Monday, October 25, 2010

Fulfilling the 613th Commandment

Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel “writes” its own Torah scroll
By Edie Sachs
From the South Orange Patch

During the recent Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah, when synagogues read the last words of the Torah and then start again at the beginning, the congregants of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel celebrated the occasion in the usual fashion, by dancing and singing with the precious scrolls in their arms. This fall, however, the members of South Orange's Reform synagogue had one more very special Torah to celebrate with—one that they can properly call the work of their own hands.

The Torah is the holy Jewish book containing the Hebrew text of the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. Portions of it are read aloud every week on Shabbat (the Sabbath) as well as on every Jewish holiday. Jewish law specifies that a Torah cannot be mechanically produced; it must be hand-written and must be made entirely of natural materials. Consequently, they can be very expensive; a synagogue might pay as much as $80,000 for a new Torah.

For the last year, Sharey Tefilo-Israel has been running a fundraiser called the L'Dor Vador ("From Generation to Generation") Torah Project, which recently culminated in the creation of the synagogue's own original Torah. Through the generosity of Marjorie and Michael Francis, a new Torah was procured, and a scribe, or sofer in Hebrew, engaged to write the text in the traditional manner with a quill pen. Congregants had the opportunity to purchase portions of text—individual letters, phrases, paragraphs, or longer passages. Then they would participate in a "scribing session" with the scribe, Zerach Greenfield, while he inked the specified text on the parchment. If they wished, participants could put their hand on Greenfield's arm while he wrote to gain an immediate, tactile sense of the process—the next best thing to actually being able to do the writing themselves.

"For the first time in our congregation's history, we are writing a complete Torah—all 304,805 letters and all five books," said Rabbi Ellie Miller, associate rabbi of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. "This was an exceedingly, exceptionally meaningful experience for the entire membership."

Rabbi Miller credited the sofer, Zerach Greenfield, with playing a pivotal role in the ultimate success of the project: "He is an educator as well as a scribe. He met with all the different populations of the synagogue—the religious school, adult and senior groups, the Hebrew High School—and did a fabulous job showing us the process of how a Torah is written, the tools and materials that are used, how the process developed. We all gained so much from this special time."

The project was the idea of the temple's senior rabbi, Rabbi Daniel M. Cohen, who was inspired by the building renovation project taking place at Sharey Tefilo-Israel at the time.

"I thought that it would be very nice if, at the same time we were putting all this energy into the physical structure of the synagogue, we could also build something that would be very close to our hearts as Jews," said Rabbi Cohen. "I wanted us to create a tangible thing that would be an everlasting legacy for the temple, as well as a project that the entire congregation could have the opportunity to participate in."

The fundraiser was overseen by a special committee headed by synagogue members Andrea Baum and Susan Pleasant. A closing ceremony for the project took place on Sunday, September 26, the first day of the synagogue's religious school for the 2010–11 year. According to Rabbi Miller, underwriting opportunities are still available to outfit the new Torah with its customary coverings and ornaments, including the yad, or pointer used by the reader.

Synagogue members who took part in the project gave it enthusiastic reviews. New member Jane Randel said, "Participating in the L'dor Vador Torah Project was an unbelievable way to feel welcomed into the community. Sitting with the scribe, the significance of participating in what will likely be a once in a lifetime opportunity was palpable to my husband and me. Together we created a memory for [our] children."

Robbie and Adam Weissenberg said, "It was a wonderful family experience and enhanced our understanding of the value of Torah. Zerach's tools illuminated the process of the scribe's work and his stories added a wonderful spiritual and historical perspective."

"The 613th and final commandment in the Torah is that each and every Jew should write a new Torah," said Rabbi Miller. "It's amazing to think that our congregation has collectively fulfilled this commandment as defined by the famous medieval scholar Maimonides, who said that 'if one writes or fills in just one letter in a Torah scroll, it is as if they have written it in its entirety.'"

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