The Torah Scroll
The Torah Scroll
by Mottel Baleston
If you are at all like me, you might admit that some of your strongest childhood memories are tied to special foods during celebrations. Across the street from the large apartment building of my childhood in Brooklyn, New York, was a very large Jewish synagogue and community center. Once a year, in October, a special ceremony was held that marked the end of the biblical Jewish holiday of Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. The final ceremony is known as Simchat Torah, the Rejoicing over the Law, when the yearly cycle of Scripture readings from the five books of Moses are completed with the reading of the last chapters of Deuteronomy, and immediately the large Torah scroll is rolled back to the beginning and the first few verses of Genesis are chanted aloud in Hebrew.
That “Rejoicing over the Law” is celebrated by a literal parade of worshipers who dance around the synagogue, with the rabbi leading in front holding the heavy Torah scroll containing the five books of Moses, and singing Hebrew praises. In order to encourage us children to participate, we were given small paper flags to wave and were told that once the parade made two circles around the synagogue sanctuary, we could go to the back and receive a very large, red jellied candy apple on a stick. Yes, it was a little like bribery!
Well, word got out in our neighborhood that the synagogue would again give out “jelly apples” for kids who participated in the Simchat Torah parade, and soon Jewish kids from blocks around, even those from other synagogues, made sure they were in place for the start of the parade. My eight-year-old self started to worry that there would not be enough “jelly apples” to go around! Of course, the point of the parade was the genuine joy of lifting aloft the Torah scroll and thanking God for His written word. Early on, I learned to have a deep respect for the Torah, as it contained the very words of God!
Many Gentile believers are starting to become aware of the significance of the Torah scroll. After all, the Bible from which Yeshua and the apostles read was written on a Torah scroll, and so this is important to all believers in Messiah Yeshua.
For over 3,000 years, the traditional Jewish community has made ceremonial working copies of the five books of Moses—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—comprising the Torah. The scribes wrote down the words by hand on long scrolls of parchment or vellum, fine-grained animal skins that were sewn together. They are still doing so in our modern day. The other portion of the Hebrew Scripture that is also handwritten on a parchment scroll for ceremonial use in our day is the book of Esther, called Megillah in Hebrew.
Originally, all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures were written on parchment scrolls. Individual books were usually written on individual parchments, and examples of such scrolls are found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. A further example is this New Testament episode involving Yeshua: And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the scroll and found the place where it was written (Lk. 4:17). Today, the traditional Jewish world regards the 39 books that form the Old Testament as the Word of God. That Bible is usually in hardcover form and found in synagogues and homes, whether in the original Hebrew or in translation to any modern language.
The parchment for a Torah scroll must come from a Kosher animal, either calf, goat, cattle, or deer. The skin is stretched on a frame, cleaned and smoothed and then cut into a rectangle. Each piece is approximately 18 to 20 inches high by 28 to 30 inches wide, and it takes about 70 to 80 skins to make up the full Torah scroll. The leaves are sewn together, and depending upon the writing style of the scribe, the completed scroll may be as long as 180 feet. Depending upon the thickness of the parchment, it can weigh over 40 pounds.
The Jewish man who is a skilled calligrapher and who hand writes the Hebrew letters of the Torah scroll is called a sopher, which means “scribe.” He writes with a goose quill, which he dips in thick ink made from an old formula of oak nut resin, acacia tree sap, oils, and charcoal soot. Each parchment leaf has three to four columns of writing, with each column having 42 lines vertically. There are exactly 304,805 Hebrew letters in a Torah scroll. A skilled scribe usually takes nine months to complete the scroll. Along with the raw materials, it explains why new Torah scrolls from Israeli scribes are currently sold for about $40,000. Once the Torah scroll is complete, it is called a Sefer Torah, a written Torah.
There are two types of cases for a Sefer Torah. Sephardic and Mizrachi Jews from the Mediterranean and Middle East areas respectively put their scrolls on two small wooden rollers, which are held in an ornate case, either made of silver-ornamented metal or decorated, polished wood. Ashkenazic Jews are from Europe, and their Torah scrolls are on two large wooden rollers, about 30 inches high. The rollers are covered with a lavishly decorated cloth frame. Most synagogues in the Western world own several Torah scrolls, usually in the Ashkenazic style. The scrolls are kept in an ornate wooden display cabinet, an “ark,” at the front of the synagogue sanctuary.
In most synagogues, the Torah scroll is taken out of the ark during the Shabbat service on Saturday mornings. When the doors of the Torah ark are opened, the congregation stands in respect. The rabbi carries the Sefer Torah in a dignified procession around the sanctuary. Worshipers often show their respect and understanding that the Torah contains the Word of God by reaching out to touch it with a prayer shawl or prayer book, and then bring that item to their lips.
If that last description seems a bit strange to readers without a Jewish background, it might be helpful to remember that during the public ministry of Yeshua and His apostles, they often voluntarily participated in the activities of the larger Jewish community. The Apostle Paul was given many opportunities to share the good news of the arrival of Messiah within the midst of the Jewish community, something documented in the book of Acts. By doing so, he demonstrated his familiarity and comfort with the Jewish traditions of the day.
In my over 30 years of leading Messianic Jewish congregations and fellowships, I have officiated at almost two dozen Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies with a full Torah scroll service and Hebrew Scripture reading, as well as many other services where we read from the Torah scroll. All of Romans 14 reminds us that we have freedom in these areas of Jewish practice and cultural traditions. First Corinthians 9:20-21 further states:
20 And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the [Mosaic] law, as under the law, (though I myself am not under the law) that I might gain them that are under the law; 21 To them that are without law, as without law, (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Messiah’s law), that I might gain them that are without law.1 Corinthians 9:20-21
At many of those Messianic services, we had Jewish friends and relatives in attendance who were not yet believers in Messiah Yeshua. They often arrived with the idea that Jewish believers in Yeshua were fully ignorant of Jewish culture and learning, and that was the only reason for our belief. That prejudice was blown away when they saw these ceremonies and heard the joyful singing of Hebrew psalms. At the same time, we were very clear about the fact that Yeshua is the one and only Messiah and His atonement the only way into the kingdom of God.
One can fully embrace the Scriptural truth that we are no longer under Mosaic Law, but rather are under grace, as I clearly do, while still being enriched by an understanding and practice of the Jewish roots of our faith. I have no desire to go back under law, and in fact never have, but I am practicing the very advice that the Apostle Paul gave above in I Corinthians 9:20-21.
May God find us alert to learn more about the roots of our faith and eager to tell all who need to hear that the Living Torah, the very Word of God, is Messiah Jesus.