Fresh ink

More than 12,000 Rehovot schoolchildren learn about a rare profession as they participate in the writing of a Torah scroll.

torah writing 521 (photo credit: Chana Nudelman-Faust)
torah writing 521
(photo credit: Chana Nudelman-Faust)
Some backstage performances are as powerful as a grand front stage, full-dress event. In a mind boggling, probably unprecedented mission, during the past school year more than 12,000 Rehovot elementary school children took turns dipping a quill into special, long-lasting ink, and watched attentively as a scribe put the quill to parchment and skillfully completed each letter. The task: to write a new Torah scroll in time for the holidays.
When Rabbi Chaim Deutsch, an experienced sofer stam (scribe who writes Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot), was first asked if he would be willing to go to at least 22 schools in order to have the children participate in the writing, he was incredulous. He agreed when he heard that the Rehovot Rabbinate had worked out a way to keep the Torah kosher.
“I liked the idea of having young children experience a personal connection to the Torah, the Five Books of Moses – the most sacred Jewish text,” he said. “At the same time, they would learn about the precise art of writing ritual texts, according to the same rules that were used in ancient times.”
It sounds like an enormous project. It was. A Torah scroll contains 304,805 letters. Each one has to be perfectly formed and may not touch an adjacent letter. Involving 12,000 schoolchildren certainly complicated the task.
Timing, in addition to perfection, was a crucial factor. The Torah had to be finished and bound in time for a festive event to coincide with the reading of the Torah portion of Netzavim the Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. In Netzavim, Moses (knowing he is about to die) gathers the people together to bring them into the covenant with God. In turn, he promises to bring them into the land of milk and honey.
Jewish sages also quote Netzavim as the source of the commandment that each Jew should write a Sefer Torah: “And now write this Song for yourselves and teach it to the Children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). Modern authorities say that anyone who writes even one letter earns the same merit as one who writes a whole scroll because the scroll is kosher only when it contains every single letter.
Most people never get to see a Torah scroll up close, let alone take part in writing one. The writing of a Torah scroll is a meticulous task that can take at least a year and is usually done by a scribe in seclusion.
“It was very emotional for me to write the special Torah with the children’s participation,” said Deutsch. “They were very interested and serious – aware that they were involved in the writing of a sacred Jewish text.”
One way Deutsch piqued the children’s interest was by showing them the difference between how their names are written in modern Hebrew script versus in biblical script.
Earlier in the week, at a gathering in Beit Michal (a children’s library and cultural venue) children and their parents had a chance to hear Deutsch explain the intricacies of the labor-intensive work and the art of doing it correctly.
A well-written scroll can last a thousand years.
(Recently 1,300-year-old fragments of the “Song of the Sea” from the Book of Exodus were discovered). A scroll must be handwritten by a qualified scribe, on special parchment, using a quill. A metal point may not be used because metal is used in war.
A kosher Torah scroll may not contain any mistakes. Among the interesting insights: if there is a mistake, it can be corrected (with a razor). Two mistakes near each other can be fixed. Three mistakes means the whole text has to be checked. If there is uncertainty about look-alike letters “yud” and “vav,” a young child who knows the letters is asked to identify them. A misspelling of God’s name may not be fixed.
Fortunately, modern software programs can now be used to check Biblical texts for errors. Two checks are run, explained Deutsch, to be sure that new mistakes have not crept in.
After many months of going from school to school,  Deutsch did not duck any questions lobbed at him by children and their parents.
“They were very good questions,” said the scribe, who served in the army as a demolitions engineer.
“How do you fix a mistake?” Why are there no notes for the chanting?” “How much time does it take to write a Torah scroll?” “Can a woman write a Torah scroll?” “Why aren’t Torah scrolls printed on a regular printing press?” “Is a Torah scroll ever illustrated?” “We follow traditional, halachic laws – in writing the letters and following a format. Tradition mandates that scrolls are handwritten, and are not illustrated,” explained the scribe.
Deutsch’s expertise in handling dangerous objects in the army seemed to serve him well in answering all questions with ease and finesse. Orit Gidali, a young mother in a sundress who modestly nursed her baby before joining the circle, asked the challenging question about the possibility of having women scribes. Although women are not halachically permitted to write a Torah because they are not obligated to read it, young girls (and women, including this reporter), as well as the boys dipped the quill into the ink that the scribe used to complete each letter.
At the end of the evening, Deutsch took out a women’s hand blow dryer to dry the new words on the parchment. He had also used a non-static nylon stocking to clean off smudges. Poetic justice? He had hoped to have the children take part in sewing the parchment together with a sinew from a kosher animal, but the hour was late. Even without it, the Torah scroll learning experience at Beit Michal gave children and their parents an unforgettable opportunity to enrich their knowledge about the art of writing the written law and its importance in Jewish tradition.
Parents and children were moved by the experience.
“When I told my son Amitai that the Torah has been the most popular book in the world for thousands of years, and it is also read by Christians, he agreed to come,” said Shai Weisman. “He listened attentively because the scribe knew how to make it very interesting. It was clear that the writing was for a holy book which enhances the art of the calligraphy.”
Yonatan, a pupil at the Bechor Levy School in Rehovot, had never seen a Torah scroll up close. “It was fun for me because the scribe showed us how he wrote the letters, and let us write part of a letter on a sheet of paper. It was an exciting experience. Boys and girls had a chance to dip the quill in the ink used by the sofer to write the letters.”
Merav Meidan came with her son Moriah, 10, his friend Omer, and three-year-old Avishag. “The boys felt good about dipping the quill in the ink that was used to form the letters. We all thought it was very interesting to learn that a computer is used to check for mistakes. I particularly liked learning about Torah calligraphy, for instance, the decorative features above certain letters,” she said.
On the Friday before Rosh Hashana, in a rare happening, thousands of secular, religious, and haredi youngsters and adults danced in the streets of Rehovot, accompanying the Torah, which was carried on a special van used only for a hachnasat sefer Torah (welcoming of a new Torah scroll). In an exalting milestone ceremony at the Great Synagogue the thrill of the occasion was palpable.
“You are standing today, all of you, before Hashem, your God, the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers – all the men of Israel; your small children and the proselyte who is in the midst of your camp… Not with you alone do I seal this covenant… but with whoever is here, standing with us today before Hashem, our God, and whoever is not here with us today,” quoted Adi Milstein from the Torah portion of the week.
Milstein is a spokeswoman for Psifas (Mosaic), a group of secular and religious families in Rehovot who are developing a new model to fulfill their common yearning to deepen their connection to Jewish identity and tradition. She was eloquent in her appreciation of the effort that went into the project and its importance to youngsters growing up in Israel. A secular Jew, Milstein has a background in education. As supervisor of the high-school system in Lod, she was in charge of implementing Jewish and democratic studies into the curricula of all schools in the central region of the country.
Rabbi Simcha Hakohen Kook, Rehovot’s chief rabbi, who together with Rehovot Deputy Mayor Zohar Bloom spearheaded the idea of giving school children an opportunity to write a Torah scroll in honor of Rehovot’s 120 birthday, was obviously impressed and pleased to hear words of Torah spoken by a secular resident of the city.
Kook had given his blessing for the project and approved the special halachic solution that gave girls and women a chance to participate in the mitzva. He was elated that the Sefer Torah project had such a unifying impact on residents of the city. Black-hatted students from his yeshiva and modestly dressed youngsters were all caught up in the joyous atmosphere. Speaking with emotion, Kook mused that the celebration took place on the highest place in Rehovot, where the first synagogue was built 120 years ago Also on the platform at the ceremony was Rehovot’s behind-the-scenes legendary anonymous donor, who provided the funding for the “Children Write a Sefer Torah” project. Envisioning the resonating educational and spiritual effect of involving schoolchildren in the writing of a Torah scroll, he enthusiastically decided to sponsor the unique project, and gave hands-on help and guidance throughout.
Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Mallul and the Department of Youth Education handled the logistics.
“There is an enormous interest among many secular Israelis these days to explore their Jewish roots,” said David Tannor, professor of physical chemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science and co-founder of Psifas. Tannor is delighted that the new Torah will be available to Psifas, a group that is picking up speed since it was formed two years ago.
Its varied programs include Yom Kippur services at Havayot, the North Rehovot (Swiss) Community Center, a wide range of programs on the Succot holiday (a family tour of the biblical garden of Neot Kedumim is planned for this year), at least two Shabbatot outside Rehovot and regular shared learning classes.
“The special way this Torah was written – with the participation of children, secular and religious, boys and girls – reflects all the main aspects of Psifas’s mission,” says Tannor. “We are dedicated to involving families with young children, both secular and religious, and to the full participation of women within the parameters of Halacha. We have managed to find a middle ground that everyone can feel comfortable with, from the Chief Rabbinate of Rehovot to the steadfast secularists at the Weizmann Institute. Our fervent hope is that the new Torah scroll will be used by Psifas with ever-increasing frequency, for holidays, Shabbatot and family celebrations.”
“The amazing celebration on Friday was a thrilling event,” said Dr. Sherman Rosenfeld, science educator at the Weizmann Institute who has been a full partner with Tannor in conceiving, planning and implementing Psifas. “The Torah will be kept in the ark in the Berman Shul [the Rabbi Jacob Berman Community Center, Tiphereth Moshe Synagogue], which has been a supporter of Psifas.
“We are inviting Psifas and anyone else who wants to dance with the new Torah to join us for Simhat Torah, when we will once again roll it to the beginning to begin reading the awesome story of the Creation and the epic story of the Jewish people. This will be an especially joyous holiday.”