Members of Temple Beth Shalom spent Sunday restoring a Torah scroll that began its journey about 150 years ago most likely in Germany. It was donated by Rabbi Edward Schecter, who is rededicating it to the temple in honor of his 40th year there.
Schecter purchased the scroll to rededicate it to his own family after graduating from rabbinical school. “The sofer came to my home in Cedarhurst, Long Island; my whole family came,” he said.
He recalled how each of them held the feather quill as the sofer guided it over a letter to darken the ink and adorn certain letters with crowns.
“The Torah then becomes a part of this family, just like it’s been a part of Jewish peoplehood,” Schecter explained.
In that same way, the Torah is being rededicated to Temple Beth Shalom.
Revealing an ancient art
The rabbi dubbed the day Super Torah Sunday in honor of Super Bowl that evening. It was the culmination of a month-long residency by nationally renowned Sofer Neil Yerman of Manhattan, who has been educating children and adults on the process of repairing the synagogue’s Torah scrolls – patching, sewing and cleaning the parchment and redrawing the Hebrew letters than have faded over time.
He started the day by showing children the tools of the trade, which included feathers quills from geese, a volcanic rock that is more than 100,000 years old, and sponges that came "from the bottom of the ocean."
Because the scroll embodies the most holy book in Judaism, it’s required to be perfect. For this reason, its restoration must be led by a sofer, a Jewish scribe who is certified to write Torah scrolls and other religious documents.
In addition to having a mastery of Hebrew and calligraphy, a sofer must have knowledge of more than 4,000 Jewish laws that govern the creation of holy manuscripts. In a tradition that dates back more than 2,600 years, the manuscripts must be handwritten on specially prepared parchment made from the skin of kosher animals. The letters – all 304,805 of them – must be perfectly formed or the entire scroll is considered invalid. It takes a scribe a year to transcribe a Torah scroll, which, as Yerman pointed out, is almost half the length of a football field.
Many of the scrolls in synagogues date from the 19th century and were rescued after the Holocaust. When Yerman spoke to the congregation last month, he said it was likely that some people there had had grandparents or great grandparents who were involved in the writing of this Torah.
“A Torah is said to include all of the Jews who came before us,” Schechter said.
'You helped this Torah to live longer'
Yesterday, a portion of the Torah was spread across two six-foot tables. People took turns holding the feather quill with Yerman as he guided them to form the letters. The idea is to fill in a letter from your name or in honor of a deceased family member, the rabbi explained, but if no letters are in need of repair, you can adorn the letters with a crown instead.
“It’s like … a flourish on top of the letter, like three squiggly lines above so it looks like the letter has been made into a king or a queen,” Schechter said.
The ink they used was made from copper sulfate, gum Arabic, and burnt gall nuts, which house the larvae of a particular species of gall wasp.
"So many different materials have been used over thousands of years," Yerman said. "We had to use different materials as we traveled to different lands."
In the morning, Yerman gave each child a sponge and told them, "This Torah needs a dry bath. He had them run the sponges across the width of the parchment three times each. "What you just did is you helped this Torah to live longer," he told them afterwards. "This Torah can live more than a thousand years."
Recently, Rabbi Schecter explained to the congregation that the Torah commands each Jews to write a Torah during their lifetime. Of course, most people don’t have the know-how to do this on their own, he said, but pointed out that it was still possible to perform this mitzvah.
“Even if you write one letter,” he said, “it’s as though you wrote the whole Torah.”
'A joyous memory'
In his 28 years in scribal arts, Yerman said each letter has come to have special meaning for him. In a service last month, he spoke softly as he told the congregation that whenever he draws the “shin,” the Hebrew letter with the sound sh or s, he thinks of his grandfather coming to visit in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the early 1950s. "He came to be with our family when our mother lit the Shabbos candles," he recalled. "As he came upstairs, he heard me and my brothers tumaling, and always said, 'Shhhh.' And then he said, 'Kinder — Shabbos, Shabbos.'"
Now, Yerman said, "that sound helps to produce inner calm because it's based on a joyous memory."