May 26, 2003 – Number 15
Laws Relating to the Torah
There are many myths and misunderstandings in relation to the scroll of the Torah. Let us examine what a Torah scroll is and what it is not. Basically, The Torah scroll is one of the oldest living scribal traditions in the world. The oldest scroll that we have are from ancient Israel from around the first century B.C.E. The “Dead Sea Scrolls” include biblical documents and they are identical to that which we have today. The love that the scribes who wrote the scrolls of the Torah had was so great that even after thousands of years, there are still few errors in the transmission of the words. Not bad for a document that relied upon the human hand to copy it faithfully!
That is not to say that there are no errors in the text. In the eighth and ninth centuries, groups of scholars who became known as the “Massorites’ began to record and preserve the ancient scribal traditions. They counted every word in the text, they counted every letter in the scroll, the counted and recorded every time the text skipped a few spaces or when a line ended and was continued on the next line. These notes are included to this day at the end of each book of the Torah in the printed volumes. The Massorites also established forever the proper vowels for each word in the Torah and the accent marks (Trops) for each phrase.
It was the vowels that caused all the trouble. Sometimes it was not possible to know exactly how a word should be pronounced. Two schools of Massorites promoted often two different spellings and pronunciations. While there were not very many errors, there were some places where, over time, a small “yod” slowly became a longer “vav” or a “vav” was extended into a “final nun”. The reverse process was also possible. Sometimes similar letters were confused (Which may explain why the letters in the first and last words of the “Shema” are enlarged, so as not to be confused with similar looking or similar sounding letters). In the tenth century, Rabbenu Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonidies) finally ruled between the two schools of Massorites. One tradition became the way the text would be read aloud, the other tradition would be the way the words would be spelled. We use this compromise to this very day.
A Torah scroll is always written by hand on parchment. Since no additional marks may be made in the parchment, lines are scratched into the parchment to keep the lines and columns straight. Letters are not written on the line as we do in English, but the special Hebrew script is “hung” from the line above. Certain letters are written with little “crowns” on them. It was once said that Rabbi Akiva, the great sage from the days of the Bar Kochba Rebellion, could deduce mountains of laws from each of these little crowns. We have no record of Rabbi Akiva actually doing this, but it raises his abilities exponentially. It takes about a year for a scribe to write a scroll of Torah.
Writing a Torah scroll is a very important Mitzvah in Judaism, but since it takes a great deal of skill, it is not one that can be done very often. For this reason, when a scribe writes a new Torah, he will leave the last few sentences unfinished, the last words outlined but not filled in. The final letters are filled in when the scroll is dedicated by those who have a hand in dedicating the scroll. Thus we have the ability to actually “write” a Torah by filling in one word or one letter. Once a page is finished by the scribe, it is checked over and attached to the previous sheet. Great care is taken to handle the “pages” since the ink dries on the parchment but is not absorbed. If a letter or part of a letter is missing, no matter which letter or word is deformed, than the entire scroll is not permitted to be used. A scribe can scratch off a letter or word in order to repair a damaged scroll. It is customary to have Torah Scroll checked by a competent scribe every few years.
Torah scrolls are rolled on wooden roller (called Atz Chayim – Trees of Life) and covered with a cloth mantle in the Ashkenazic tradition and then read laying down on the table, or the scroll is placed in a wooden or silver case in Sephardic congregations and read while the scroll is standing up.
A new or used Torah scroll is very expensive and for a while was subject to theft in some locations. A Torah Registry was formed to prevent trafficking in stolen scrolls. Since one could not write in the scroll to note how it was different from any other scroll, the Registry developed a system of putting tiny holes in a set pattern so that the scroll and text could be identified.
Next Week : How to Treat a Torah Scroll