Reflecting on the Torah; as High Holidays Begin Tonight, Focus Increases on Scripture

Article excerpt

Byline: JEFF BRUMLEY

Twelve-year-old Zachary Silverstein of Jacksonville knows that on the day of his bar mitzvah in February, he will not only have to read from his synagogue's 800-year-old Torah scroll but carry it around the sanctuary as well.

"I am nervous about dropping it, but I feel confident that I can hold it up," said Silverstein, a member at Congregation Ahavath Chesed in Mandarin.

The focus on Torah and Judaism is intensified for Silverstein and millions of Jews around the world as they observe Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sunset today.

The festival marks the beginning of Judaism's High Holidays season, which is followed by Simchat Torah, a celebration of the Torah in Jewish life and history.

Here are some questions and answers about the Torah and Torah scrolls.

WHAT IS THE TORAH?

It is the five books of Moses, which make up the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

"This is Judaism's most holy object," said Rabbi Shmuli Novack, spiritual leader of Chabad of Southside, which ritually welcomed its own Torah scroll on Sept. 2.

WHAT IS A TORAH SCROLL?

A scroll consists of up to about 80 panels of parchment upon which the five books are handwritten in Hebrew, Novack said. He said there are hundreds of laws governing the making of the scrolls, dictating everything from the shape of its approximately 600,000 letters to the kind of parchment and ink that are used.

"You can't go buy ink at Office Depot," Novack said. "It has to be the right color and thickness."

HOW ARE THE SCROLLS MADE?

It is a painstaking process that takes at least a year, Novack said. The scrolls are written by specially trained, ordained Jewish scribes.

"Ours was made in Israel by a respected Hasidic scribe" and cost about $40,000, he said.

Is a document that important stored in a special place?

Yes. Torah scrolls are stored in arks, which vary in size and design from synagogue to synagogue, said Rabbi Holly Levin Cohn at Congregation Ahavath Chesed. Arks are like cabinets that store the scrolls and can be ornately decorated.

"They are like pieces of artwork, almost," she said, adding they are usually the focus of the sanctuary.

Cohn said her congregation has seven Torah scrolls, including the 800-year-old document that was rescued from the Holocaust in Europe and obtained after World War II. …