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The Torah scroll

by Alfred Esch

Although the art of printing has been known and used for hundreds of years, every Sabbath the Torah portion is read out of a handwritten Torah scroll. Not without reason the Torah scroll is called the most sacred object of Judaism.

The Torah contains the five books of Moses, also called the Pentateuch or in Hebrew: Chumash (which means five). Although we call the Torah “the Law” the word literally means “Teaching”.

Religious Jews devote themselves strictly to the 613 commandments that were written in the Torah. Indeed, not printed but written!

For more than 3500 years the Torah has been copied, character-by-character. No word has been changed throughout all these years. Every copy is checked several times before being used in the synagogue. By tradition the text is written on pieces of parchment: 4 to 5 columns of 40 to 60 lines per parchment. Forty parchments are sewn together using dried strings. The ends of the parchment are attached to two rods that are called “trees of life”. The handles on these “trees of life” enable the reader to unroll the scroll to read it.

The writing of a Torah scroll is a precise task that can be done only by an official scribe (sopher). These scribes get an education that takes seven years and is only accessible to religious Jews. The scroll is never written on with a metal pen, but always with a quill made from a feather of a kosher bird, usually a goose or turkey.

Special long lasting permanent black ink is made by the sopher himself according to his own secret recipe. Before the sopher starts writing he has to try his pen on a piece of paper. According to the tradition the first word he writes, while trying out the pen, is the word “Amalek” which is crossed out as Deuteronomy 25:19 states: “that thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven”.

The Torah scroll is treated with great honour. When it is taken out of the Ark everybody rises. The weekly Torah portion is read or sung. In order to be able to read in a correct way the reader studies the text long before it has to be read. This is because the text is non-vocalized. There are no vowels in the written Torah. To protect the parchment, a pointer is used when reading. This pointer is called “yad” (hand) and is a silver hand with an extended index finger.