The Torah Scroll is the holiest and most valued object in Judaism. It is the physical expression of the Jewish people’s connection with God, his wisdom and guidance. The word Torah comes from the consonantal root yrh (yareh) meaning teaching or instruction.
The writing of a Torah scroll, its use, and its storage are subject to strict rules. The Talmud (vast corpus of rabbinic law) specifies no less than 20 mandatory factors for a Torah Scroll to be considered fit for ritual service and public reading in the synagogue. The smallest mistake, such as for instance a missing letter, can invalidate a Torah Scroll.
The scroll which contains the Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch is made up of a large number of parchment or leather sheets made from the skin of a kosher animal i.e. an animal permitted in Jewish law. The scriptural text must be handwritten with a special ink in Hebrew, without vowels and accents, by a devout, qualified scribe. Once the writing has been completed, the parchment sheets or strips are sewn together to make a very long scroll. The ends of the scroll are affixed to and wound on two wooden rollers or staves.
The scribe follows a series of rituals before and during the writing of a Torah Scroll. He is not allowed to pen text from memory, but must use a tikun – a book of the Five Books of Moses – which guides him through his task.
In synagogues around the world the Torah Scroll is used for public reading four times a week: on Sabbath morning and afternoon, on Monday and Thursday. Over the course of the year it is also read on Jewish festivals and on fast days. Out of respect and reverence, the Torah Scroll must not be touched with bare hands when reading from it. A pointer shaped as a hand (in Hebrew, yad) is used by the reader to follow the scriptural text.
When not in use the Torah Scroll is stored in an upright position in the Holy Ark, a cabinet situated in the front of the synagogue, usually on its eastern wall.
Written most probably sometime between the 18th and 19th century CE, this scroll is made of 54 stitched parchment sheets and is provided with two wooden rollers fitted with ivory handles. The competently justified textual columns and the neat, tilted square Ashkenazic script (of Franco-German or Central European origin) attest to the scribe’s skill. Note the unusually shaped letter het and the larger size letter pe, as well as the decorative ‘crowns’ (in Hebrew, tagin) topping selected characters.
One likely explanation is that these ‘crowns’ are scribal flourishes intended to embellish the Torah Scroll. Note also the recently restored silk brocade mantle adorned with floral bouquets. Its role is to ‘dress’ and protect the holy scroll. In certain Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities, the Torah Scroll is not enveloped in a mantle, but it is stored in a wooden or a metallic box called tik in Hebrew.
Browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.
- Article by:
- Elizabeth Rose
- The Hebrew Bible
The British Library collection of Hebrew manuscripts includes several mantles which were used to cover Torah scrolls. Elizabeth Rose describes the process of conserving these precious textiles.