety percent of mistakes can be corrected,” the sofer said. A sharp knife can be used to scratch out an error since “the ink doesn’t permeate the parchment completely,” he said.
However, if an error is made in writing one of the words for God’s name, the scribe must replace the entire section. When the mistake involves God’s name, the sofer has to bury the flawed section and start a new section, he said.
Explaining the reason for this course of action, Salazar said, “Once you sanctify (the word for God’s name), it becomes holy. You can’t erase God’s name and rewrite it.” Scribes also believe that when they say this blessing for God’s name, the ink in the quill becomes sanctified, he said.
Salazar said, “There are a lot of people who are trained scribes – a couple thousand in the world, most in Israel, and a couple hundred in America.”
In the United States, 60 to 70 percent of those trained are certified and ordained as scribes. “Fifty or less practice the trade,” he added.
A man or a woman must become a rabbi before choosing to be trained as a scribe. Currently, three women are scribes, and Salazar predicts there will be more in the future.
Salazar, who has been a certified Torah scribe for 10 years, began the process to become a scribe 12 years ago, while he was serving as an assistant rabbi. “I went in head’s first,” he remarked, practicing and studying for four or five hours a night for two years nonstop except for Shabbat and the holidays.