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The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish | Dressed For Success, Part 6

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, In Eight Parts

By Mark L. Berch

Traditional Judaism placed severe restrictions on the  plastic decorative arts.  One important exception, derived from Exodus 15:2, was beautifying the Sefer Torah.

After the Torah is rolled up tightly, it is encircled and secured by a binder, a long strip of cloth called a gartl or a wempel.  There is a German custom to cut this from linen used to swaddle a boy at his bris, and embroider it with the child’s name and blessings.  Nowadays, women called to the Torah who do not wear a talis use this to kiss the Torah.

Covering the Sefer Torah is a robe made of silk or velvet called a Torah mantle.  It is open at the bottom so that the mantle can be pulled down over the Sefer Torah, and the top is pierced with two openings so that the wooden rollers (the Aitz Khayyim) can protrude.  The mantle may have Hebrew lettering on it, and could include the name of the person in whose honor the Torah was dedicated.  Or it could be richly ornamented with scenes or abstract designs.  Nowadays these can be striking works of art, such as the set of seven commissioned for Beth El of Montgomery County, patterned on the seven days of Creation.  Synagogues sometimes use glass doors for the Ark to better display these.  Since Torot come in several sizes, so do mantles.

On the upper rollers is placed a pair of metal finials called “rimmonim” (Hebrew for pomegranates).  These are typically made of silver and gilt, and are often rather tall and occasionally elaborate.  These may also be considered as a type of Torah crown.

A crown  (called a “keter” or “atarah”) may also be placed on the Torah, instead  of, or in additional to, the rimmonim.  This is generally made of silver, in an open design, and can be quite ornate and is sometimes set with semiprecious stones.   The origin of the crown may be Pirkay Avot 4:17, which refers to “the Crown of the Law.”

Over the front of the mantle is a breastplate or shield, called a “tas” or “khosen”.  This is secured by a chain looped around the top rollers.  These are made of silver and sometimes have  four rows of semiprecious stones set in, in imitation of the High  Priest’s breastplate (Exodus 28:15).  It may be ornately carved or engraved.  It may even have a small box attached in the front, labeling Torah as prepared for a Shabbat or for a Holiday reading.

Finally, there is a pointer, called a “yad” (Hebrew for hand, and frequently shaped as a hand with a pointing finger).  This is used by the reader to avoid touching the parchment with her finger or nail, which would soon damage the letters.  This has a loop of chain attached, so that it can go around one of the top rollers.

A Sefer Torah with these things on it is said to be “dressed”.  And when marched around it can make quite a resplendent sight.  Some color photos of these objects can been seen in Encyclopedia Judaica Volume 15, pages after column 1260.

The Sephardic setup is somewhat different.  The Sefer Torah is kept permanently in a rigid case, made of painted wood or metal, and usually is ornately decorated or ornamented.

Mention should also be made of the bells:  A dressed Sefer Torah usually has them.  These are most commonly part of the crown or rimmonim, but can be with the breastplate or affixed to the mantle.  Their origin is unknown.  Some scholars believe that Oriental communities introduced them so that their sound would ward off evil spirits.  Others look to Exodus 28:33-35, which describes bells on the hem of Aaron’s robe.  It may have had a pragmatic purpose --- in a crowded shul, the tinkling would signal those who could not see that the Sefer Torah was being moved, so they would know to stand.  Or it may have been done to add to the general pageantry of the Torah procession.

Of course, if someone actually arrived at shul on Shabbos with a set of bells (such as a bellstick, sleighbells, or a carillon), that would be a Halakhic No-No, as musical instruments are forbidden.  But bells on the Torah have a long history of acceptability.  So, if someone could --- tastefully of course --- attach, oh, say, a guitar to the mantle, then it might be possible to have some instrumental music during part of the service.  Just a suggestion.

There are also objects used with the Sefer Torah, but not attached to it.  There is a special cloth, generally about 1 by 2 feet, used to cover the Sefer Torah during short intervals when something else is happening, such a recitation of some special blessing.  TI has a lovely white one with embroidered flowers and the “Aitz Khayyim Hee” prayer, made by Shira Bettinger.  It’s called a mappa (Hebrew for “covering”), but unfortunately, that’s a very plastic term.  The decorated covering for the reading table is also called a mappa, and in some communities that term is used to describe the Torah mantle and in others, the wempel!

There is usually some sort of stand to lean the Sefer Torah against when it is finished with use but not yet returned to the Ark.  There may be some poles attached so that the rimmonim or crown can stored when not on the Sefer Torah.  On the reading table will usually be a set of Torah blessings in large print for those called up.

Finally, the Sefer Torah spends most of its time in a specially built Ark, called “aron hakodesh” in the Ashkenazic tradition, and “heikhel” in the Sephardic, usually found on or in the eastern wall of the sanctuary.  The Ashkenazic Ark is covered by a special curtain called a parokhet, which may derive from the multicolored curtain described at Exodus 26:31-33.  Generally of velvet, it can be ornamented quite elaborately, sometimes depicting a lion placing his trafe paws on a Tablet of Law.  There is also a custom to replace the usual parokhet (as well as Torah mantle and reading table covering) with white ones for the High Holidays. There may also be a complementary valence across the top, called a kaporet, presumably based on Exodus  26:34.  There is usually a set of wooden doors covering the Ark as well, normally on the inside of the curtain, but sometimes, as at TI, outside it.  The use of the doors permits the parokhet to be removed on Tisha B’Av, a custom of mourning.  Increasingly, the Ark comes equipped with a motion detector to deter theft.

Finally, the Ark is graced with the Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light for an eternal Torah.

Next:  101 uses for a Sefer Torah.