The holiest of crafts

Scribe Avraham Borshevsky takes ‘The Jerusalem Post’ on the painstaking journey of writing a Torah scroll.

By JONAH MANDEL
September 29, 2010 16:05
3 minute read.
Torah sofer Avraham Borshevsky in action

311_sofer. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

 
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The painstaking and prolonged journey of writing a Torah scroll begins long before its first letter is carefully inscribed. Avraham Borshevsky, the world-famous Hebrew scribe and a leading Israeli Judaica artist, whose artworks on parchment are located in museums and private collections in 30 countries around the world, led The Jerusalem Post through the preparatory stages of one of the Torah’s most fundamental, yet hard to achieve, commands.

First, the sofer (author) stam (a Hebrew acronym standing for Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot, items that only be written by individuals with the proper training ) – must select an appropriate parchment. If in past times cattle produce was expensive and at times hard to come upon, nowadays it is readily available and there are suppliers who provide ready parchment made of calfskin under rabbinic supervision. The parchment must also have lines lightly engraved on the side that was against the flesh of the animal, which is finer than the hairy exterior part of the skin.

Then, a proper quill must be whittled from a turkey feather, as is used for the larger Ashkenazi style of inscribing such as Torah scrolls, unlike smaller texts like those of mezuzot . Sephardi scribes traditionally use bamboo reeds. The ink must be absolutely black and glossy and is composed of a mixture of natural and chemical ingredients. Like the parchments, there are ink manufacturers producing specifically for the scribes and their needs, in contrast to bygone times when sofrim concocted their own ink.

A scribe cannot simply begin writing a Torah scroll, but must purify himself before the process by immersing in a ritual bath and sanctifying his intentions toward the mitzva ahead of him. There is a formula scribes say before writing, funneling the deed to the sanctity of the Torah scroll. When reaching the names of divinity, the scribe must also aim his intent toward writing for the sake of sanctity.

The speed which it takes the ink to be absorbed in the parchment is a function of the level of moisture in the calfskin and density of the ink. It is halachically permissible for the letters to be raised in a Torah scroll. Many scribes will keep a humidifier in their work area, to keep the parchment supple and receptive to the ink, which can be diluted to a certain extent. A dry parchment can crack and become halachically unusable.

Unlike a mezuza, a scribe may not write a Torah scroll from memory. Contrary to common belief, there are some scribal mistakes that disqualify the text’s validity, but many that can be fixed. And even in the case of an irredeemable error, it is only the parchment containing the mistake that needs to be replaced.

It takes an average of one year to write a Torah scroll, which includes 304,805 letters (plus another two irregular characters in Numbers 10:35) distributed over the 42 lines of each of the scroll’s 245 columns.

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This would be at the pace of writing the equivalent of two mezuzot a day. Borshevsky himself won international acclaim when a mezuza he wrote in 2004 was documented in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest of its kind, done in the “strongest standard” which he specializes in. As each Torah parchment contains four columns, over 60 calfskins must be used for a single Torah scroll.

The mitzva of writing a Torah scroll is in some traditions the last on the list of 613, and accordingly bears a special significance. Few have the skills to fulfill the commandment personally, and not many people can afford commissioning a Torah scroll, which would also be a means of fulfilling the deed. A standard scroll’s price will normally begin in the $30,000 range, while glorified (mehudar) items tend to go for $50,000 or more.

It is a tasking deed to write a Torah scroll, demanding not only an artist’s dexterity: a steady hand, sharp eyes and a strong back, but first and foremost the ability to maintain the necessary focus and purity of intent.

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