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The Sefer Torah From Start to Finish | A New Torah Is Created, Part 1

The Sefer Torah From Start To Finish, In Eight Parts

By Mark L. Berch


A Torah  --- all 304,805 letters in 5845 verses in 248 columns --- is written by humans.  No machines -- indeed, no metal -- are involved.

The parchment used can come from the skin of any kosher species, but for practical reasons (fish skins stink and bird skins are too thin), mammals are used, usually hide of sheep, goat or calf.  The skins are cured and sanded so that they can durably accept ink and are stretched to make them sufficiently thin.   This process must be done by a Jew with the specific intention of preparing Torah parchment.  An earlier  hide softening process involving the use of dog dung is no longer employed; a nine-day soak in limewater does the job. The parchment sheets are usually between 18 and 22 inches tall.  They must be wide enough to fit three columns of text, and are generally cut to be no larger than that, although wider pieces are permitted.  The parchment sheets (called a yeriah) are sewn together with “gidin”,  made from the stretched, dried, and twisted veins, or tendons, of a kosher species.  The stitches are done every six lines. Thin pieces of parchment are pasted at the top and bottom to reinforce.  Finally, each end of the scroll is sewn to a wooden roller called an Aitz Khayyim (literally, “tree of life”).  It has a central pole, and wooden discs perpendicular to the pole to take the weight when the Sefer Torah lies flat.

A special black ink is used (A Torah was once written with the name of God in golden ink.  The Talmud records that it was not to be used.  Too flashy.  And too reminiscent of the Golden Calf).  The ink must be durable, but not indelible, and is made from gallnuts, gum arabic (the adhesive), copper sulfate (which gradually blackens the gallnut powder), water, and possibly carbon black.  To keep it fresh, some scribes make it in small batches of a few teaspoons; others buy it.  A pen is fashioned from either from a reed or a quill of a kosher bird, usually turkey or goose.  Sharpening the quill can be quite a chore.  To test the ink and pen, the scribe writes the Hebrew word “Amalek”, and then crosses it out.  This arises from the Biblical admonition  to “blot out” the name of Amalek. 

Before beginning a new Torah, on any day when God’s name will be written, and for many, before each day’s work, the scribe, or “sofer”, will immerse himself in a mikveh (ritual bath). The sofer seeks to become “a human vessel for Divine words.”

An instrument called a sargel is used to score 43 horizontal lines on the parchment.  The first is a guideline; the next 42 are for the lines of text.  Vertical lines are scored on both sides, because the Torah is left and right justified.

The sofer will work from a printed text (“tikkun”) or from a corrected scroll.  It is forbidden to work from memory or dictation .  Those are considered to detract from the concentration involved in the process of copying a written text, which is what is going on.  Memory or dictation would also produce extra errors.  Each word and letter is recited  prior to being written.  Before he writes one of the seven names for God, he recites, “I am writing the name of God in honor of his holy name.”  It is demanding work and is done without the distraction of conversation.  At an ordinary pace, it takes one to three years.  Then the sofer teams up with another learned Jew to proofread the text.

The sofer must copy the Torah exactly as the text presents itself -- even words that might appear to be misspelled (there are dozens) must be copied as they are.  Because of the need to fill the line, certain letters (usually tav, resh, hay, dalet, lamed and final mem) are extended if needed.   Each individual letter (the pen strokes) is written from left to right. 

Seven letters (shin, a’yin, tet, nun, za’yin, gimmel and tzadi) have either one or three “tagin” on top of the letter, and there is also a tradition that six other letters can carry one.  These look like a dagger or a small za’yin.  Ashkenazic authorities consider these to be part of the original text given to Moses (and hence mandatory), but Maimonides considered a Torah fit for use without them.  A special rather square script  (called Assyrian script)  is used; there is a Sephardic and Ashkenazic version.

When all the 60-80 sections of parchment are done, the pieces are sewn together and the Torah is complete. They do not all have to have been written by the same sofer, although that is the usual practice, but they must be in the same script style.  Everyone is supposed to write a Torah, a classic example of a completely impractical requirement, given the staggering amount of effort it takes to complete one, and the fact that a Torah lasts much longer than a person does (a Torah protected from heat and moisture has an estimated lifetime of 1000 years, although it would not be useable that long).  Rabbi Sheshet in the Talmud states, however, that this obligation can be forfilled by correcting even a single letter.  (Caution: most Jewish obligations cannot be so minimalistically discharged!).  Thus, a sofer may leave only outlines of letters from the first or last last verses.  Others then fill in the letter with the sofer’s pen and ink (thus “correcting” it).  The privilege of correcting these letters is sometimes auctioned off as a fundraising device.  You cannot, however, “buy a vowel”; there are no vowels in Torah text.

The celebration of a completed Torah is called a Siyyum HaTorah.  Food and Wine are traditional.