Lenore Weisss most recent col­lec­tion,Two Places, is now avail­able. She is blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

With a ready smile, Rab­bi Levi Sel­wyn stood behind a Torah that is spread open on a long bridge table at Tem­ple B’nai Israel in Mon­roe, Louisiana. Con­gre­gants and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers faced him on the oppo­site side of the table as he dis­cussed the repair of two Torahs belong­ing to this north­east­ern Louisiana syn­a­gogue of approx­i­mate­ly sev­en­ty-five families. 

A mem­ber of Sofer On Site based in Mia­mi, Flori­da, Rab­bi Sel­wyn was born in Lon­don and has served as direc­tor of youth pro­grams in the Unit­ed States and as the Chief Rab­bi of the New­town Syn­a­gogue in Syd­ney, Australia. 

He explained how he Koshers” Torah scrolls — it’s not unusu­al for scrolls to have trav­eled across cli­mates and bor­ders to reach their cur­rent homes, he said. Some can be more than a hun­dred years old. Scrolls can be neglect­ed; espe­cial­ly if a con­gre­ga­tion is lucky enough to have sev­er­al Torahs, but reserve a few for spe­cial occa­sions. Over time, parch­ment can dete­ri­o­rate, become hard­ened, dis­col­ored, and let­ters can crack. That’s a job for Rab­bi Sel­wyn who eval­u­ates the con­di­tion of each Torah and takes his cues from there. 

The basic Torah repair kit con­sists of parch­ment (cowhide), ink, and sinews that are used to sew togeth­er each sec­tion. Sup­pli­ers sell these spe­cial­ized mate­ri­als and are based in Mia­mi and Israel. Inks are of a cer­tain con­sis­ten­cy; their mix­ture can include iron sul­fate, gum Ara­bic and some­times hon­ey. Like a secret sauce, approx­i­mate­ly four to five fam­i­lies hold the recipe and have been pro­vid­ing these inks for gen­er­a­tions. As pre­scribed by the Torah, the col­or must be black. 

Rab­bi Sel­wyn brought along a col­lec­tion of quills that he uses to repair the let­ters, white feath­ers from domes­ti­cat­ed turkeys (they tend to be larg­er), and also chick­en feath­ers. Each quill is cut by hand to absorb enough (but not too much) ink, allow­ing the sofer (scribe) to form Hebrew let­ters, and match them to the orig­i­nal Torah. Rab­bi Sel­wyn explained how Torahs employ dif­fer­ent styles of writ­ing, which include Beit Yosef, often used by Ashke­nazi com­mu­ni­ties, AriZal, Kab­bal­ist in its ori­gin, and Vel­l­ish, often used by Sephardic communities. 

Fre­quent­ly, a sofer will need to scrape the parch­ment to allow for let­ters to be rewrit­ten or reformed cor­rect­ly. Old­er Torahs, he explained, are glazed on their unwrit­ten side. As a result, mate­r­i­al can rub off onto the let­ters. For this pur­pose, he keeps a high poly­mer eras­er handy and an Exac­to knife for scrap­ing parch­ment. Elmer’s glue also plays a role, espe­cial­ly when a sofer needs to cut and paste an entire word or sec­tion. Rab­bi Sel­wyn shares that once he found a tic-tac-toe board writ­ten in the mar­gins of a Torah. Of course, it had to be scraped.

There are thou­sands of laws gov­ern­ing the scrap­ing and writ­ing and about every­thing else con­cern­ing the repair of Torah. A cer­tain amount of white space must sur­round each let­ter. Let­ters are repaired based upon the abil­i­ty of the read­er to see them from an appro­pri­ate dis­tance, although a mag­ni­fy­ing glass may be employed to reform the writ­ing of YWVH’s name. Four emp­ty lines sep­a­rate each book, and in case you’re won­der­ing, the Torah con­tains a total of 304,805 let­ters, let­ters that orig­i­nal­ly spoke every­thing into exis­tence in white and black flames.

Read more of Lenore Weis­s’s work here.

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