Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Of Scrolls and Scribes

I recently came across this video about a process of Torah restoration taking place at a Reform Temple in Poughkeepsie, New York, and found it quite interesting.  Here, take a look:

There's an article to go with the video:  Restoring the Torah, refreshing the faith: Vassar Temple begins scroll project.  I won't go into the entire report, but I rather liked this quote:

"We are doing more than physically restoring the letters and the parchment," said Lou Lewis, restoration project chairman. "We are seeking to create a spiritual journey for members of our congregation and consciousness raising for our entire community."
Also worthy of note is the fact that this process allows for participation from members of the congregation:

On April 18, an opening ceremony will take place at Vassar Temple. During the daylong celebration, some members will be able to ink in a letter on a parchment scroll with Rabbi Moshe Druin of Sofer on Site guiding them.
Throughout the spring and summer, more congregants can make appointments with the scribes to make their marks on one of the scrolls being restored.
David Lampell, a congregant living in the City of Poughkeepsie, said he attended a previous a talk in which one of the scribes described the process of restoration. He said in inking in the letters, he and other members of the congregation would rely on the scribe to guide the quill pen along the parchment.
"They'll be doing the actual writing and we'll be holding onto the quill," Lampell said.
I also find the final part of the article especially interesting:
The origin of the temple's five scrolls is uncertain. Eastern Europe is believed to be where they were transcribed. The temple's "Prague Torah" probably was brought to America by one of the five families that founded the congregation in 1848, Golomb said.
The animal-based parchment, possibly goat skin, was made to endure many restorations.
"Because of its thickness, you can scrape off the letters without tearing it," Golomb said.

And this brings me to my broader point, which is that it's quite interesting to consider the Torah as a medium of communication.  But first, some background information.

The Torah is the Hebrew name for the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible commonly referred to as Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. And it can refer to the text, regardless of the form it takes, be it handwritten, printed, or electronic, and be it in the original, ancient Hebrew or a contemporary, vernacular translation.

But more specifically, what the video is about is the Sefer Torah, which refers to the parchment scroll produced according to strict ritual standards and guidelines by a special scribe known as a sofer (sefer means book, and the word for scribe, sofer, comes from the same root).  A Chumash, on the other hand, is a copy of the Torah in bound book form.

The web page, What is a Sefer Torah?, provides a neat summary of how one is made.  In a time when Twitter has us think in terms of messages that are no more that 140 characters long, it's sobering to learn that the Torah contains 304,805 letters.  The letters have to follow a prescribed form of calligraphy, and each one must be flawless.  Heroic measures are taken to insure that there is no error, as this page describes:
It takes a professional Sofer almost a year to write on parchment more than a quarter of a million letters. The Sofer is not allowed to write from memory. The Sofer has to look into the text of a Chumash that has been thoroughly checked to be an accurate copy or a Tikkun for each next letter, concentrating himself on the holiness and significance of each of the letters of the Sefer Torah. The Torah can only be written in a special square script called K'tav Ashuri. Although Hebrew is read and written from right to left, the Sofer forms each individual letter starting from left to right, checking each word from the Tikkun, singing each word, each letter, out loud.
Note that contemporary proofreaders use a similar technique, that is, reading backwards, albeit word by word, and from the bottom of the page up, as a better way to spot errors than reading in the standard fashion.  But what is particularly important is that the slow, methodical, painstaking process that sofers use makes it possible to produce copy after copy that are textually identical to one another. 

This was all but unheard of in the scribal culture that existed before Gutenberg sparked the printing revolution in early modern Europe.  Copyists invariably introduced error and variation into their copies, often deliberately altering or editing their copy to suit their own tastes and whims, changing the wording, deleting passages they didn't care for, adding their own material in as well.  This is known as scribal corruption, and it makes it all but impossible to establish an original, authoritative version of any text from the ancient or medieval world.  But the Torah has been reproduced faithfully, even down to the exact words that make up a line and the exact lines that make up a column and the exact columns that make up a page (248 pages in all) since antiquity. 

Parchment itself is a durable material, Harold Innis termed it a heavy medium, associated with time biased cultures, which is to say that it is well suited to preserving knowledge over time, but being heavy, is not so easy to transport.  Made from animal skin, the origins of parchment are unknown, but its use as a writing surface became increasingly more common from the 6th century BCE on, especially within Jewish culture.

The book as we know it, pages bound together between covers, did not exist before the development of the parchment codex in the 1st century CE.  Up until that time, and even well after it, the word book referred to scrolls, and scrolls tended to be relatively small and lightweight.  Often they were made from Egyptian papyrus, which Innis referred to as a light medium, associated with space biased cultures, as they were easy to transport over distance, but not terribly durable.  Parchment scrolls were heavier and longer lasting than their papyrus counterparts, but limited in size.  That's why the Bible is made up of books rather than chapters or sections, each book was originally a scroll of its own.  The same is true of the various works of the ancients that are divided into "Book One," "Book Two," "Book Three," etc., such as Aristotle's Rhetoric, a text familiar to communication scholars like myself.

The Torah, then, is a scroll five times over, and given the fact that the letters are relatively large, and that it's made of thick parchment that's attached to wooden staves, it is without a doubt a heavy medium.  Add to this the fact that the scroll is covered in a velvet coat, and given a silver crown and ornaments, and it takes some effort and strength to lift one, as is required during the Shabbat worship service.  I've had to carry and hold Torahs for extended periods of time, and I can tell you that it's not easy!

But then again, it's a heavy medium, not meant to be moved around from location to location, but rather meant to remain in place and keep safe the knowledge it contains from generation to generation.  And to the extent that the medium is the message in this instance, the message is tradition, preservation and continuity.

1 comment:

Hebrew Scholar said...

Thanks for this wonderful video and study about Hebrew Torah scrolls. It is difficult to comprehend the effort and dedication that the production of a single column of text in a Hebrew scroll takes, let alone an entire Torah scroll, or the entire Tanakh. It can take a year of a trained scribe's life. In this world of instant documents and computers, little has changed in thousands of years for a Hebrew scribe. It is amazing.