SEFER TORAH (Heb. סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה; pl. Sifrei Torah; scroll of the law), scroll containing the Five Books of Moses written on parchment according to strict rules and used mainly for reading at public worship (see *Torah Reading). The Sefer Torah is normally written by a specialist known as a sofer ("scribe").
The Writing of the Scroll
The tools and materials used by the scribe are parchment, quill, ink, stylus and ruler, and tikkun ("guide") – a book with the Torah text. The Torah is written on parchment manufactured from specified sections of the hide of a kosher animal. The hide consists of three layers, but only the flesh side of the inner layer and the outer side of the hairy layer may be used for Torah parchment (Shab. 79b). The method of cleaning and softening the hide, which must be of the best quality, has changed throughout the centuries. During talmudic times, salt and barley flour were sprinkled on the skins which were then soaked in the juice of gallnuts (Meg. 19a). There is, however, a reference to the use of dogs' dung for this purpose (Yal. Ex. 187). Nowadays the skins are softened by soaking them in clear water for two days, after which the hair is removed by soaking the hides in limewater for nine days. Finally, the skins are rinsed and dried and the creases ironed out with presses. The processor must make a verbal declaration when soaking the skins that his action is being performed for the holiness of the Sefer Torah. Whereas reeds were used as pens in the days of the Talmud, quills are used today, the quill of the turkey feather, which is sturdy and long lasting, being preferred. The sofer cuts the point of the feather to give it a flat surface, which is desirable for forming the square letters, and then slits it lengthwise.
The ink must be black, durable, but not indelible. During talmudic times a viscous ink was made by heating a vessel with the flame of olive oil, and the soot thus produced on the sides of the vessel was scraped off and mixed with oil, honey, and gallnuts (Shab. 23a). Ink is now made by boiling a mixture of gallnuts, gum arabic, and copper sulfate crystals. Some scribes also add vinegar and alcohol. To ensure that the letters will be straight and the lines equally spaced, 43 thin lines are drawn across the width of the parchment with a stylus and ruler. Two additional longitudinal lines are drawn at the end of the page to ensure that all the lines end equally. To enhance the appearance of the printing on the parchment a four inch margin is left at the bottom, a three inch margin at the top, and a two inch margin between the columns.
Although there is no law regulating the number of pages or columns a Torah must have, from the beginning of the 19th century a standard pattern of 248 columns of 42 lines each was established. Each column is about five inches wide since by tradition there must be space enough to write the word לְמִשְׁפּחֹתֵיהֶם (Gen. 8:19), the longest occurring in the Torah, three times.
Before the sofer begins his daily work, he performs ritual ablution in a *mikveh. To avoid mistakes, talmudic soferim copied from another scroll, and according to one tradition there was a copy of the Torah kept in the Temple which scribes used as the standard (Rashi to mk 3:4, tj, Shek. 4:3, 48a). Before commencing, the scribe tests the feather and ink by writing the name "Amalek" and crossing it out (cf. Deut. 25:19). He then makes the declaration, "I am writing the Torah in the name of its sanctity and the name of God in its sanctity." The scribe then looks into the tikkun, reads the sentence aloud, and proceeds to write it. Before writing the name of God the sofer repeats, "I am writing the name of God for the holiness of His name."
The Torah is written in the square script known as Ketav Ashuri, of which there are two different types: the Ashkenazi, which resembles the script described in the Talmud (Shab. 104a), and the Sephardi, which is identical with the printed letters of the Hebrew alphabet currently used in sacred texts. The thickness of the letters vary and it is often necessary for the sofer to make several strokes to form a letter. The scribe holds the feather sideways to make thin lines, and flat, so that the entire point writes, to make thick lines. Particular care must be given to those letters that are similar in appearance (e.g., dalet and resh) so that they can be easily distinguished. Each letter must be complete, with the exception of the "split vav" in the word shalom in Numbers 25:12. Although Hebrew is read from right to left, each individual letter in the Sefer Torah is written from left to right. Six letters are written particularly small (e.g., the alef in the first word of Lev. 1:1) and 11 letters are written very large (e.g., the bet in the first word of Gen. 1:1). There must be a space between the letters, a greater space between the words, and a nine letter gap between the portions. A four line separation is made between each of the Five Books of Moses.
Seven of the 22 letters of the alphabet have special designs on the upper left hand corner of the letter called tagin. Shaped somewhat like the letter zayin, three such tagin are placed above the letter, touching it lightly. The center tag is slightly higher than the two on the ends. The Torah contains no vowels or punctuation marks. However, there are a number of dots over several words (e.g., Deut. 29:28; see *Tikkun Soferim). There are two shirot or songs in the Torah which are written in unique fashion. Shirat ha-Yam (Ex. 15:1–19) has a nine letter gap in the middle of each sentence, and these gaps are so spaced that they appear like "half bricks set over whole bricks" (Meg. 16b; Shab. 103b). Shirat Ha'azinu (Deut. 32:1–43) also contains a nine letter separation in the middle of each sentence, but these blank spaces form a single space down the center of the entire column.
After the copying of the Torah has been completed, the sheets of parchment are sewn together with giddin, a special thread made of tendon tissue taken from the foot muscles of a kosher animal. Every four pages are sewn together to form a section or yeri'ah. These sections of parchment are sewn on the outer side of the parchment, with one inch left unsewn both at the very top and bottom. To reinforce the giddin, thin strips of parchment are pasted on the top and bottom of the page. After connecting the sheets the ends are tied to wooden rollers, called aẓei ḥayyim, by inserting the giddin in holes in the rollers. The eẓ ḥayyim consists of a center pole, with handles of wood and flat circular rollers to support the rolled-up scroll. Besides serving as a means of rolling the scroll, the aẓei ḥayyim also prevent people from touching the holy parchment with their hands. In Oriental and some Sephardi communities, the flat rollers are not employed since the Torah scrolls are kept in an ornamental wooden or metal case (tik).
Invalid and Disqualified Scrolls
Mistakes in the Torah scroll can generally be corrected, since the ink can be erased with a knife and pumice stone. However, a mistake in the writing of any of the names of God cannot be corrected since the name of God may not be erased, and such faulty parchments must be discarded. When a mistake is found in a Sefer Torah, the wimple is tied round the outside of its mantle as a sign that it should not be used until the mistake has been corrected. According to the Talmud, a Sefer Torah which has less than 85 correct letters is to be discarded (Yad. 3:5; Shab. 116a). This number is the number of letters in Numbers 10:35–36, which is sometimes regarded as a separate book (hence the references to seven instead of five books of the Torah: Gen. R. 64:8; Lev. R. 11:3). However, it was later laid down that too extensive corrections rendered the scroll unsightly and therefore invalid (for this and other details see *Haggahot). If a scroll is beyond repair, it is placed in an earthenware urn and buried in the cemetery.
It was customary to bury such scrolls alongside the resting place of a prominent rabbi (Meg. 26b). The Mishnah (Git. 4:6) permits the purchase of a Sefer Torah from a non-Jew at its market value and the Talmud (ibid., 45b) even records that Rabban Simeon b. Gamaliel permitted the purchase of those written by a non-Jew. Another tradition, however, laid it down that a scroll written by a non-Jew must be stored away, while one written by a heretic must be burned since it is feared that he may have maliciously altered the text (ibid.).
The Duty to Possess a Sefer Torah
It is regarded as a positive biblical commandment for every Jew to possess a Sefer Torah, the word "song" in Deuteronomy 31:19, "now therefore write ye this song for you," being interpreted to apply to the Torah as a whole. Even if he has inherited one from his father he is still obliged to have one of his own (Sanh. 21b). He may write it himself, or have it written on his behalf by a sofer, or purchase one, but "he who writes it himself is regarded as though it had been given to him on Mt. Sinai" (Men. 30a).
On the basis of the statement of the Talmud (ibid.) to the effect that he who corrects even one letter in a Sefer Torah is regarded as though he had himself written it, a custom has developed which both gives every Jew a portion in a Sefer Torah and symbolically regards him as having fulfilled the command of writing one. The sofer writes only the outlines of the words in the first and last passages of the Sefer Torah and they are completed at a ceremony known as Siyyum ha-Torah ("the completion of the Torah"). Those present are honored by each being invited to fill in one of the hollow letters, or formally authorize the sofer to do so.
Sanctity of the Sefer Torah
The Sefer Torah is the most sacred of all Jewish books. A valid Sefer Torah must be treated with special sanctity and great reverence (Yad, Sefer Torah 10:2). Its sanctity is higher than that of all other scrolls of the books of the Bible, and therefore, though one Sefer Torah may be placed on top of another, or on the scroll of another book, another scroll must not be placed on it (Meg. 27a).
It is obligatory to stand in the presence of a Sefer Torah (Mak. 22b; Kid. 33b) both when the ark is opened to reveal the scrolls and when it is being carried, and it is customary to bow reverently or kiss it when it passes. The bare parchment must not be touched with the hand. So insistent were the rabbis on this that they declared "He who touches a naked Sefer Torah will be buried naked," although the statement was modified to mean either "naked of good deeds" or "naked of the reward for good deeds" which he would otherwise have had from reading it (Shab. 14a). For this reason the yad ("pointer") is used for reading and the Sephardim cover the outside of the parchment with silk for the same reason.
It was forbidden to sell a Sefer Torah except to provide the means for marrying, studying (Meg. 27a), and for the *ransom of captives. Should a Sefer Torah accidentally fall to the ground, the whole congregation is obliged to fast for that day. It was permitted and even enjoined to disregard the Sabbath in order to save not only the Sefer Torah but even its case from destruction (Shab. 16:1), and should it be burnt one had to rend one's garment (mk 25a); if one saw it torn one had to rend the garment twice, "once for the writing and once for the parchment" (ibid. 26a, cf. the statement of Hananiah b. Teradyon when he was being burnt at the stake wrapped in a scroll, "I see the parchment burning but the letters soar aloft" (Av. Zar. 18a)). The Sefer Torah must not be carried about unless for religious purposes, and even for the purpose of reading from it at services held at a temporary place of worship, such as a *shivah, it may not be taken there unless it is read on at least three occasions. When it is transferred to a permanent site it is usually done with full ceremonial. The Sefer Torah is carried through the streets under a canopy and the procession is accompanied by songs and dances.
Among the Sephardim before the reading of the law, and among the Ashkenazim at its conclusion, the Sefer Torah is ceremoniously held aloft (*Hagbahah), its writing exposed to the congregation, who recite "and this is the Torah which Moses set before the children of Israel (Deut. 4:44), according to the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses." One must make every effort to acquire a beautiful Sefer Torah (Shab. 133b). Unless it is corrected, a text of the Sefer Torah that is in error may be kept only 30 days (Ket. 19b). When it is transferred to a permanent site it is usually done with full ceremonial. The Sefer Torah is carried through the streets under a canopy and the procession is accompanied by songs and dances.
In addition to its main use for reading the scriptural portions in synagogue (see Reading of the *Torah), the Sefer Torah is used on a large number of ceremonial occasions. According to the Mishnah (Sanh. 2:4) it accompanied the king in battle, and on the occasions of public fasts for drought the ark with the Sifrei Torah was taken out into the public square and the supplications and exhortations were recited in front of it (Ta'an. 2:1). It also played a central role in the ceremony of *Hakhel.
During the Middle Ages the solemnity of taking an oath was enhanced by the vower making it while grasping a Sefer Torah. For the same reason three leading members of the congregation stand round the *ḥazzan while he is reciting *Kol Nidrei on the eve of the *Day of Atonement
In modern times it is extensively used. Seven Sifrei Torah are taken out for the circuits with the *four species on *Hoshana Rabba, and on the next day (in the Diaspora two days later) the sevenfold circuit of the synagogue with all the Sifrei Torah is the central part of the ceremonial of *Simḥat Torah. The custom of the worshippers joyfully dancing with the Sefer Torah on this occasion is widespread.
S. Ganzfried, Keset ha-Sofer (1835, 19022, repr. 1961); Eisenstein, Dinim, 298–302; L. Blau, in: Soncino-Blaetter, 1 (1925–26), 16–28; M. Higger (ed. and tr.), Seven Minor Treatises (1930), 9–19; Y.Z. Cahana, in: Sinai, 16 (1945), 49–61, 139–59; Y. Zimmer, ibid., 68 (1971), 162–72; Israel Ministry of Religions, Leket Dinim bi-Khetivat Se-Ta-M (1960); S. Rubenstein, The Sefer Torah (1965).
[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]