Torah Scroll

What is a Torah scroll?

The Torah contains the Five Books of Moses, whose English and Hebrew names are:

Genesis Beraishit
Exodus Shemot
Leviticus Vayikra
Numbers B'midbar
Deuteronomy Devarim

The Torah is divided into parshiot (Torah portions) which are generally three to five chapters in length. The parshiot are read, in order, each Shabbat throughout the year, in a yearly cycle which begins and ends on Simchat Torah (a holiday which follows on the tail of Sukkot). On holy days, festivals and other special occasions, special passages outside the cycle of reading are read. For a table of readings, click here.

Hebrew consists of consonants and vowels. However, unlike English, most printed Hebrew contains only consonants. In fact, the vowel system in Hebrew, which appears to many as a series of dots and dashes under and around the consonants, was invented sometime around the fifth century, when Jews no longer spoke Hebrew has their primary language, and required the help of vowels to pronounce holy texts correctly. Printed editions of the Torah contain vowels, as well as cantillation symbols (called also trop) which signify the proper way to chant the text.

How is a Torah made?

The scribe prepares parchment sheets

While printed editions of the Torah abound, in both Hebrew and English translation, and with many different commentaries, when the Torah is read in the synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, it is read from a hand-written scroll, called a Sefer Torah, in keeping with age-old tradition. It takes several months, and often as a long as a year to complete one Sefer Torah.

The Sefer Torah is written by a scribe, special trained for this holy task, on sheets of parchment. The parchment must derive from a kosher animal, usually a cow, and is meticulously prepared by the scribe, who first soaks the skin in lime water to remove hairs, and then stretches the skin over a wooden frame to dry. The scribe scrapes the skin while it is stretched over the wooden frame to remove more hair and smooths the surface of the skin in preparation for writing on it with the use of a sanding machine. When the skin is dry, the scribe cuts it into a rectangle. The scribe must prepare many such skins because a Sefer Torah usually contains 248 columns, and one rectangle of parchment yields space for three or four columns. Thus a Sefer Torah may require at more than 80 skins in all.

When the parchment sheets are ready, the scribe marks out lines and columns using a stylus, which makes a mark in the skin that has no color, much as if you ran your fingernail across a sheet of paper. Each sheet must have at least three columns, and there must be a margin of three inches on the top, four inches at the bottom, and two inches between columns.

The scribe prepares quills and ink

The scribe makes quills for writing a Sefer Torah. The feathers must come from a kosher bird, and the goose is the bird of choice for many scribes. The scribe carefully and patiently carves a point in the end of the feather and uses many quills in the course of writing one Sefer Torah. The scribe also prepares ink for writing the Sefer Torah by combining powdered gall nuts, copper sulfate crystals, gum arabic, and water, preparing only a small amount at a time, so that the ink will always be fresh. Fresh ink is a deep black, and only this is acceptable for writing a Sefer Torah.

The scribe's writing begins

One the materials are prepared, the scribe visits the mikveh in preparation for such holy work, and prays that the holy work about to be undertaken will be imbued with the sanctity in the scribe's heart. While at work, the scribe is a vessel or vehicle for God's holy words and thus intense concentration and cognizance of the sanctity of the work are critically important. Moreover, the scroll may contain no errors whatsoever. While some mistakes may be corrected by scraping off the ink of a letter made in error and rewriting it, if a mistake is made in writing any of the names of God, no correction may be made because God's name may not be erased. The entire sheet of parchment must be buried or placed in a genizah, and the scribe must begin that section of the Torah again. Once the sheets of parchment are completed, the scribe checks them each three times with the help of someone else who uses a Tikkun (a specially prepared printed text).

The scribe sews the sheets together and attaches the wooden rollers

When the writing is complete, the scribe sews the individual pieces of parchment together using a thread called giddin which is made from the leg sinews of a kosher animal, most commonly a cow, a sheep, or an ox. The scribe makes one stick every six lines of text, sewing the backs of the parchment sheets, so that the stitches are not visible from the front. Then the scrolls is sewn onto wooden rollers called Eitzei Chayim (trees of life). The Torah is then dressed and ready to be dedicated in a Jewish community.

How is Torah read?

Trop: The musical system for chanting Torah

In most congregations, the Torah is chanted according to a musical system called trop which can found in many printed editions of the Torah. While the notation for the text is, by and large, standardized, there are many different musical systems employed for chanting the Torah. In other words, there is general agreement about the specific trop symbols which apply to the words of the Torah, but many different tunes, and versions of tunes, by which the trop are sung. In some congregations, the Torah is either read without chanting, or read in Hebrew accompanied by a simultaneous translation.

It is challenging to learn to learn to read from a Sefer Torah, which contains no vowels, and even more challenging to chant Torah, because one must know not only the proper vowels, but the musical notation, as well.

Using a Tikkun to prepare

A Tikkun (which means "correction") is a specially printed book which contains two columns on each page. One column contains a printed text of the Torah, with vowels and trop (cantillation) marks. The person preparing to read or chant the Torah learns the text from this column. In the facing column is a photographic reproduction of the same text (one column's worth) from a hand-written Sefer Torah. The person preparing a Torah portion practices from this column after studying the printed column.

Who may read from the Torah?

The one who blesses the Torah and reads from the Torah must be an adult in the eyes of the community, for the reader is fulfilling a commandment on behalf of all those assembled. Hence, the reader must be at least 13 years and one day of age. "Bar Mitzvah" and "Bat Mitzvah" mean "one who is of the age of commandment" and is the status which one attains at the age of 13 and a day. Thus, a young person may bless and read from the Torah only upon reaching this age. This is the reason that the ceremony marking becoming Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah centers on blessing and reading from the Torah.

What is an aliyah and who may have one?

The word aliyah means "ascending" and refers to the act of going up to the Torah (which is read from the bima on a level higher than that of the congregation, signifying its holiness) and reciting the blessing over the Torah. Any adult Jew in good standing may be honored with an aliyah.

How does one have an aliyah?

The person honored with the aliyah comes forward when called. The reader will open the scroll and point to where s/he will begin reading. The person called to the Torah takes the tzitzit of the tallit and touches them to the first word to be read and kisses the tzitzit. The Torah will then be rolled closed and, in many congregations, covered. The one blessing the Torah holds the wooden rollers and recites the first blessing. After the reading completes reading the section for that aliyah, the reader will point out the last word read to the person who is blessing the Torah, who again takes the tzitzit, touches the last word, and kisses the tzitzit. The scroll is again rolled closed, and the person reciting the blessing holds the wooden rollers and recites the second blessing.

If you are honored with an aliyah, you can click here to find complete instructions, the text of the blessings, transliterations, and translations, so you can learn your part thoroughly.

Torah ornaments

The Torah is dressed and decorated because it is holy and is considered the core of God's communication with Israel. The manner in which it is dressed and decorated, however, is symbolic of the garb worn by the High Priest of old when he served God in the sanctuary of the Temple in Jerusalem. Once, Jewish worship centered on the sacrificial cult in the Temple, as described extensively in the Torah. After the Destruction of the Second Temple in 69/70 C.E., daily prayer came to replace the sacrifices as the locus of Jewish service of God. In addition, our sages taught that we serve God through study and deeds of kindness, but prayer is the focus of communal worship.

Artwork by Andrew Ross

Chapter 28 of the Book of Exodus contains a description of the garb of the High Priest. His special clothing included a tunic (the Torah mantle, or covering), a belt (the sash around the Torah scroll), a miter (the crown of the Torah), and a breastplate. Each of these has been reproduced in some fashion for dressing and decorating the Sefer Torah.

The mantle, symbolic of the High Priest's tunic, resembles a cylinder with one closed end that contains two small, round holes, through which the wooden rolls protrude. The mantle may be decorated as the congregation chooses, and often verses about the importance of Torah are embroidered on the front of the mantle. (I have made Torah mantles, and it is not difficult to do.)

The sash of the High Priest is symbolized by the sash which ties the scroll together before the mantle is placed over the scroll. This sash, or belt, holds the scroll tightly rolled and protects it when it is being held or standing in the ark. The belt is fastened by a hook or sometimes by velcro (proving that the U.S. Space Program has, indeed, benefited Jewish life). Sometimes, a child's swaddling cloth is embroidered and decorated and sewn into a sash and given as a gift to the congregation.

The High Priest wore a special breastplate, encrusted with 12 precious- and semi-precious stones symbolizing the 12 Tribes of Israel when he was engaged in his sacred duties. In this manner, it was clear that the High Priest served God on behalf of the entire people Israel. Torah scrolls are often similarly dressed, with a breastplate which is hung over the top of the eitzei chayim (wooden rollers), though it can have a wide variety of designs and inscriptions. This symbolizes that the Torah is the inheritance of the entire Jewish people.

One does not touch the parchment scroll, both because of its sanctity and because the oils of our hands can damage the delicate writing, rendering the scroll pasul (unacceptable for use for a public reading). Therefore, a pointer called a yad is used. It may be made of wood or metal, and is shaped like a right hand with a finger pointing. The reader keeps his/her place in the scroll using the yad. For photos of two beautiful pointers, one of silver and one of wood, click here.

Finally, just as the High Priest wore a miter on his head, the Torah wears either a crown, which covers both wooden rollers, or two rimonim (meaning "pomegranates"), one on each eitz chayim. The crown and rimonim are often decorated with small bells that emit a jingling sound when the Torah is carried through the congregation. So, too, the robe of the High Priest had small bells sewn around its hem so that people could hear the High Priest as he moved about the sanctuary in performance of his duties in the Tabernacle.

Who's Who
What's What and Some Hows
Books Used in the Synagogue
Liturgical (Prayer) Tunes
History of the Synagogue
The Torah Scroll and its Ornaments
Structure of the Synagogue Service
What are Some of the Things That Happen in a Synagogue?
How to Have an Aliyah to the Torah
Visiting a Synagogue
What Does the Sanctuary Look Like?
Photo Gallery of Bimas and Arks
Jonah's Picture of the Ark
Click-Me Tour of the Synagogue