Letter by letter, a Torah unfurls in South Orange

Letter by letter, a Torah unfurls in South Orange

Lily Moritz, left, helps Rabbi Zerach Greenfield inscribe a letter in a Torah as Sharey Tefilo-Israel’s Rabbi Ellie Lynn Miller looks on.
Lily Moritz, left, helps Rabbi Zerach Greenfield inscribe a letter in a Torah as Sharey Tefilo-Israel’s Rabbi Ellie Lynn Miller looks on.

Cautiously, Lily Moritz placed her right hand on top of Rabbi Zerach Greenfield’s. Then, their hands moving together carefully, they inscribed a single Hebrew letter on a piece of parchment.

Moritz, a client of JESPY House, was one of some 20 people from there and other programs of the Jewish Service for the Developmentally Disabled came to Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange on Nov. 11 to help write a Torah scroll.

Their combined effort will be repeated hundreds of times in the coming year, as the Reform congregation allows members and guests to join in the hands-on effort they call their Torah Project.

For the first time in its history, the congregation will sponsor the writing of a complete scroll, wrapping the project in educational programs about the art and mitzvot of Torah-making and fund-raising opportunities for its members and beyond.

The people who participate “make me their representative,” Greenfield, a sofer, or scribe, said earlier as he set up the tools of his trade beneath a brightly covered huppa in one of the temple’s sanctuaries.

“Just like many of the commandments we have — like you can’t do your own bris — I am their representative to do it for them. I am doing a job in their honor,” he said.

The program was the brainchild of Annette Littman, a West Orange resident (and member of the NJ Jewish News board).

“The 613th mitzva of the Torah — the final commandment — instructs each and every one of us to write a new Torah,” she explained.

Quoting the words of the 12th-century sage Maimonides, she said, “If one writes or fills in just one letter in a Torah scroll, it is as if they have written it in its entirety.”

Seeking perfection

As members of his audience waited to take their places beside him, Greenfield gave a brief lesson in how a Torah is fashioned.

He said there are 20 rules governing the writing of each letter of the Torah, and “if there is one letter wrong, and it is almost perfect, it is not perfect.”

For spiritual guidance in achieving that perfection, Greenfield said a sofer visits a mikva every morning for a ritual bath and says a specific blessing; without those steps, he said, “everything he does that day is not considered kosher.”

The black ink is a mixture of chemicals and seeds sanctioned by Jewish law. The parchment is made from the denuded skin of “any kosher animal.” The quill pen is crafted from a turkey feather.

Each column has to be written meticulously, with deliberate margins on both sides, as the sofer copies words from a book, letter by letter.

A sofer “can only write for four or five hours, and it takes a whole day to write one column,” said Greenfield. “There are 245 columns in the Torah, so it takes 245 days to finish a scroll.”

“What if you make a mistake?” asked one member of his audience.

“We can chip the letters off and rewrite the word” by gluing a piece of corrected parchment into the exact spot where the error was made, Greenfield said.

Sharey Tefilo-Israel aims to have the scroll completed by next Simhat Torah, which falls on Oct. 1. The membership plans to mark the event with a ceremony that “marries the new Torah to the congregation,” said program cochair Susan Parent of Maplewood.

After helping Greenfield complete a letter in Exodus, Moritz, who lives in South Orange and works as a teacher’s assistant at the temple’s religious school, said the experience was “enlightening and meaningful.”

“I feel like I’m doing a very good mitzva,” she said.

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