Each Hebrew letter has meaning, Zerach Greenfield, a sofer stam (scribe), said at the kick-off for Congregation Anshei Israel’s new Torah scroll on Dec. 16. That meaning is reflected in the way each letter is written in the Torah. For example, the letter aleph stands for eretz (earth) and comprises three quill strokes that end in two points — one going up and one going down, to remind us that God’s cosmos is much greater than our world. And like every letter in the Torah, the gematric (numerological) equivalent of those quill strokes add up to 26 — as do the letters in God’s name.
This means, says Greenfield, that he connects to God with every letter that he writes.
Greenfield is writing the new Torah scroll to celebrate Anshei Israel’s 83rd anniversary, or second Bar Mitzvah. As Rabbi Robert Eisen explained, according to the Torah, a normal life span is 70 years. “The days of our years are 70.” (Psalm 90:10) Therefore, we celebrate 83 as a Bar Mitzvah during a second lifetime. Eisen described the dedication of the new Torah scroll as a rededication to the mission, vision and values of the congregation. “Today, on the last day of Chanukah, we recall that the Maccabees’ first act of victory was to rededicate themselves and the Jewish people to living Judaism and to avodah, sacred service,” he said.
Greenfield discussed the significance, tools and process of writing a Torah scroll, including how he prepares each morning by going to the mikvah (ritual bath) before writing a column of the Torah, which takes four to five hours. He said that it takes about a year to write the 245 columns, which are then scanned and examined through a computerized verification process and stitched together with sinew to form the scroll.
The congregation then shared in the 613th commandment of writing a Torah scroll as Greenfield and the Torah project sponsors completed the first three letters of the new Torah. The honor of completing the first letter, the bet in Bereishit (“In the beginning”), went to Tom and Sara Borin, Anna and Leon Lederman (Sara’s parents), and Stacey and Zach Singer (the Borins’ daughter and son-in-law). The family held the turkey feather quill together with Greenfield as they said the blessing “For the sanctification of the Torah scroll, you are my shaliach (representative) to finish this letter.”
Cosponsors Rabbi Lee and Jane Kivel joined Greenfield to complete the second letter. The third letter honored cosponsors Enid and Mel Zuckerman in absentia. In their place, all of the attending children were called up to say the blessing and watch up close as the aleph was filled in.
“It was cool,” said Rachel Rudner, age 9, as she and her mother, Monica, filled in names on a family tree, one of six activity stations at the Torah fair. Her 6-year-old brother, Ryan, nodded in agreement. “This could be the Torah that they’ll read from on their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs,” said their father, Eric.
“It was really fun and moving to see the first letters of the Torah written,” said Natalie Leonard, a 14-year-old freshman at University High School who often reads Torah and leads services at the synagogue. “I remember reading the portion of the Mishnah that teaches about the ink and stuff in seventh grade.” Her mother, Katherine, said that their family chose to dedicate Parshat Noah, Natalie’s Bat Mitzvah Torah reading.
Anyone can dedicate a letter, word, verse, Torah portion or book of the new Torah scroll. Rosie Eilat Kahn, who co-chairs the Torah project with Jane Kivel, said that it is open to the community so that everyone can participate in the mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll. Dedications will be recorded in a book that will be displayed in the synagogue foyer. On Shabbat and holidays it will be open to the dedication for that day’s Torah reading, she said.
“The synagogue is a really important part of my life. It’s been there for all of my lifecycle events,” says Eilat Kahn, who has been a member of Anshei Israel for 57 of its 83 years. “This is an opportunity to give back after all these years.”
“It is a privilege to be able to leave this legacy for the shul,” says Kivel, who has been involved with the Torah project from its inception. “It’s wonderful to see it come to fruition.” She looks forward to more people getting involved and becoming “just as enthralled as we are” as the project continues through the year.
The Torah fair concluded with an Anshei Israel tradition from Simchat Torah. Congregants held up a pasul (unfit) Torah scroll, unrolled to form a large parchment circle with the words of the Torah facing inward. As Eisen walked around the circle, pointing out significant moments from creation through Moses’ final blessing, children ran under the parchment and around the circle.
Other activities are planned for the Torah project and the 83rd anniversary, including additional visits from Greenfield and culminating in the siyum (conclusion) of the completed Torah on Dec. 8, 2013.
Information about the Torah project and dedication opportunities are available at www.caiaz.org.
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a local writer and editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.