Kosher Scrolls

Accuracy is Critical

   If you visit any of our displays you will quickly see that the scrolls are no longer kosher. What makes these scrolls no longer kosher? Scrolls become pasul, no longer kosher, when letters are damaged. There are 304,805 letters in the Torah and it is critical that every letter must be perfect. Scrolls are repaired hundreds of times to keep the letters perfect, but they come to a point where it is easier to write a new scroll than to keep repairing the old one. Every book you read and every web site you visit on the subject of halacha STaM, laws of writing scrolls, will repeat that the Torah must be 100% perfect or it is 100% pasul.

   The most common problem we have seen is that parts of letters are missing, having flaked off or the whole letters has faded from a dark black to a light brown. You can easily see this on almost every old scroll you examine. In these three pictures you can see some dark black letters, some light brown letters and places where the letters have flaked off the sheet. To be kosher, every single letter and every part of the letter must be solid black. 

This portion of Scripture is found in Numbers 17:10, (in the Hebrew Bible it is listed Numbers 17:25

Main Causes For Damaged Letters
Iron Gall Ink Degradation

  Almost all works of art, writings and manuscripts that have been penned with Iron Gall Ink are in a state of deterioration. There is extensive research in Iron Gall Ink Degradation and there are many books and web sites that cover the subject. This is a major problem which is happening in libraries, governments and museums throughout the world. Manuscripts, paintings, books and government documents which were composed with this ink are becoming worthless and impossible to read. This problem is also happening to all the scrolls we have. I believe there is a major fault with the quality of ingredients that was used and those who mix it perhaps were not aware of the problem. Because the problem does not show up for about 100 years after the work was done they would not have realized there was a problem. It is critical that high quality ingredients be used. The best ingredients are not accessible in most parts of the world though low quality sources of each ingredient can be found. There are galls everywhere and gum Arabic can be found throughout the world, but their quality is not always the same. The information on “Iron Gall Ink Degradation” is too complex and with so much literature on the subject it is impossible to make a final conclusion in the matter. Please go to the following web site for further study.

Blemishes and Mistreatment

   Another cause for the scroll condition to be declared pasul is blemishes caused by mishandling the scroll. Sometimes there will be blemishes on the Klaf. If the blemish is on a word or letter this would render the scroll pasul. This Torah page has a unique blemish which covers the Tetragrammaton, the name of the LORD.

   Most of the time, the blemish will cover large areas of the Scroll because it was created by water damage. Scrolls that have fallen into the hands of Gentiles for the purpose of eradicating the Jews and Judaism have had terrible misuse. This problem was not just during the Nazi reign of terror, but it was also wide spread in the old Soviet Union in the form of Pogroms.

   The Russian word, “pogrom” came from the verb “to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently”. A pogrom is a riot directed against the Jews by killings and destruction of their homes, businesses, and religious centers. A small example of a pogrom can be understood by watching the classic movie “Fiddler on the Roof”. 

   The first Sefer Torah we purchased had three sheets in Leviticus that had large red stains across the Klaf, “skin”. This must have been wine which had spilled on the scroll during the Kiddush part of the service.  Kiddush is Hebrew for “sanctification” and is a blessing recited over wine to sanctify the Shabbat, Jewish holiday or Bar Mitzvah ceremony.”

   The scroll in reference came from Germany written in the late 1500s. Sometime in the past when this scroll was in use, perhaps at a bar Mitzvah ceremony, someone spilled wine on the scroll. This would have been a tragedy in the synagogue. It could have also happened during the beginning of the Holocaust when perhaps some Nazis broke into a synagogue during a service and in a manner of disrespect, threw wine on the Sefer Torah the congregation was reading.

   The following photograph is from a Haftorah from the Holocaust. It had a bayonet driven completely through the scroll twice. I had the privilege of handling this scroll and sewing it to the Etz Chaim.


   When a scroll has water damage, mold or other large blemishes this invalidates the scroll and the problem must be corrected. The only way to correct this problem is to remove the section by cutting it from the sheet and adding a new section. We find in about 70% our scrolls, pages have been removed and kosher pages were sewn in their place.

   With a small problem, like the brown blemish over the Tetragrammaton, the name of God, the Sofer can cut out the bad portion and glue a patch, (sheep skin, and deer skin) on the back side of the sheet and re-write the missing portion. This photo shows such a repair from a scroll written in the 1400s

Holes in the Parchment

   There are different ways of mixing the ink. One way is to simply make up a batch of ink and keep it in liquid form and simply dip the quill or reed in the liquid. This is the way we most often think of using a quill. The other method is to boil the ink until it forms an ink cake. When the Sofer is ready to use the ink he adds gall water and mixes it with the ink cake the same way we use water colors.

  The following photograph is from one of our scrolls that is very old. Some professors have put the date beyond the 1500s. We are not sure of that date until proper examination can take place. However, the scroll signs of great use over the ages. The damage on the scroll was a result of use and not mistreatment. Sometimes the holes appear as a result of the wrong ink mixture. Many times, to strengthen a scroll or repair weak placed in the skin which show up with use, sheep skin patches will be glued to the back sidfe of the sheet. This scroll had 185 sheep skin patches glued to the scroll. Notice the different ages of the patches.

  The gall water is very high in tannic acid and if the Sofer is not careful, (The sofer is never careless. They are always as careful as possible.), the ink mixture will be so high in tannic acid it will burn a hole through the parchment.  Sometimes, but rarely, you will find holes where the letters were in a line on the Scroll. The missing part of the letter makes the scroll pasul. This photo shows where the sofer apparently used the method of mixing ink where he used a cake of ink immersed in gall nut water. He apparently mixed too much gall, tannic acid, and over time it ate holes in the skin.

Holes burned through the parchment.  This portion of Scripture is found in Numbers 21:34

  Around 500 years ago there was a major change in the iron gall ink recipe because paper became more common than parchment or velum. The weaker paper simply fell apart under the tannic acid in the iron gall ink. As I mentioned earlier in the book, the ink recipe is changing again among the Soferim. Many are removing the sulphate, iron or copper sulphate, from the recipe and going back to the soot base ink. This is a much longer lasting ink.

D’yo Ink

   Strictly speaking about the material used in writing scrolls, I would say the ink is the most important item regulating the longevity of scrolls. We have worked with scrolls written in the 1300s to the early 1900s and it is always the ink that is the problem in longevity. The ink either fades or flakes off rendering the scroll pasul or not kosher.
Usually a sofer will not mix his own ink, but a “sage” in the skill of making ink will be sought out to “cook the ink” for those in need. I have purchased two 8 oz. bottles of Sofer’s ink over the years and it usually very expensive.

The Importance Of A Letter

  Every part of a letter is important and every letter must be a dark black. Here we see the name of God written in Hebrew. This is a good example of how many moves it takes to make an individual letter. As stated before in an earlier part of this book, the Sofer averages about three letters per minute. Notice the two He –H in the picture. This is the way Halakha says the letter must be written. There are 7 separate moves to make these letters. The letter shin takes 11 separate moves to write it correctly. Writing Biblical Hebrew is an exacting art.

Why is it so important that every part of a letter is kosher?

  If a document was going to be copied, perhaps hundreds of thousands of times, for 3,500 years what would happen if a letter was changed two or three thousand years ago? It would be copied wrong from that point on. How could something containing 304,805 letters be copied so many times still be close to saying the same thing?

Let’s look at one example.

  In this picture the Hebrew word with the name of the one who built the Ark in the flood of Genesis is spelled with a Hebrew Nun – N ,and a Hebrew Chet – CH. It spells Noach, (Noah in English). Suppose 2,000 years ago the bottom part of the Nun – N broke off and left the Hebrew letter Yod – Y. We wouldn’t be telling stories about Noah and the Ark but about Yech and the Ark.  Let’s just say mistakes were never caught and over the millennia from all Jewish communities in the world hundreds and thousands of mistakes were routinely made. Do you remember when you were a child in grade school and the teacher put the class in a large circle and whispered in the ear of the first student and said something like this. “At 10:00 AM the class will go to the playground and play kick ball. Afterward we all will have cookies and milk.”  As this story is whispered from ear to ear around the circle, the story changes until at the end of the line the story is not recognizable.

  The Jewish community is deeply concerned that the Torah says the same thing as the one written by Moses. Over the millennia they have gone to great lengths to find the answer to that question.

  Rabbi Dovid Lichtman wrote an excellent article on the subject and I will summarize his work as follows. According to the authorities in Halachah, and the opinions of RamBam, Vilna Gaon, Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher, the Torah is the most honored and prized possession of the Jewish nation. It is copied with such reverence that if one letter is added or subtracted from the writing, the Torah is considered pasul and can not be used until it is corrected. (Megilah 18b; YD #274) This creates a problem because all hand written manuscripts are subject to errors. Humans make mistakes. At least twice Torah scholars have gone on a world wide search throughout Jewish communities examining the pattern and accuracy of the Torahs in each region and then comparing all the regions of the world for consistency.

  This is briefly the way they said the research was done. In each area, like Lithuania, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq, etc. five of the most highly revered Torah scrolls were examined as one group. Each letter was examined in the five scrolls and four of the five scrolls all had to come to 100% agreement in every single letter. Then the process was carried out in the next region. Finally one scroll was taken from each area of the world and they were compared among themselves for consistency.

  The final conclusion according to Rabbi Dovid Lichtman is that out of the 304,805 letters in the Torah there can be found only 6 letters in discrepancy between the Masoretic text and the original Torah written by Moses. These 6 letters are discrepancies of orthography, or proper spelling of each word. They do not change the meaning of the word. The 6 letters are the letter yod and vav. It was concluded that the Torah we have today, if they follow the Halachah laws will be .00004% accurate.

  Scrolls from Yemen were overall considered to be the most consistent as a group. The reason given was the Yemenite Jewish community was so distant from the nearest neighbor that all the scrolls followed the same Tikkun guide. It was copied from the scroll known as “Ben Asher”. This scroll was written by Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher in the 10th century. It has been accepted as the most accurate scroll in existence and has been the standard for Halakha law. I have possessed two Sefer Torahs written in Yemen in the 1700s. When examining these scrolls in comparison to the scrolls coming out of Europe, I remember saying to myself, “This sofer is having no fun writing this scroll”. Every letter is written exactly perfect. There were absolutely no liberties taken or embellishment of a letter.  This work on accuracy of the Torah is very interesting as written by Rabbi Dovid Lichtman.
(2) Rambam, Hil. Sefer Torah, beginning of 8:4

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