NEWTON – During a recent Shabbat service at Beth Menachem Chabad of Newton, Bruce Dezube was deep in thought.
As part of the congregation, he was pondering the Torah and Haftarah readings, reflecting on how the prophet Jeremiah was castigating the Jewish people for distancing themselves from God. “It was a very significant Parshah,” he said, so engrossing, in fact, that he didn’t even notice a mini-drama taking place on the bimah.
In the midst of a Bar Mitzvah, with a full synagogue, there was a problem with the Torah scroll.
“It seemed some water somehow dripped on the Torah and a couple of letters got smudged,” Rabbi Shalom Ber Prus later posted on Facebook. “It made the Torah unfit to continue use.”
The letter bet in the word u’ven (“and between”) had lost the shape and image of a bet. Furthermore, it was touching the letter vov preceding it.
Jewish law is very precise on what it takes to make a Torah scroll OK for Jews to use. This one was no longer OK. The Torah may not be used for congregational prayer if there is even one broken letter in the scroll, according to Rabbi Eric Ray, the late scribe, scholar, and author of the book “Sofer: The Story of a Torah Scroll.”
“The letters in the Torah need to look intact and recognizable,” Prus said in an interview. “An aleph has to clearly be an aleph. A bet has to clearly be a bet.” If it touches the letter before or after it, he said, “It renders it pasul, or unfit.”
How the Torah letters got wet is a mystery, he said. It was a hot day, and “maybe it was some sweat or saliva. Maybe a drop from a water bottle.”
What was clear was that the Torah needed to be immediately substituted. “There is a concept in Jewish law,” Prus said, “that if you have a congregation gathered, you don’t want to keep them waiting for longer than necessary. So we made the change as quick as possible. You don’t want to cause a disturbance.”
“I wasn’t even aware,” Dezube said.
The rabbi rolled it up and put the cover on, placing the Torah belt on top of the cover rather than directly on the scroll, as is customary, “to differentiate it,” he said, and another Torah was brought out to finish the reading. Later, he gently placed the damaged Torah in his car, covered it with a tallit, and transported it to the workshop of a Torah scribe in Brookline, where it awaits repair.
Repairing a Torah is no small task, according to Rabbi Kevin Hale, a scribe in Northampton who has restored scrolls saved in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, and is the subject of a short documentary, “Commandment 613.”
To write or repair a Torah, scribes follow rules that go back thousands of years. Jewish law must be followed to the letter – or, technically, 304,805 letters, which is the total number of letters in the Torah. Every one of them needs to be written correctly.
“You’re doing it for the sake of the mitzvah, versus writing a shopping list,” Hale said.
After studying a photo of the damage, he theorized what might have happened. “I wasn’t there but I think the exposure to moisture softened the ink and then when the scroll had to be rolled up and set aside, the ink got “squished” and spread beyond the boundaries of the letters.” The moisture subtly impacted an adjacent lamed above the damaged u’ven, he noted. “And there’s a little bit of schmutz” on another letter, as well.
Hale, whose own mentor was Rabbi Ray, follows the custom of first washing his hands before beginning the repair, then performs the ritual of writing the name of Israel’s ancient evil enemy – Amalek – on parchment, and then crossing it out. (In the Torah, God commanded Jews to “blot out the memory of Amalek.”)
Hale scrapes the damaged letters off the parchment with a piece of broken glass, or flint, before properly rewriting it. Using “base metals” such as iron, steel, brass, or copper is to be avoided, he said, because such metals are used to make weapons. “Nothing which is used for killing may be used for a Torah.”
All this because of a smudged letter bet.
“To create a Torah is very special,” Prus said. “You take materials, parchment, quills, and ink and write it out, transferring raw material to get something special and holy. We stand up for it. We kiss it. If there is a fire, we tell the firefighters to rescue it.”
He posted on Facebook: “Just like every single letter in the Torah is intentional and needed to make the Torah fit for us, likewise every single person individually, is intentional and needed for the world … We are each individually important, serve a purpose, and make a difference.”
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