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A Sefer Torah (Hebrew: ספר תורה; plural: ספרי תורה, Sifrei Torah ; “Book(s) of Torah” or “Torah scroll(s)”) is a handwritten copy of the Torah or Pentateuch, the holiest book within Judaism. It must meet extremely strict standards of production. The Torah scroll is mainly used in the ritual of Torah reading during Jewish services. At other times, it is stored in the holiest spot within a synagogue, the Aron Kodesh (“Holy Ark”), which is usually an ornate curtained-off cabinet or section of the synagogue built along the wall that most closely faces Jerusalem, the direction Jews face when praying.
The text of the Torah is also commonly printed (for non-ritual functions) in bound form, known as a Chumash (“five-part”, for the five books of Moses), often accompanied by commentaries or translations.
Torah reading from a sefer Torah is traditionally reserved for Monday and Thursday mornings, as well as for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The presence of a minyan is required for the reading of the Torah to be held in public during the course of the worship services. As the Torah is sung, following the often dense text is aided by a yad ("hand"), a metal or wooden hand-shaped pointer that protects the scrolls by avoiding unnecessary contact of the skin with the parchment.
Dedicating a Torah Scroll
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Introduction of a new Sefer Torah into a synagogue is often accompanied by celebratory dancing, singing, and prayer. This is a very ancient celebration; in First Temple times, around 1000 BCE, the Bible comments that the priests, and even ancient Hebrew kings such as David, “danced before the ark” or “danced before the Lord”, both meaning they danced, celebrated and prayed (often in an ecstatic manner) before the Ark of the Covenant, where God’s word was held. It is a tremendous merit to write (or commission writing of) a Sefer Torah, and a significant honor to have a Sefer Torah written in one’s honor or memory.
According to Jewish law, a sefer Torah (plural: Sifrei Torah) is a copy of the formal Hebrew text of the Five Books of Moses hand-written on gevil or qlaf (forms of parchment) (see below) by using a quill (or other permitted writing utensil) dipped in ink. Producing a sefer Torah fulfills one of the 613 mitzvot (Judaism’s commandments).
“The k'laf/parchment on which the Torah scroll is written, the hair or sinew with which the panels of parchment are sewn together, and the quill pen with which the text is written all must come from ritually clean —that is, kosher— animals. … A scribe may never use tools of ‘base metals’, for these are associated with implements of war.”
Written entirely in Hebrew, a sefer Torah contains 304,805 letters, all of which must be duplicated precisely by a trained sofer (“scribe”), an effort which may take as long as approximately one and a half years. Any error during inscription renders the sefer Torah pasul (“invalid”). According to the Talmud (the oral law of the Jewish People), all scrolls must also be written on gevil parchment that is treated with salt, flour and m'afatsim (a residual of wasp enzyme and tree bark) in order to be valid. Scrolls not processed in this way are considered invalid (Hilkoth Tefillin 1:8 & 1:14, Maimonides). In addition, the Talmud (in tractate Bava Batra 14b & Gitten 54b) states that Moses used gevil for the Torah scroll he placed into the Holy Ark.
Most modern Sifrei Torah are written with forty-two lines of text per column (Yemenite Jews use fifty). Very strict rules about the position and appearance of the Hebrew letters are observed. See for example the Mishna Berura on the subject. Any of several Hebrew scripts may be used, most of which are fairly ornate and exacting. The fidelity of the Hebrew text of the Tanakh, and the Torah in particular, is considered paramount, down to the last letter: translations or transcriptions are frowned upon for formal service use, and transcribing is done with painstaking care. An error of a single letter, ornamentation, or symbol of the 304,805 stylized letters which make up the Hebrew Torah text renders a Torah scroll unfit for use, hence a special skill is required and a scroll takes considerable time to write and check.
Naturally, one wonders how a document with so many letters can be produced with no errors; of course, some errors are inevitable in the course of production. If the error involves a word other than the name of God, the mistaken letter may be obliterated from the scroll by scraping the letter off the scroll with a sharp object. If the name of God is written in error, the entire page must be cut from the scroll and a new page added, and the page written anew from the beginning. The new page is sewn into the scroll to maintain continuity of the document. The old page is treated with appropriate respect, and is buried with respect rather than otherwise destroyed or discarded.
The completion of the sefer Torah is a cause for great celebration, and honored guests of the individual who commissioned the Torah are invited to a celebration wherein each of the honored guests is given the opportunity to write one of the final letters. It is a great honor to be chosen for this.
It is a Mitzvah for every Jew to either write or have written for him a Sefer Torah.
In modern times, it is usual for some scholars to become sofers, or trained scribes, and to be paid to complete a Sefer Torah under contract on behalf of a community or by individuals to mark a special occasion or commemoration. Because of the work involved, these can cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce to ritually proper standards.
A printed version of the Torah is known as a Chumash (plural Chumashim). They are treated as respected texts, but not anywhere near the level of sacredness accorded a Sefer Torah, which is often a major possession of a Jewish community. A chumash contains the Torah and other writings, usually organised for liturgical use, and sometimes accompanied by some of the main classic commentary.
Types of material permitted to use for a Sefer Torah
There are three types of specially processed animal skin or parchment: gevil, Klaf (also Qlaf or K'laf), and duchsustos. These are Hebrew words to describe different types of parchment, although the term duchsustos is Greek. These are used for the production of a mezuzah, megillah, tefillin, and/or a Sefer Torah (“Torah scroll”). A kosher Sefer Torah should be written on gevil. If klaf is used in place of gevil, the Sefer Torah is still kosher, but this should not be done at the outset (bedieved). A Sefer Torah written on duchsustos is not kosher.
After preparation, the scribe must mark out the parchment using the sargel (“ruler”) ensuring the guidelines are straight. Only the top guide is done and the letters suspended from it.
The use of gevil and certain types of parchment has allowed some sifrei Torah of antiquity to survive intact for over 800 years.
A completed Sefer Torah is treated with great honor and respect. It is housed in the Ark (Aron Kodesh or Hekhal), which in its turn is usually veiled by an embroidered parokhet (curtain) as it should be according to Exodus 26:31-34. The scroll itself will often be girded with a strip of silk (see wimpel) and "robed" with a piece of protective fine fabric, called the "Mantle of the Law". It is decorated with an ornamental breastplate, scroll-handles (‘eẓ ḥayyim), and the principal ornament—the "Crown of the Law", which is made to fit over the upper ends of the rollers when the scroll is closed. Some scrolls have two crowns, one for each upper end. The metalwork is often made of beaten silver, sometimes gilded. The gold and silver ornaments belonging to the scroll are collectively known as kele kodesh (sacred vessels), and somewhat resemble the ornaments of the Kohen Gadol (high priest). The scroll-handles, breastplate and crown often have little bells attached to them. A yad, or pointer, may also be hung from the scroll, since the Torah itself should never be touched with the bare finger. This ornamentation does not constitute worship of the Sefer Torah, but is intended to distinguish it as sacred and holy, as the living word of God. Special prayers are recited when the Sefer Torah is removed from the Aron (see Torah reading), and the text is chanted, rather than spoken, in a special melodic manner (see Cantillation and Niggun). Whenever the scroll is opened to be read it is laid on a piece of cloth called the mappah. When the Sefer Torah is carried through the synagogue, the members of the congregation may touch the edge of their tallit to the Sefer Torah and then kiss it as a sign of respect.
In the Mizrachi and Romaniote traditions, the Sefer Torah is generally not robed in a mantle, but rather housed in an ornamental wooden case which protects the scroll, called a "tik". On the other hand, most Sephardi communities — those communities associated with the Spanish diaspora, such as Moroccan Jews, the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (with the exception of the Hamburg tradition), and the Judaeo-Spanish (Ladino-speaking) communities of the Ottoman Empire — do not use tikim, but rather vestidos (mantles).
- Torah reading
- Parsha (weekly readings from a Sefer Torah)
- The Five Scrolls
- Tikkun (book) (used to prepare for the reading of Sefer Torah in synagogue)
- Ashuri alphabet (Ktav Ashuri)
- Ktav Stam