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The Torah Scroll and its Ornaments
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Painting by Maurycy Gottlieb

The Torah Scroll and its Ornaments

After the destruction of the Temple and the loss of its sacred implements, the Torah scroll became the central object of the Jewish faith. The presence of Torah scrolls in the synagogue, a mikdash me'at-"a small memento of the Temple", became mandatory.

Beauty was an essential requirement in the process of creating the Torah scroll. A baraita (a legal or historical document that was not integrated into the Mishnah) in the Babylonian Talmud explains the Biblical verse "This is my God and in beauty I will serve Him" (Exodus 15:2) as follows: "Carry out the commandments with grace and elegance; make for Him ... an attractive Torah scroll, written for His honor with fine ink and a pen of quality, by an expert scribe, and bind it with fine silk" (Shabbat 133B). The tractate Soferim (Higger edition 3:13) adds these words: "and with fine parchment and dyed leather."

The Torah scroll consisting of the Five Books of Moses - Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy - is written according to strict regulations. The scrolls are made of sheets of parchment from the hide of an animal which meets ritual requirements. Sinews of the animal are used to sew the sheets together. The text is written in special ink, using a quill of sharpened reed.

Strict regulations governing the writing of the Torah scroll have ensured its uniformity throughout the ages. For example, the letters must be complete, straight, and separate from one another by a hair's breadth, while words and verses should be separated by the width of one small letter. The seven letters ש,ע,ט,נ,ז,ג,ץ are crowned by tiny, three-pointed tagim, while the letters ב,ד,ק,ח,י,ה have one tag. At the end of each book, four lines are left blank and the next book begins on the fifth line. The last words of the Torah scroll, "Before all Israel" are centered in the middle of the line.

The ends of the Torah scroll are tied to wooden staves. The staves' ornamental handles and flat circular rollers serve as a means of rolling the scroll (cat. no. 1). These are called atzei hayyim (Trees of Life) based on the verse: "She is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy" (Proverbs 3:18). It is customary to touch or kiss the Torah scroll only through a cloth or prayer shawl. The reader employs a pointer to follow the text (cat. nos. 31-44). When not in use the scroll is bound together and tied with a belt, cloth, or a wrapper (cat. no. 203), and clothed in a mantle. These fabrics are often richly embroidered with inscriptions and decorative motifs. In Sephardic communities, the Torah scroll is kept in a metal or wooden case, and the upper handles of the staves extend through the top of the case.

Fitting over the two upper handles of the staves are Torah finials (rimmonim), usually hung with bells that tinkle when the scroll is removed from the ark (cat. nos. 4, 11-20). The scrolls are sometimes adorned by Torah crowns (cat. nos. 2, 6-10). There is often a silver Torah shield (cat. nos. 3,21-30), suspended by chains, which fits over the staves. The Torah shield sometimes features a small box of separate plaques bearing the names of the different holidays or the portion to be read.

Regarded with awe and devotion, the Torah is housed in a special ark on the wall of the synagogue facing Jerusalem. The congregation directs its prayers toward the ark. Elaborately decorated curtains and a valance (cat. nos. 46, 47) are hung in front of or in the ark. Special curtains may be hung on the Sabbath and festivals. In the synagogue, the Torah scroll is read, and also plays a role in various aspects of the prayer service. Many prayers are recited while the Torah ark is open and the scrolls are revealed to the worshippers - particularly on the festivals and High Holidays.