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Workshop:For The Sanctity Of The Torah 
               Is In The Little Things
Anne Phyllis Pinzow  

Click here to see the Hebrew Alphabet  
which is discussed in this article.  

Anne Phyllis Pinzow is a professional script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and editor.  Here is an example of a feature length magazine article, rather than a newspaper article.  It is 3,000 words long.  She also took and supplied us with the photos which were processed for the web by Sime~Gen staffer, Eric Berlin.  

For the Sanctity of the Torah, is in the little things.

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

It is perhaps one of the ironies of spiritual life that our most sacred of artifacts is constructed, not from rare metals or precious stones, but from the commonest of materials found in a primitive society.

"We take something which has absolutely no value, and make it our most holy object," said Rabbi Zerach Greenfield, a sofer (scribe). He writes and restores Torahs, the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) which tradition has it, was dictated to Moses by G-d. The Ten Commandments was only the beginning.

Throughout Moses’ life from that point on at Mt. Sinai, it is said that he walked with G-d and conversed with the Holy Spirit, as would two friends. This was because Moses was known to be the humblest of men. "That doesn’t mean he was meek," said Rabbi Greenfield.

And in this world, where there are many who would desecrate another’s beliefs out of ignorance, insensitivity, insanity, hatred or just to make a buck, being bold about preserving the sanctity of the Torah is a necessary characteristic of a humble scribe.

Such boldness comes out in Greenfield’s tales of the laws, processes and adventures he has lived in order to write and preserve Torahs, much the same way as the Talmud explains that book.

"A Sefer Torah is a live thing, meant to be used and when it isn’t used, it can cease to be a Torah."

Greenfield elaborated through the following story. The National Museum of Sweden kept a Sefer Torah in its vaults for more than 100 years to preserve and protect it from Jewish use. However, when the museum permitted the Torah to be authenticated by one of Greenfield’s colleagues, Rabbi Yitzchak Shteiner, he informed them that what they were protecting so dearly, was not a Torah. Because it had not been used, most of the letters of the Torah had flaked off.


There are 304,805 letters in a Torah


Those letters are part of an alphabet that has been described as the alphabet of flames. Each letter is made up of several strokes precisely made. Yet Greenfield was never good at penmanship, he jokes.

What’s necessary, as any good calligraphist will say, said Greenfield, is consistency. "When a Sofer writes, he really doesn’t write a lot of different letters. Looking at the Hebrew alphabet. If he writes a ‘vav’ (ו) and he extends the top, he has the ‘resh’ (ר). And if he doesn’t have a full vav it looks like ‘yod’ (י). And if he takes the resh and puts a bottom across it and up he has a ‘mem’(ם)." So while there are 27 letters, there are very few strokes that the Sofer makes. But they must be consistent. Greenfield said there are artistic differences, but the best quality Torahs are those where the lettering is consistent, achieved by practicing the same stroke over and over again.

"Imagine a bar mitzvah boy or girl coming up for the first time to read the Torah and the ‘bet’ (ב) in (טישארב) ‘Bereishit’ (In the beginning, G-d) doesn’t look the same as the ‘bet’ (ב) in (ארב). "barah" (create) They’re nice, very artistic, each one, but they’re not consistent."

These letters are written on parchment, not paper or plastic or cloth as one Delaware salesman tried to convince Greenfield. He was told that a cloth could be made that would mimic parchment so well, no one would know the difference, except maybe G-d. "If it’s not made out of parchment, it’s not a Sefer Torah," said Greenfield.

While talking about the different types of parchment used in ancient times, verses modern times, and in different parts of the world, Greenfield told a story of the recent rescue of 54 Torahs from Iraq.

"About five years ago, Saddam Hussein decided he was going to gather all the Sefer Torahs in Iraq and destroy them." However, said Greenfield, one of the officers who was involved in storing the Torahs in a warehouse for destruction realized that he could make a lot of money by selling the Torahs back to the Jewish people.

"Through some very indirect ways, someone came to our office with a little section of parchment." Greenfield said that in Iraq, deerskin is used for the Torah parchment.

The parchment was shown to Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahuan an Iraqi Jew who was a former chief rabbi and one of the leading Torah scholars. "He started to cry because he knew exactly where it came from."

The Torahs were smuggled out of Iraq into Jordan’s Palestinian camps, hidden in the inner tubes of truck tires.

However, the Palestinians wanted a million dollars for a Torah. "The rule was we would not pay more than what it was worth." He said the fear was that if they did that, people would start stealing Sefer Torahs confident that they could sell them for a million dollars each.

A million dollars is a lot of money to pay for something made of calf’s skin, wasp nests and honey. Yet these are some of the basic materials used for a Torah.

It takes approximately 80 skins to make one Sefer Torah


Torahs are still made out of parchment simply because that’s what the law says they must be made from. However, as rare a material as parchment is in modern days, Greenfield said the cost is negligible as it is made from something no one else wants, something that would be otherwise thrown away.

Nowadays, the most common parchment for Torahs comes from unborn calves. These are fetuses of calves from cows that have already been slaughtered for food.

However, that’s a modern improvement. Not too many years ago, Torahs in Israel, Morocco, Yemen, Iraq and the Middle East were written on parchment that came from goats.

The problem with goatskin is that it’s very marked by hair. To deal with that, a white "paint" was developed from lime to cover the parchment. Unfortunately, the paint would also crack, cracking the letters on it.

Another problem developed as civilization progressed, central heating. In Europe and North America, heat would be turned on in synagogues for when they would be in use, and turned off when the room would be empty. The Torahs were subject to extremes of temperature, which would cause this lime paint to crack or in other extremes, grow mold.

In Europe, the most herded animal is the cow. However cow skin could not be used for Torahs (though it is used for Tefilin), because it is so thick. So calves skin was used as well as sheepskin and deerskin.

"Deerskin was very popular, in fact it was probably the best skin to use," said the rabbi. He said that sometimes in Europe there are Torahs where the hole made from the bullet the hunter used, is still in the Torah.

In Iraq, deer were raised for meat and for parchment. "There was a very special way of making this parchment. It’s such good quality parchment," said Greenfield, that once written on, it’s very difficult to remove the ink.

There was one family considered the ultimate authorities on kosher torahs. Sofers would go to Baghdad, spend seven to eight months writing a Torah on this special parchment. The family would then examine the Sefer Torah to determine its quality. If it met the standards then it received a special stamp. No Sefer Torahs were written in Syria, said Greenfield, which is unusual because the oldest copy of a Torah, which is not considered a Torah, but which is considered the closest to the original Torah text, was found there. Though most of this copy was destroyed in the 1949 riots. There are people working on it to this day, trying to restore parts of it.

"Now that we have an animal skin, there are three possibilities of which part will be used for the writing surface," said Greenfield.

The animal skin is put in a large tumbler for sometimes up to eight hours with a lime solution that takes off all of the hair and removes the oil. Then the skin is scraped to remove any left over hair or fat and stretched on a wooden frame. When the skin is dry it is called "klaf" and cut into rectangles.

Now the layers of the dried skin are split into the epidermis and the dermis. The parchment used for Sefer Torahs, teffilin and mezuzahs comes from the inner side of the epidermis

The parchment is not yet completed. Next 42 horizontal faint lines are engraved into the parchment, said Greenfield, so that the lines of text are straight. There are also two vertical lines to mark the margins. These margins, by tradition, are five fingers wide. Greenfield said that unlike in school, where children are taught to write on the line, sofers write each letter under the line. Also, each letter is formed from left to right, though Hebrew is read from right to left. The top of the letters hangs from the line with the taller letters extending above the line.

Again, Greenfield related a story about how he had received a batch of mezuzah scrolls that did not have the lines. He took the parchment and using a copy machine, made a transparency and checked each of the parchments. They all lined up. It turned out that the supplier had used a silk screening process to produce the mezuzah parchments.

"Silk screening has depth, silk screening can be done on parchment and if you silk screen it looks like somebody wrote it." However, it’s not kosher. The person who did this went to Bangkok, Thailand and continued in business for a while because, said Greenfield, "If he did it in Israel, somebody would squeal," because, he said, Israelis are very particular about their Torahs.

It takes a turkey to write a Sefer Torah


Next comes the ink and quill used to write the Torah. In the earliest times, bamboo shoots were used as writing tools and are still used commonly by Jews in Yemen.

But in Europe, the preferred tools are goose feathers. Duck and chicken feathers are too small and they can’t hold enough ink. Large feathers are needed. "But I’m sure you all celebrate the sofer’s holiday," said Greenfield. "Thanksgiving." He said that turkey feathers are used extensively to write Torahs.

"There are enough quills in one turkey to write an entire Sefer Torah." The feathers must be large enough to have a supply of ink. And, one of the first things a sofer learns is how to prepare a quill. A pocket must be created in the quill to hold enough ink to write G-d’s name. "You must write G-d’s name with one dip into the ink well," he said. "You can fill in afterwards, but you actually have to write G-d’s name with one dip." But if too big pockets are made then too much ink is held and it can glob. A slit is made in the quill for the ink to flow evenly.

That ink is made of four ingredients. The first is called gallnuts, which is a leaf from an oak tree used by a wasp to make a nest. This is a very hard ball of material, which is ground down and mixed with water.

To that is added gum base from the acacia tree. This is to give elasticity to the dried ink. "This is very important because when I roll my Sefer Torah or mezuzah, if there’s no elasticity to the ink, the letters will crack."

"One of the ways you can tell a German Sefer Torah, unfortunately, is they did not use good gum base. Often you see Sefer Torahs from Germany with cracked letters," Greenfield said.

Magnesium or copper sulfate crystals are also added as well. Explains the rabbi; "If you look at Sefer Torahs sometimes you see that the whole Sefer Torah, the ink is brownish." According to the laws, the ink has to be black like a raven. However, if in the natural process it turns brownish red it’s okay. But if after one year the lettering turns, it was not good ink. In the course of 60 or 70 years if it starts to turn it’s because the ink has started to oxidize.

As with parchment and quills, ink also comes from different places yet every sofer has a favored ink consistency. So there can be another ingredient added.

"Sometimes to thicken the ink mixture, honey is used. But what does honey also do," said Greenfield, "it makes it sweet. So the Torah should be sweet."

But in Yemen, they make a concoction to thicken the ink, which is made from the seven special species of Israel, pomegranates, dates, figs, barely, olives, wheat, and grapes.

Only a small amount of ink is prepared at a time so that it is always fresh.


There are 248 columns of writing in a Torah.


Now we’re ready to write, said the rabbi. "When a sofer starts to write, he has to margin his letters." There must be a precise number of columns, each beginning and ending as each and every other Torah does. Sometimes letters must be stretched in order to make the columns come out right.

Also, Sefer Torahs are not written by memory but actually copied from another scroll called a Tikkun. "He (the sofer) is not allowed to do it by heart even if he knows it by heart, he must sing each letter out loud."

"About ten years ago there was a sofer named Dovi Dovitch," said Greenfield. He was the guru of all sofers. "He wrote a Tikkun where each column has an approximate width and he divided each line into 62 widths across. Where there are fewer letters for a line, he writes "60 widths" so the sofer will know he has to stretch his letters. On other lines, where there are more letters, he’ll write "64 widths" so that the sofer will know he has to write his letters a little thinner. "Of course, most of it is experience."

Greenfield said that one of the ways it can be determined if a Torah came from Poland is by the way the letters were spaced. "Jews in Poland were poor, poorer than the Jews in Russia, Austria or Germany. The people were poor and so the animals were poor. Their parchment has holes in it." The holes were patched but the columns were written either wider or narrower in places so that they wouldn’t have to go over the patches. Conversely, some of the most beautiful letters are written on the poorest parchment

There are three different traditions of writing, said Greenfield, Ashkenazi, Sphardic and Hasidic. Most of the differences tend to be about the slant or artistic form of the letters.

"We were invited by the Czech government to open up boxes that Hitler had gathered in Prague," said Greenfield. In 1944, Hitler had opened a museum in Prague, which documented the extinction of the Jewish race.

Those Sefer Torahs that he had gathered were placed in boxes and in 1995, Greenfield’s team was asked to check them. What they found were that these Sefer Torahs were six to seven hundred years old and all written in the Sphardic tradition.

There are seven letters that are formed differently between the Ashkenazi tradition and those Torahs written in Yemen under the Sphardic tradition, said Greenfield. Most are minor but two letters, the "kaf" (כ) and the "khaf" (ך).

Finding these Sphardic Torahs led Greenfield’s team to believe that these Torahs came from Spain to Germany during the Jewish expulsion from Spain in 1492. "That was no less devastating than the Holocaust," said Greenfield.


For the Sanctity of the Torah Scroll


Transforming the workman from his everyday existence to the state of mind appropriate for writing a Torah is the final and perhaps most important step.

"In order to be a sofer we have to have three basic skills," said Greenfield. "You have to know how to write the letters, a sofer must know the laws used to govern the shape of the letters (There are about 4,000 laws). And most important is that when the sofer is writing the Torah, the sofer must truly be connected to G-d. This is done by strict adherence to the laws governing Jewish life."

Aside from keeping kosher and strictly observing all the holy days, every morning the sofer must go to the mikvah (ritual bath). When he sits down to write he must actually say "For the sanctity of the Torah Scroll." If he doesn’t say this, explained Greenfield, everything he writes that day is not kosher. Of course, there is no way anyone would know if he actually says this or not.

"You have to write the letters and realize that you’re not just writing letters for the sake of finishing something. You’re writing something that is going to be part of a congregation’s life for the next 300 years."

The work involved in producing a Torah is part and parcel to its sacredness, Greenfield said.

Unfortunately, there have been schemes to silkscreen Torahs said Greenfield, as well as using other processes to cut the work in some way. In fact, said Greenfield, Arab women write counterfeit torahs as do other groups. "Women are not allowed to write Torahs because in order to do so, they must have the same obligations as a man. For a woman to participate in all the rituals is her choice, not her obligation," he said.


Oy, I made a mistake.


If a mistake is made in writing the letters in a word, the letters must be scraped off and rewritten. Greenfield said he uses a scalpel to chip and scrape the letters off. This method is more commonly used to restore an old Sefer Torah when the letters are flaking off from age.

However, if a mistake is made in writing G-d’s name, the piece of parchment with the mistake must be cut out from the word before to the word after.

Then another piece of parchment is fitted into the space where the piece with the mistake was removed. Then another piece of parchment is fitted in and around the replacement parchment so that the fit is made as close as possible. Then the words are rewritten.

However there are other traditions, which would have the sofer, rewrite the entire section of the Torah, which had the mistake.

Sefer Torahs are checked three to seven times (depending on the sofer) to check for errors. This is done by one person reading each letter aloud while the other person checks it on the Torah.

After the text is written, the parchment sections have to be sewn together into a roll with thread made from the leg sinews of kosher animals, another by product of the slaughterhouse that would have been thrown away.

After the skins are sewn together, in the Sphardic tradition the scroll is sewn onto sticks that go into a case as opposed to the Ashkenazi practice of sewing the parchment to wooden scrolls "Atzei Chayim" (trees of life) and keeping it in an ark.

In order to protect Torahs, Greenfield’s group "Machonot" (The Institute of the Letter) has helped to develop a Torah identification process. "About six years ago, the Israeli Police Department and Interpol came to us and said we need to find a way to identify Sefer Torahs without making marks on it."

Because each kosher Sefer Torah is hand written, each is slightly different. Machonot makes a template of a different section of each Torah to be protected. Also a transparency of one "page" of each Torah is kept in secret. A thief has no way of knowing which page or section it is. If a "hot" Torah is on the market, it can be traced in this manner to the legal owner.

Of 613 mitzvahs incumbent upon all Jews in the Torah, the final one is to write a Sefer Torah.

Read the other lessons by Anne Phyllis Pinzow such as:

 Explore the whole Workshop.  

Meet other Worldcrafters' Guild Writing Workshop teachers such as  Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Jean Lorrah, Lois Wickstrom and more.  

Explore the WorldCrafters Guild School of Professional Writing.    




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