Sefer Torah

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‘Scroll of the Torah’, the Pentateuch, written by hand on parchment, from which the reading of the Torah is carried out in the synagogue. The parchment on which the Sefer Torah is written must come from a kosher animal. There are detailed rules on how the Sefer Torah has to be written by the sofer (‘scribe’), the expert skilled in the rules and in writing. The writing is done with a quill pen and black ink. Before the sofer writes he uses a ruler and stylus to make forty-two lines underneath which the letters are to be written and two vertical lines at the sides, so that the written text will have wide margins and be straight and uniform. The writing is done on strips of parchment, four columns of writing to each strip. The strips are then sewn together to form the complete Scroll. The sewing-together of the sections is done with material from the tendons of a kosher animal. A space is left between the letters and the words and at the end of the paragraphs. A space equal to four lines of text is left between the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. There is a tradition that some letters have to be written larger than the others and some smaller. The seven letters shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimmel, and tzaddi have little crown-like designs on the left-hand corner. Before writing, the sofer declares that he is doing it for the sake of the sanctification of the Sefer Torah. Some pious scribes immerse themselves in the mikveh before they begin to write.

In order to avoid touching the sacred Scroll with the bare hand, the Sefer Torah is mounted on wooden handles by which it is held when reciting the benediction over the Torah and when elevating the Scroll. Sephardim do not have these handles but instead have the Scroll wrapped in silk and placed in a kind of open box. The Sefer Torah, when it is not in use, is covered with an embroidered mantle over which are placed silver adornments consisting of two bells, a breastplate, and a pointer. The last is for the use of the Reader, who points to the words as he reads so as not to miss out any. Some Scrolls have a crown at the top of the handles instead of the bells. The breastplate is based on the breastplate worn by the High Priest which contained twelve precious stones on which the names of the twelve tribes were engraved (Exodus 28: 15–21). Some breastplates of the Sefer Torah have a representation of these stones. The bells are called rimmonim, ‘pomegranates’, after the bells and pomegranates attached to the coat of the High Priest (Exodus 28: 33–4). Most rimmonim today are in the shape of a tower. This has no significance and was introduced by eighteenth-century silversmiths who used the towers in Amsterdam for their model.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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