What is a Sefer Torah?

Torah Scroll from Lithuania written in the sixteenth century

My last article was What is a Torah?, and now I want to discuss a particular type of Torah. A Sefer Torah is a handwritten copy of the Torah on a scroll, rather than in a book, and is still used for ceremonial purposes in Synagogues. On Mondays and Thursdays short sections of the Torah are read, and a longer sections are read on Saturday (Sabbath, Shabbat) and during festivals; over the course of a year, the entire scroll will be read. Because every section, or Parsha, is to be read at a certain time of year, every synagogue in the world will be reading the same section on the same day. A Sefer Torah may only be read when there are ten or more men over the age of 13 present, called a minyan.1 When not in use, a Sefer Torah is kept in a Torah Ark in the Synagogue.

Sefer Torahs are written on scrolls made from the skins of kosher (ceremonially clean) animals, usually a goat, bull /cow, or deer, which must be specially prepared for use in a Sefer Torah. The skins, or sheets, can take two weeks or more to prepare each one, as they must be soaked in lime water to remove the hair, bleached to turn the sheets white, and dried on a wooden frame. The parchment is then scraped and sanded smooth, so the carefully written letters will be well defined. Depending on the width of the parchment, there may be from three to eight columns. After preparation, the scribe uses a straight edge to create slight indentations in the scroll for the traditional 42 lines of text which will be written on it, although some scrolls use more than 42 lines in each  column.2  The process of creating a Sefer Torah often takes a year or more for a scribe to create, and new ones cost tens of thousands of dollars.3

The ink must be durable, but not indelible, and is made from gallnuts, gum arabic (the adhesive), copper sulfate (which gradually blackens the gallnut powder), water, and possibly carbon black. To keep it fresh, some scribes make it in small batches of a few teaspoons; others buy it. A pen is fashioned from either from a reed or a quill of a kosher bird, usually turkey or goose. Sharpening the quill can be quite a chore. To test the ink and pen, the scribe writes the Hebrew word “Amalek”, and then crosses it out.  This arises from the Biblical admonition  to “blot out” the name of Amalek.45

In my earlier article, Who are the Masoretes?, I wrote about the importance of the work of the Masoretes, including the addition of vowels to written Hebrew.6 Sefer Torahs follow the ancient tradition of only writing consonants, so a person reading from a Sefer Torah must be well trained and familiar with the passage to ensure correct pronunciation.7 To prepare for reading a Sefer Torah, a Tikkun is used, which contains the text as it appears in the Sefer Torah, and the text with the vowels and cantillation marks for pronunciation.

A Sefer Torah can often last for decades, and in some cases centuries, and are in constant use. Special care is taken to ensure the scrolls are not damaged or the ink smudged.

Reading the Torah scroll, using a yad (Torah pointer) to follow along in order to both protect the parchment and the handwritten text, and to show reverence for the Word of God.

A person reading from the scroll uses a delicate pointer, called a yad, to follow the words. Use of the pointer safeguards the scroll, which would soon be damaged by the constant running of fingers over the fine manuscript. Moreover, the yad minimizes the possibility for error in oral recitation by preventing the reader from losing his place and possibly skipping some words of God’s sacred revelation.8

The format of a Sefer Torah is carefully copied. There will be 248 columns9 in a Sefer Torah, with 42 lines of text in the columns. In spite of the fact that Hebrew is read from right-to-left, a scribe will write a Sefer Torah from left-to-right so the scribe’s attention will be focused on the individual letters rather than the word. Even the spacing of each letter is carefully controlled.10

Scroll with "Song of the Sea" from Exodus 14:1-19

There are some places in the Torah where certain letters are larger or smaller than standard, or where the text is written in a different type of column. Each deviation from the norm carries a special meaning. For example, the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1-19), which describes the parting of the Sea of Reeds, consists of three interlocking columns. The two outer columns symbolize the sea parted on either side, with the middle column representing the children of Israel marching on dry ground. Visually, this sets the section apart from the surrounding columns. Such changes were instituted by the Masoretes — scribes of the 7th-9th centuries who standardized the biblical text — to highlight the importance of certain passages. All of the writing and layout must be done exactly to specification in order for the scroll to be kosher.11

When a scribe has finished writing a sheet for a Sofer Torah, the sheet must be carefully checked for errors. There are 304,805 letters in a Sefer Torah, and each letter must be counted three times.12 Only after these checks will the individual sheets be stitched together into a scroll. The scribe will use one stitch for every six lines of text.13 The stitching will be done from the back so they are not visible. Finally, the scroll will be attached to wooden rollers, called Etz Chaim, or “Trees of Life”. The rollers are often decorated with silver or gold handles.14

Tanakh Scrolls unrolled (Torah is at the bottom)
Tanakh Scrolls unrolled (Torah is at the bottom)
Tanakh Scrolls rolled up
Tanakh Scrolls rolled up

If a Sefer Torah is dropped, it is customary for people to fast, but who fasts and for how long is debated. Some opinions are the person who dropped it should fast for a day, while others believe the whole congregation should fast during daylight hours for 40 days, and there are many variations in between. There is no Jewish requirement for fasting when a Sefer Torah is dropped, so the decision is left up to a Rabbi, and can change depending on the circumstances.15

New Torah scrolls go through rigorous checks before becoming kosher, or approved for use in a Synagogue. There are over 4,000 laws the scribe must follow before a Torah Scroll is considered a Sefer Torah. Deuteronomy 12:2-4 (HNV)16 gives instructions to the Israelites on what to do with the gods and places of worship in the land they were going into.  This passage ends with “…you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods; and you shall destroy their name out of that place. You shall not do so to the LORD your God.” Because of this command, Jews believe it is a violation of God’s law to destroy his name.

When a Sofer (scribe) is writing the Sefer Torah he must prepare himself mentally to sanctify the name of G-D. Once he starts writing the name he may not stop until it is finished and if he makes a mistake he may not change what he has written. One of two things can happen at this point. According to some Soferim, he may take a very sharp object and cut out that piece of skin, glue a new piece on the back side of the sheet and re-write the name. There is quite a bit of argument with this procedure though. The most common thing he may do is take the entire sheet to the geniza and never use it.17

A Sefer Torah can become pasul, or invalid, when a mistake is found or if it is damaged; sometimes mistakes are found after a scroll has been in use for years. When a Torah becomes pasul, it can no longer be used in a Synagogue unless it’s repaired.18 When a repair is made, the whole Torah must be checked again before it is considered kosher. Repairs may range from rewriting letters to make them legible again, to scraping off the mistake, to replacing small sections of the scroll, to replacing entire sheets in the scroll.

…the Torah is the most honored and prized possession of the Jewish nation. It is copied with such reverence that if one letter is added or subtracted from the writing, the Torah is considered pasul [invalid] and can not be used until it is corrected. (Megilah 18b; YD #274) This creates a problem because all hand written manuscripts are subject to errors. Humans make mistakes. At least twice Torah scholars have gone on a world wide search throughout Jewish communities examining the pattern and accuracy of the Torahs in each region and then comparing all the regions of the world for consistency.19

Repair on Torah Scrolls can be done by cutting out the pasul section (Numbers 26:38)
Repair on Torah Scrolls can be done by cutting out the pasul section (Numbers 26:38)

Certain types of scribal errors have turned up occasionally. One is a “dittographic” error.  This consists of an erroneous repeat of a letter or word…. The reverse of this is a “haplographic” error where a word or letter is supposed to be repeated, but isn’t. Then there are Homoioteleutonic errors.  This largely unpronounceable circumstance arises when several words or whole lines of text are omitted or repeated.  If a word appears twice in nearby locations, the scribe is at the first one, but then when his eyes return to the tikkun from which he works, he “returns” to the second one.20

When a Sefer Torah becomes pasul beyond repair, it must be disposed of properly. The Torah will be placed in a Genizah, which originally meant “hiding” but now means “storage” or “archive”. A genizah may be anything from a storage box to an entire room in a Synagogue.2122 The “strict genizah” laws require the Torah be placed in a sealed earthenware jar and buried in a Jewish cemetery within 30 days. The “standard genizah” allows for objects to be sealed in plastic and buried where they won’t be disturbed. In both cases, the intent is to preserve the scroll as long as possible, so as to not destroy God’s name.23

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Some congregations allow women in a minyon if there are not enough men present.
  2. Pinchas, Mordechai. Sefer Torah (Mordechai Pinchas – Sofer) Accessed 26-Mar-2019.
  3. Torah Scrolls – Sefer Torah (ajudaica.com)
  4. Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this as a memorial in a book and recite it in the ears of Joshua, that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” Exodus 17:15 (ESV)
  5. Berch, Mark L. The Sefer Torah From Start to Finish | A New Torah Is Created, Part 1 (Tifereth Israel Congration)
  6. Prior to the Masoretes, there was no standard way of writing vowels in Hebrew.
  7. What is a Sefer Torah? (Torah Tots, Inc.)
  8. Elwell, Walter A., editor. “Torah” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Baker Book House Company, 1988) (Logos Bible Software)
  9. Some resources indicated 245 columns, but 248 seemed more common.
  10. Torah Trivia (Behrman House Online Learning Center) Accessed 22-Mar-2019.
  11. Shekel, Michal. The Making of a Torah Scroll (My Jewish Learning) Accessed 06-Mar-2019.
  12. Counting three times may be an ancient tradition which is not used by some modern scribes. Computers can be used to verify the contents, but I don’t know if they can be considered as one of the three verifications a scroll is kosher. (Examine Your Torah Via Technology (Sofer On Site; Website) Accessed 01-Apr-2019.)
  13. Yeriot, sewn with Giddin (Memorial Scrolls Trust) Accessed 26-Mar-2019.
  14. The pictures contain scrolls other than the Torah, but I wasn’t able to find a picture of just the Torah which looked as good.
  15. Zivotofsky, Ari Z. What’s the Truth about. . .Fasting Forty Days Upon Seeing a Torah Scroll Fall? (Jewish Action, Fall 2028) Accessed 28-Mar-2019.
  16. You shall surely destroy all the places in which the nations that you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains, and on the hills, and under every green tree: and you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods; and you shall destroy their name out of that place. You shall not do so to the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 12:2-4 HNV)
  17. Writing the name of God in a Hebrew Scroll (Scrolls4All.org) Accessed 28-Mar-2019.
  18. When a scribe makes a mistake (HaSoferet.com) Accessed 30-Mar-2019.
  19. The Duties of a Hebrew Scribe or Sofer (Scrolls4All.org) Accessed 28-Mar-2019.
  20. Berch, Mark L. The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | Problems Problems, Part 2 (Tifereth Israel Congration) Accessed 29-Mar-2019.
  21. Any holy book, such as the Talmud and midrash, or documents which contains the name of God, should be disposed of in a genizah.
  22. Archaeologists are ecstatic when a genizah is discovered, as they contain treasure troves of scrolls.
  23. Neustadt, Rabbi Doniel. Proper Disposal Of Ritual Objects (Torah.org) Accessed 28-Mar-2019.
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