Writing the small print

Shel Bassel is working on a Torah scroll that is only 26 centimeters high and it even has its own Facebook page.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)
The most sacred ritual object in Judaism is the Torah scroll, the Five Books of Moses handwritten on parchment. Shel Bassel is a scribe who is currently working on a scroll that is only 26 centimeters in height. He started the work several months ago, but much remains to be done. Each scroll takes at least six months of full-time work to complete.
Bassel was born in 1956 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. One day in Hebrew school, his class visited the sanctuary of the synagogue. The cantor took out a Torah scroll, put it on the lectern on the platform in the middle of the synagogue and opened it carefully.
“I was overwhelmed,” says Bassel. “It was one of the most awe-inspiring and beautiful things that I had ever seen.”
The fascination continued. When he was 16 years old he began studying at a yeshiva and took scribe classes from the time he was 18. He noticed that fewer and fewer students came to these classes each time: The demanding tests and the patience required for the exercises resulted in a high drop-out rate. Bassel, on the other hand, chose to find a private tutor so he could devote the time necessary to learn the trade.
After a year of intensive study, he became a certified sofer (scribe). He began to write the more simple things, like the two biblical passages found in mezuzot, the four biblical passages found in tefillin, and the scroll of Esther, which traditionally is written on parchment.
In 1983 he received his first commission to write a Torah scroll, which made it financially possible for him to make aliya. Since then he has supported himself as a scribe and has written more scrolls than he can remember. He estimates that the number lies between 25 and 30.
About a year and a half ago, he came up with the idea of writing an unusually small Torah scroll, but that required an investor. One evening when he was playing Scrabble on the Internet, he began to discuss the matter with his long-time Scrabble opponent Cheryl MacDonald. She immediately became interested, since she was looking for an interesting and unusual investment opportunity. But, at the same time, she hardly knew what a Torah scroll actually was. Bassel provided her with extensive information and pictures of his previous work. After careful consideration, they reached an agreement in which she would finance the writing, while he would write the scroll and market the product. The price of the finished Torah scroll will be around $40,000.
As part of the marketing, Bassel has started a Facebook group called A Little Torah Scroll Grows in Jerusalem. More than 250 people follow the process there, though no one yet has made a bid for the finished product.
For Bassel, the group has become an interesting pedagogical challenge, since MacDonald and many others in the group are Christians.
“I quickly realized that I had to explain the most basic terms,” he says. “Even Jews who know very little know more than the Christians, who sometimes don’t know anything at all. When people hear the word ‘parchment,’ for example, they don’t automatically think ‘animal hide.’”
Many also don’t know what text is written on the Torah scroll or even what language it’s written in. If you then go down to the level of detail, there are mystical kabbalistic traditions which dictate that certain letters should be large, others small, and still others upside-down.
“There is an opinion based on the Zohar that each stroke in each letter in the four-letter name of God must be written in a particular order,” he explains.
“There is a special kabbalistic significance to each of these strokes and the order in which one does them.”
What Bassel does is thus not only an interesting and unusual craft but he is also maintaining a tradition that is thousands of years old.
“A Torah scroll is not just a copy of a book: It is an object that has its own life and its own identity,” says Bassel, weighing his words carefully. “I am creating a ritual object that is by far the most sacred ritual object that exists in Judaism today. From a Jewish perspective, its holiness is only subordinate to man.”
Although the Torah scroll is regarded as such a sacred object in Judaism, the Jewish tradition is completely honest about the fact that we can’t be absolutely certain that the text that we have today is 100 percent accurate. The text in the Yemenite Jewish Torah scrolls, for example, are different on 15 points from other scrolls. Only two of these are a matter of spelling variations. The uncertainty of whether the text is entirely correct or not means that you don’t say a blessing before writing a Torah scroll, even though writing a Torah scroll is considered to be one of the 613 commandments: If the text that is copied has one letter too many or too few, the blessing would be said in vain.
“Personally, I think this alludes to a human aspect,” says Bassel. “In Exodus chapter 34, when Moses is about to receive new stone tablets, God says “Hew for you” – i.e., you must hew them for yourself. The first stone tablets were written by God and subsequently destroyed by Moses. After that, Moses had to do his part of the job. I think that there is something appropriate in our recognition that an aspect of us as human beings has crept into the text. It’s not absolute, it’s not the original tablets written in stone. We bring with us something of ourselves. It does not alter the basic meaning but rather enhances it in a way by allowing us to acknowledge that we are human beings, that we are not perfect.”