From Moses to Kingston Avenue: A Torah Story

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By Becky Bratu

With my knees bent and my hands holding on to the ledge for support, I looked down from the women’s section of the 770 Eastern Parkway synagogue at the ecstatic men below and tried to make sense of their celebration. Downstairs, the men from the Chabad-Lubavitch sect of Hasidim were jumping up and down and embracing one another. From the sea of black coats and hats a thick cylinder wrapped in fabric emerged periodically, hoisted by the dancing men. The women slouched down so they could watch through the narrow opening in the dark glass that blocks the view of the women’s section. The women smiled. The men sang and danced in big circles. A young man waved a big yellow flag with a crown in its middle and the word “Moshiach” written underneath it.

“Just watch,” a middle-aged woman said to me in broken English, “and you can make a wish.”

I looked back down into the belly of the temple as the dancing men welcomed into their community the most precious of all books in Judaism—a new Torah scroll.

The Torah—a scroll that contains the Five Books of Moses—is a symbol of hope and of survival of the Jewish faith. Some are willing to risk their lives to protect the Torah, as evidenced by stories of scrolls rescued from destruction during World War II. Rabbi Motti Seligson, public relations representative for the Lubavitch community, brought to my attention the story of Rabbi Pinchas Sudak, who fled the Soviet Union with his family in 1946. One of Sudak’s granddaughters wrote the tale. The Sudak family had crossed the Russian border successfully into Poland, where the rabbi bought a Torah scroll from a Polish Jew and had a special wooden box made for it. Continuing their journey to Prague, the family had to travel light, so they abandoned most of their possessions. Sudak held on to the Torah as he, his wife and three children trekked through a forest at night. But soon his wife grew weary of carrying their youngest child in her arms, so she asked Sudak for help. Clutching on to the scroll, the man had tears in his eyes.

“Forgive me, dear Torah, for betraying you now,” he said. “It is either you or my child. I part with you now, so that my children and children’s children should live a life where you are a real and meaningful part.”

As the family continued the journey, the Torah was left in the forest, under a tree. Several weeks after this episode, another Jewish family was venturing through that same forest, in the blackness of the night. When their five-year-old daughter disappeared, her parents began desperately crawling on their hands and knees in search of her. Then the father felt a hard surface on the ground: the wooden box containing Sudak’s Torah scroll. Next to the box sat the little girl. The man took the Torah from its box, unraveled it and wrapped it around his body, tying it with his prayer belt. That Torah scroll eventually made its way to a synagogue in New York City.

There is no cutting corners when dealing with the sacred book, which, according to Jewish tradition, is written in the same way Moses wrote it the first time 3,300 years ago. Holding a fine-point pen, Rabbi Shmuel Klein was poring over a Torah scroll with yellowed sheets that lay slightly unraveled on his desk. The Torah, which he said is at least 100 years old, was sent in for verification at Hasofer Inc. on Kingston Ave. in Crown Heights, a place where ritual scribes—or sofrim—transcribe and authenticate religious writings.

I climbed a narrow flight of carpeted stairs to get to the scribes’ main office. Business was brisk at Hasofer. Men walked in and out of the cramped quarters while phones rang as they would in any office. Except here, dozens of scrolls of varying sizes sat on shelves awaiting the sofrim’s trained eyes. No mistakes or imperfections are allowed in a Torah. Klein’s job is to check every letter in the long scroll, which comprises between 62 and 84 sheets of parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal, sewn together with thread made out of sinews from a kosher animal. Klein handed me a piece of this thread and asked me to try ripping it. I pulled hard from its opposing ends and felt it digging sharply into my skin, but it didn’t rip.

There are exactly 304,805 letters in a Torah. Klein examined the scroll, line by line, to make sure it was still kosher, and no symbols had been erased or cracked, which happens often to an old Torah. He estimated it would take him about a week to go through the entire scroll and check it against the strictest standards.

A Sefer is handwritten by a scribe in Hebrew. It is the holiest book of Judaism and is read aloud in synagogues at least four times a week. Klein said that, on average, a Torah takes six months to a year to complete and costs at least $35,000. Every synagogue needs at least one to function, but three are recommended so that the same scroll is not unraveled multiple times during a service, which takes up a lot of time.

Old World expertise meets new world technology in the small second-floor office that Klein shares with another scribe, Rabbi Faitel Lewin. A digital camera that connects to a computer on Klein’s desk was propped up above the unraveled scroll. Klein said the camera takes a photo of the parchment and transmits it to software that checks the text’s accuracy. A company in Israel makes this software, which requires constant updates. The older the scroll, the more likely it is that the program will make mistakes such as interpreting cracked letters as two separate symbols. Klein said a scribe must always supervise the computer. “The human eye is still the final one,” he said.

I took a quick peek in the other small offices adjacent to Klein’s at 321 Kingston Ave. and saw more men seated at work tables, painstakingly poring over their work, whether they were making or painting tefillin, small boxes made of cow hide that one places on the head and on the arm when praying, or examining the miniature scrolls that are placed inside these boxes. Upstairs, a bespectacled man was sewing together the parchment sheets of a Torah using the indestructible thread. It was almost 6 p.m. but there was no sign of slowing down.

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