Torah Scroll

Scribal arts and sacred texts.

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Jews have often been called am ha-sefer, the people of the book. This designation underscores the importance of text in Judaism and the belief that God communicates with us through the written word. The central text in Judaism is the Torah. Enhancing the importance of its teachings is the fact that it is written in a special way.

A Religious Act

Writing a Torah scroll is a religious act. First and foremost, a kosher Torah scroll must be hand-written. This is done by a sofer (scribe), a specially trained individual who is devout and knowledgeable in the laws governing the proper writing and assembling of a scroll. Sofer is from the Hebrew root "to count." According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), these scholars would count each letter of the Torah. More specifically, the modern scribe is called a sofer stam, an acronym for sefer torah (Torah scroll) tefillin (phylacteries) and mezuzah. All these ritual objects must be written according to strict standards regarding size, lettering style, and layout.

The materials used for creating these sacred items are restricted as well. Parchment used for the writing must be made from the skin of a kosher animal. The scribe mixes a special ink for the writing and prepares the actual writing utensil, a quill, usually from a turkey feather. He uses a reed instrument to scratch lines into the parchment in preparation for the writing. Once all the writing has been completed, the pieces of parchment are sewn together with thread made of animal veins. The finished scroll is attached to wooden rollers. No instrument containing iron or steel may be used in the creation of a Torah scroll, because these metals are used to create instruments of war.

There is a special type of lettering that is used to write the Torah, tefillin, and mezuzah. While the writing looks like a form of Hebrew block letters, certain letters are embellished with crowns, called tagin. The Ashkenazi and Sephardi calligraphic styles vary somewhat, but each group may use the other's Torah. Greater variations in lettering existed a few hundred years ago. Torah scrolls written by Hasidic groups had swirls in certain letters, with each letter said to convey a mystical meaning. Today, there is greater standardization among Torah scrolls.

The scribe prepares the parchment by scratching 43 horizontal lines on it and two vertical ones at each end. This allows for a standard 42 lines of writing. Each sheet of parchment contains three to eight columns of writing. Certain letters might be stretched within a column to justify the left margin.

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 7-9th 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.

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Michal Shekel

Rabbi Michal Shekel is the executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and has served as a congregational rabbi in the United States and Canada. She is also one of the original editors of the holiday section of MyJewishLearning.com.