What is Torah?
As a rabbi, I am often asked that question by both Jews and non-Jews alike.
The question appears quite simple, yet the answer is far more complex.
Torah refers to the first five books of the Jewish Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Sometimes this set is called, “The Five Books of Moses,” as they include the story of Moses’ life.
The stories in Torah are read each year as part of a prescribed reading cycle. The weekly readings start with Creation at the start of Genesis and finish with Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy. Young men and women look forward to the privilege of being able to read from Torah when they reach the age of 13 and celebrate their bar or bat mitzvah.
One rabbinic text describes Torah as a sacred jewel, “Turn it over and over again and you will find new meaning reflected through its teachings.”
While the stories read each year remain unchanged, we see them each time with new eyes and perspective. Studying Torah provides the opportunity to find the lessons and values that have sustained the Jewish people over the millennia. Most read it not as a literal text in search of Truth, but rather as a sacred text that provides the truths and insights we need to be partners with God in making our world whole and holy.
Torah also refers to a physical scroll on which the Five Books of Moses are written. Kept within the ark of a sanctuary, this scroll is our most holy physical object.
When the ark is opened, the congregation rises to its feet, out of respect for the Torah. As a Torah is carried through the congregation, those present will reach out to touch it with the corner of their tallit (a ritual prayer shawl) or prayer book, and then kiss the object that touched the Torah.
The Torah is treated with such reverence, that should one be dropped, all those present are expected to fast for 40 days, from sunrise to sunset, as an act of penance.
The scroll consists of sheets made from animal hide, woven together and bound on two wooden poles, each called an Etz Chaim, “tree of life.” The text is written by a trained scribe using a feather quill and special ink prepared for the occasion. Handwritten and carefully copied, each Torah is an exact duplicate from one to the next. If a letter appears larger or smaller in one Torah, it will be written that way in every scroll.
Living in a world of spellcheck and digital editing, it is difficult to fathom the handwritten transmission of a document without some level of human error. Yet, historical evidence shows that Torah scrolls have remained unchanged for almost two millennia.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are 613 mitzvot, guidelines and lessons, given to the Jewish people. The final mitzvah, number 613, is the commandment to write a Torah. This can refer to the financial support of a Torah scribe writing a scroll, as well as the physical act of writing a letter in Torah.
After celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2012, Temple Shalom decided to start its second half-century with the writing of a Torah, and a project entitled “Our Torah.” Through this endeavor, members of the Temple Shalom congregation, as well as those from the community at large have the opportunity to fill in one letter in Torah, and fulfill the sacred task.
This new Torah scroll will be completed in a crowning ceremony on Dec. 8.
We invite everyone to join us for this special event, as well as to experience the rare opportunity to write a letter in our new Torah before the scroll is finished. On Nov. 11 we have a final day of scribing letters open to the entire community. This is your chance to learn about Torah from a trained scribe, and help us finish our scroll. Contact the Temple Shalom office to sign up; 455-3030 or go to www.naplestemple.org.
At the opening ceremony for writing this Torah, we scribed the first word, “Bereshit’’ (in the beginning). Now that we have reached the conclusion, we will finish the final word, “Yisrael’’ (Israel). The sages note that when you combine the last letter in the scroll of Torah with the first letter in Torah, they spell the word “lev’’ in Hebrew, which means heart. Torah is the heart of the Jewish people, inspiring us with values such as caring for the widow, orphan and stranger; visiting the sick; honoring one’s parents; and educating the next generation.
May this new Torah strengthen all of our hearts to work together for blessing and peace.