Historic Torah scroll, severed in half, reunited after centuries

Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, was able to solve many of the mysteries surrounding the artifact.

July 9, 2019 22:54
2 minute read.
Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, with the Kansas

Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, with the Kansas scroll.. (photo credit: UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS)


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In 1965, Alpha Owens, an alumna of the University of Kansas, passed away. She had graduated from the university at the beginning of the century, before earning a PhD from Johns Hopkins University and traveling around the world.

Owens bequeathed to her alma mater one of the treasures she brought back from her travels: half of an ancient Torah scroll. Over half a century later, the story of the artifact has been uncovered, and it has been reunited with its other half, according to a report by KU.

After two years of research, that involved a collaboration with the National Library of Israel and a trip to France, Paul Mirecki, associate professor of religious studies at KU, was able to solve many of the mysteries that surrounded the severed scroll.

“The significance of the scroll is not only its content, but the history of the scroll itself: That’s the story,” Mirecki explained to the KU news service. “It’s like an Agatha Christie mystery.”

The professor was able to determine that in 1840, the still intact Torah scroll belonged to a synagogue in the Algerian city of Medea. It was a difficult period: France was in the middle of its campaign to conquer Algeria from the Ottoman Empire. That year, a pogrom against the Jewish community erupted in Medea, carried out by part of the Muslim population.

Other local Muslims worked to save the Jews of Medea, evacuating them to a different location – but their properties, including the synagogue, were damaged and looted.

According to the report, the thieves probably were not fully aware of the purpose and the value of a Torah scroll, and they thought that by dividing it in half, they could sell each part separately.

In the aftermath of the attack, Henri d’Orléans, son of the last king of France and governor-general during the French invasion of Algeria, came into possession of the scroll. Mirecki found a note in his private diary.

“‘I took it with my own hands from Medea’s synagogue in May 1840 when the town had been left to Muslims, and the Jews taken by Abd-el-Kader (an Algerian leader who protected the Jews during the pogrom),” d’Orléans wrote according to the KU report.

In March, Mirecki traveled to the estate of Château de Chantilly where the prince used to reside. His mission was to study a half Torah scroll still housed there to check if it was compatible with the one that Alpha Owen had brought to Kansas decades earlier.
“It looks identical to the one we have at KU,” he exclaimed.

“They aged the same way. It’s the same scribe’s handwriting. So all these things match up to where the scroll was torn in half, right down the middle seam. Leviticus 8:24a ends at the bottom of their scroll. And then the top of our scroll begins with Leviticus 8:24b,” he added.

According to estimations, the scroll dates back to around 1750.

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