Below the image, click play to listen.
From the Bowen Collection of Antiquities
The Torah contains the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) divided into 54 sections. These portions are read out loud to Jewish congregations throughout the year in the synagogue, at ceremonies (like weddings, funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs), and at commemorative events in the Jewish calendar. But only a Sefer Torah (one that is approved and ritually clean) can be used in public Jewish worship.
Jewish tradition holds that the very words of the Pentateuch were dictated by God, and thus, are worthy of the extreme care given to ensure that all the 304,805 Hebrew letters in the Pentateuch have been accurately hand copied in a Sefer Torah. To make certain that nothing detracts from the words, only specific fonts are used, and embellishment or illumination of the text is prohibited. However, to show respect for a Sefer Torah and to reflect its value to congregants, the objects associated with it are often lavishly ornamented.
The Aron Kodesh (the “Torah ark” or “ark”) is the focal point in a synagogue. Depending on the means of the congregation, the ark may be a simple wooden cabinet or a large structure adorned with ornate carvings and precious materials. When the Aron Kodesh is opened the true valuables of the synagogue—its Sefer Torahs and items associated with their use—are revealed.
Generally, Sephardic Jews keep a Torah scroll in a cylindrical case, called the tik, which holds the scroll upright. M&G’s Torah Case (tik) is a wooden, hinged cylinder covered in fabric and embellished with embossed silver appliqués. The top, decorative portion of the tik is called the Torah crown. M&G’s Torah crown appears to be a modified pomegranate shape. Since God instructed the Jews to use pomegranate motifs on the High Priest’s ceremonial garments, and they were also used to ornament the Tabernacle and Solomonic Temple, modified pomegranates are traditional tik adornments.
On chains from M&G’s Torah crown are tiny bells which would tinkle as the tik was carried from the ark to the bimah, the place in the synagogue where the tik would be opened and the Torah read. However, missing from M&G’s tik are two rimonim (Hebrew word for pomegranate); these decorated finials fit on the rods on top of the tik and serve as handles for opening the scroll. When the tik was fully open on the platform, the scroll (also missing from M&G’s tik) would be upright and a column of the Torah’s text would be visible for the reader.
The picture on the right highlights additional interesting details. For example, the inscription in the upper left reads: “This case of the Scroll of the Law was made by the good woman, the daughter of Meir Zekiel Samuel.” The inscription in the upper right reads: “This is the Law which Moses set before the children of Israel. These are the testimonies, the statues, the ordinances, etc.”
Ashkenazic Jews generally store Torah scrolls in mantles that have openings at the top to accommodate the handles of the atzei chayim (the “trees of life”), which are the wooden dowels on which the scroll is rolled. Torah mantles take various forms and can be made of simple cloth, rich brocades, or velvet. They are frequently embellished with elaborate embroidery and appliqué.
M&G’s Torah Mantle is maroon velvet embroidered with the tablets of the 10 commandments, the lion of the tribe of Judah, and crowns representing the Jewish kingdom. Other common mantle motifs include the tree of life, the star of David, pillars of the temple and the seven-branched menorah. Once an Ashkenazi Torah is carried to the bimah (platform or podium), the mantle is removed and depending upon local traditions, the Torah is either laid flat or supported on an incline before being read publicly.
The actual writing of a Sefer Torah should not be touched. Not only would it be disrespectful to the words of God, the perspiration and oils from the hand could lead to deterioration and flaking of the ink. Damage to a Torah causes it to no longer be Sefer and thus unusable in Jewish public worship.
To read passages of the Torah during a service is an honor, but keeping one’s place during public oral reading is not always easy. To help prevent mistakes, a yad (sometimes called a Torah finger) is used. Yads often have a handle, a shaft, and a hand with a pointing finger. Some have chains used to hang them on the scroll when stored in the Aron Kodesh. A yad is often made of gold, silver, wood, bone or, like M&G’s Torah Finger, bronze. The person reading may follow the text with the yad, or another person may use the yad to indicate the text to be read.
The extreme care exercised when preserving the text of the Torah and the lavishness of the trappings which adorn the Torah give witness to the reverence the Jewish nation has for the words of God.
William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer
Published in 2021
Found in Yemen, Arabia
Jews believe that the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) were dictated word for word by God to Moses. While the remaining books of the Old Testament, the Nevi’im (the Prophets) and the Ketuvim (the Writings) were inspired by God, the Jews regard the Pentateuch as quite literally, God’s exact words. A Sefer Torah is a kosher (ritually clean) handwritten copy of the formal Hebrew text of the Pentateuch. Both Jews and Christians believe that accurately preserving all God-inspired texts is important; however, Jews hold that the dictated Words of God must receive a higher level of respect and extreme attention to accuracy as they are transmitted to future generations.
A printed copy of the Torah may be used for personal study, but only a Sefer Torah can be used in public Jewish worship. A Sefer Torah must meet high standards in both its construction and transcription. Anything less would not be worthy of the Words of God and should not be used to worship Him.
The materials and tools used in making a Sefer Torah must be ritually clean. The parchment must be from the hides of a kosher animal. Today cow hides are generally used, but M&G’s Torah is made of gazelle parchment. M&G’s Torah is 121’ long and required about 70 hides. To be kosher the hides must be properly cleaned and tanned. A quill from a kosher bird (or other permitted writing utensil) and a specially prepared kosher ink must be used. Once the parchment panels have been inscribed, they are sewn together with thread made from the sinews of a kosher animal. That thread is also used to attach the parchment to rods, called atzei chayim (the trees of life), on which the scroll is rolled.
The ritual cleanness of materials used in making a Sefer Torah demonstrates reverence to God’s Word, but the accuracy of the text is paramount. Every one of the Torah’s 304,805 Hebrew letters must be precisely duplicated by a specially trained sofer (called a scribe in the New Testament). The sofer begins copying by scoring temporary lines on the parchment to serve as the margins and rule for each line of text. Prior to writing the sofer cleanses in a mikvah (ritual bath) and recites a prayer for scroll writing. He must then copy each letter exactly from a kosher Torah scroll or another approved source. Since a Sefer Torah scroll embodies the holiness of its message, the focus is on the text itself. Illustrations or artistic decorations are forbidden.
When the name of God appears in the text, the sofer must follow additional procedures to demonstrate his recognition of the sacredness of his task and his willingness to make sure it is done with the proper intent and reverence. Corrections can be made by scraping the error from the parchment. But if a mistake is made when writing the name of God, corrections are not permissible. That section of parchment cannot be used.
The sofer proofreads his work but before the Torah can be officially pronounced Sefer it must be proofread by additional approved individuals. Part of this process involves counting letters and lines of text. Generally a Torah is written by a single sofer and takes about a year to complete. The approval process may take additional months. The extreme accuracy of these procedures maintaining the text can be documented by comparing modern Torahs to ancient texts.
Because ornamentation of the text could distract from the Words of God, embellishment within the scroll is prohibited as seen in M&G’s Torah. However, decoration of objects associated with the scroll (i.e. Torah case, Torah finger, etc.) show respect and honor to the Torah and its message.
The Song of the Sea (known as The Song of Moses) was sung by the Israelites after they crossed the Red Sea on dry ground. It describes their experience, Pharaoh’s army being destroyed by the collapsing waters, and looking forward to the Promised Land. This passage is one of the two places in a Torah where the text is inscribed differently. The brickwork pattern of the columns was designed to represent the parting of the Red Sea and the Jews passing between the waters.
The three approved traditions for preparing a Sefer Torah primarily differ in the forms of certain letters, the fonts, and the spacing. Yemenite scrolls, like M&G’s, are usually written in an older, more square-looking font, with 51 lines in each of 226 columns. Most modern Torah scrolls are Ashkenazi or Sephardic and have 248 columns of 42 lines each. Many modern scrolls use more rounded and ornamented fonts. The text is the same, but the general appearance and textual breaks differ. M&G’s Torah, which dates from the fifteenth century, is part of the Bowen Collection of Antiquities. In the 1930s and 40s, Frank and Barbara Bowen traveled to the Holy Land collecting artifacts like M&G’s Torah, to enhance appreciation and understanding of the Scriptures.
If a Sefer Torah is damaged or mistreated it becomes pasul and cannot be used in public worship. If a sofer can repair the damage, it can again become Sefer. If it is beyond repair or if it has become so fragile that continued use would damage it, the scroll remains pasul. Tradition dictates that a pasul Torah be placed in an earthen vessel and buried with dignity. However, Jewish leaders have officially approved the use of pasul Torahs by educational institutions and in museum displays, if they are given proper respect and protection.
William Pinkston, retired educator and M&G volunteer
Published in 2020
Oil on canvas, Signed and dated: E. Long, 1879 (middle right on servant’s bracelet)
Oil on canvas
Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.
Esther is one of only two women who merit an entire book in Scripture, but that is not the only characteristic that makes Esther unique. The elegant style and tightly woven plot used in the telling of her story has also made this book one of the most admired literary works in western as well as eastern culture.
Nineteenth-century British artist Edwin Long “translates” this storytelling power into a visual format. A member of the London Royal Academy, Long was known for his meticulous attention to historical detail and for his ability to use visual texture to enrich his scenes. His painting of Vashti (left, M&G’s Collection) captures the dramatic opening of the biblical narrative—Vashti’s refusal of the King’s summons.
The servant girl in the foreground of this work then becomes Queen Esther in his second painting (right). The demure pose and restrained, melancholy expression of both Queens not only illuminates each character but also anticipates the tension that will soon unfold in each of their lives.
Both works were first exhibited at Burlington House in 1879 (though not side-by-side). Vashti Refuses the King’s Summons is now part of the collection at M&G; an original variant copy by Edwin Long of Queen Esther currently hangs in the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Click on the video to hear art collector Andries van Dam’s response to M&G’s Vashti painting.
Donnalynn Hess, Director of Education
Published in 2016