The Torah is often written in traditional Hebrew on a large scroll of parchment. This scroll contains the first five books of what is known as the "Tanakh" or Hebrew Bible. According to Jewish tradition, the words contained in the Torah are the words of God as dictated to Moses. The text is therefore seen as one of the most explicit connections between the Jews and the divine. As such, a number of measures are taken by Jews to demonstrate the wealth of reverence the Torah demands.
A Delicate Composition
Torahs used for ritual purposes are produced today using the same painstaking methods that have been used for centuries. Out of reverence for the sanctity of the object and its creation, the process cannot be rushed or left to machines. The Torah is thus produced by the hands of highly-trained scribes on sheets of parchment sewn together with sinews from the legs of kosher animals. Because it is believed that every marking on the scroll of a Torah is sacred in nature, Torahs are copied, mark for mark, either directly or indirectly from scrolls that are centuries old. A single error will taint the scroll, causing the Torah to become useless. In order to correct the mistake, the scribe must erase it entirely with the delicate use of a knife or pumice stone. However, if he or she should make some error when writing the name of God, the entire scroll must be buried and the scribe must start a new scroll from scratch.
A Sacred Space
A congregation's Torah is kept behind the doors of a holy ark. This ark, which can be plain in its design or incredibly ornate, is often found at the very front of the sanctuary, where it can be seen by all. Most temples are built with the ark as its focal point, with architects taking into account such things as natural light and the casting of shadows when considering the building's design.
When the Torah is removed from the ark, the congregation rises and remains standing until the scroll is eventually placed upon the "bimah" -- a synagogue's pulpit. Special prayers are spoken quietly by those near the Torah as it is rested against the right shoulder of a person of honor. He or she will next carry the Torah upright, moving into the aisles of the temple, presenting the scroll to the congregation in a ritual called the "hakfah." As it passes, congregants will reach out and touch the Torah (which remains covered) with their hands, prayer books or shawls. In turn, they gently kiss whatever part of them made contact. The procession is repeated again just before the Torah is returned to the ark.
Because it is a holy object, the Torah must never touch the ground. However, some scrolls can weigh up to 50 pounds, making the task of carrying them, especially during a procession, somewhat daunting. That said, dropping a Torah is considered a great sin; not only must the individual who dropped the scroll acknowledge great shame for his or her mistake, but must also atone for the sin by fasting for 40 days. What's more, the dropping of a Torah is considered so serious a matter that anyone present at the time of its fall must also abstain from food and drink from next sunrise to sunset.
Adornments and Ritual Dressing
When not in use, the Torah remains wrapped in its own fine shawl or covering and is often topped with one or two ornate crowns and a shield. It is an honor to undress and dress the Torah during prayer services in which passages from the scroll are read aloud. These acts of assembling and applying the Torah's garments are referred to as the "gelilah."
The Use of the Yad
When the Torah is being read, either silently to oneself or aloud to a congregation, one must never touch the scroll. Instead, the reader uses a "pointer" called a "yad" to follow the lines of Hebrew from right to left. One of the most important reasons for the use of a yad is that touching or handling the parchment on which the holy text of the Torah is written causes it, in the eyes of Jewish law, to become ritually "impure." Furthermore, readers of the Torah are unwilling to risk damaging the scroll in any way, as they consider not only the potential fragility of the parchment and ink, but the amount of effort that went into producing such a complex and scared text.
- Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals: George Robinson
- Introduction to Judaism: A Source Book: Lydia Kukoff
- The Wall Street Journal: When Handling Precious Scrolls, Torah Lifters Pray for Successful Hoist
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