PROJECT OF FAITH Restoring the Torah
Scribes follow the same methods used by Moses to write the first Torah.
By D.A. WILKINSON
VINDICATOR RELIGION EDITOR
LIBERTY -- The renovation of a Torah displays a faith that tries to make the world a better place.
The project, "shows people what God has shown us," said Rabbi Joseph P. Schonberger of Temple El Emeth.
Today, the temple begins the first steps to renovate a Torah, a scroll written in Hebrew that contains the Jewish Scriptures.
Torahs are written with quills and special ink on leather and kept on wooden rollers, the forerunner of book bindings.
The entire congregation will have a hand in the restoration, which, in a rare move, will be open to the public.
Writing hasn't changed
Rabbi Schonberger said Torahs are written the same way Moses wrote the original about 3,200 years ago.
The text contains the Ten Commandments and other moral teachings. The Torah is the same as the first five books of the Bible.
But the rabbi said, "A Torah is a living, breathing thing" because of its faith message and the organic materials used to create the scroll. The rabbi said that unless the Torah is unrolled for use and allowed to breathe, it begins to decay. Torahs that cannot be repaired are buried in a cemetery, the rabbi said.
Rabbi Schonberger stressed that the project goes beyond repair to renovation -- to bring the Torah back to life.
El Emeth has 14 Torahs. The rabbi said that number is high because El Emeth was formed in a merger between two congregations about 30 years ago. Several Torahs need repairs, but the one that will be restored hasn't been chosen.
Must be perfect
Torahs used in sacred rites must be perfect.
"If there is any defect in the writing, even one letter, we cannot use the Torah," said Rabbi Schonberger.
Not using a Torah if one letter is worn away sends a message that each soul is important, he continued.
Other writings in the Talmud -- the collection of writings that constitute the Jewish civil and religious law -- set forth 613 mitzvahs, or commandments. The last commandment is that each Jew should create a Torah. People who write just one single letter or who authorize someone to write on their behalf fulfill the commandment.
Rabbi Schonberger noted: "Most people don't have the training to do it."
In recent years, Rabbi Schonberger began learning how to create a Torah. He said he has been studying under one of three master scribes in the world, Rabbi Eric Ray of Great Neck, N.Y.
Rabbi Ray will be in Youngstown this weekend to conduct three programs to begin the restoration.
The Spanish Inquisition sparked the destruction of many Torahs in Europe, so most date from the 1500s or later. Most Torahs in the United States are about 100 years old, Rabbi Schonberger explained.
One of 2,000 styles of lettering can be used in a Torah. The lettering is, in effect, handwriting, Rabbi Schonberger said.
A Torah also may be written in sections by several people, each with small differences in their handwriting.
There aren't many records on the history of the temple's scrolls, but Rabbi Schonberger expects the master scribe will be able to determine the past of the Torah that will be renovated based on the writing and materials.
Most restoration materials must be purchased because they are not readily available. Torahs are written on steer or sheep hide and stitched with dried cow veins that come from animals butchered in accordance with Jewish dietary laws.
The quills are from fowl, most often turkeys. Rabbi Schonberger said he will use a number of quills in the project and hopes to find a large supply locally.
The ink, in part, comes from gallnuts, which are tree growths caused by insect stings.
No metal that can be used in making weapons can be used in making a Torah, according to Rabbi Ray's book, "Sofer: The story of a Torah Scroll."
Creating a new Torah can take three years, according to the master scribe, but the temple plans to complete its project by late spring or early summer.
Geri Newman, who is co-chairing the project, said Torahs are normally sent out for repairs.
Newman said she sees the program mainly as educational.
"Before, I knew next to nothing about Torahs," she said. "It's just been a fascinating journey for all of us."
Mitzvahs are also good deeds, so the renovation makes a statement about what the congregation is and wants to do in the community, Rabbi Schonberger said.
Judaism, he said, "is about making life better for each other."