Torah scroll in White Oak poses puzzling question

Torah scroll in White Oak poses puzzling question

White Oak has a riddle wrapped inside a scroll. Protected by an ornate wooden case, a sefer Torah (a handwritten Pentateuchal scroll) rests in Temple B’nai Israel’s social hall. With its transcribed five books of Moses, the text contains a story. But what differs in White Oak is that in this case the text itself is a story.

“It’s been with us forever,” said Janice Greenwald, TBI’s president.

 “But we don’t know where it came from,” added Paul Tuchman, TBI’s rabbi.

For as long as anyone in the congregation could remember, the Torah was not used.

“The only time we took it out was for Simchat Torah and for erev Kol Nidre,” said Tuchman.

But in 2012, the traditional reform congregation, located on Cypress Drive, hired Sofer on Site — a Florida-based company — to assess the condition of the scroll as well as the congregation’s three other Torahs. The labor-intensive process evaluated each scroll’s nearly 120 feet of parchment and more than 300,000 handwritten ink letters. Various efforts were made to render the scrolls “kosher” or appropriate for use as readable texts.

Although three of the congregation’s scrolls were repaired, the fourth (the one with unknown provenance) was left as is.

In addition to problems with the parchment itself an “enormous” amount of letters were cracking or fading in the scroll, said Norma Robles of Sofer on Site.

“Because the illegibility and damage were so severe, it would have been too costly to repair,” said Tuchman.

Apart from its worn nature, the Torah possessed another quality. When Tuchman and others rolled the scroll to the beginning, they noticed something bizarre. On one piece of parchment the letters were distorted.

As opposed to possessing uniform size, the letters on this sheet were elongated. The stylistic move created a manipulative visual effect. Although initially the parchment’s handwritten columns appeared normal, the contents of each column did not. Whereas each column’s lines traditionally contain multiple words, in some instances on this sheet the elongation of letters left only one word on each line.

“You can bet that when we saw this we went through the whole scroll, and there’s nothing else like this,” said Tuchman.

“This is very strange,” said Rabbi Shimon Silver, a trained scribe and spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh.

While reviewing the parchment and three columns in question, Silver added: “That column is not so bad, the next one is not so bad, the third one is crazy.”

“I have seen such situations before,” said Rabbi Moshe Druin, traveling scribe at Sofer on Site.

Of the 10,000 Torahs that Druin has inspected during his 34 years of practice, “maybe five or 10” are similar to this, he said.

“It’s obviously a very old sefer (text),” said Rabbi Levi Langer, Rosh Kollel/Dean of the Kollel Jewish Learning Center in Pittsburgh. “Nowadays, when they write a sefer Torah they all look the same.”

Over the past 100 years, Torahs have followed a style in which nearly every column begins with the Hebrew letter “vav.”

Such conformity is due to “many great sages or Jewish leaders who wanted it to be more uniform so that the style and laws could be kept in a closer type of framework,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldstein of Sofer on Site.

“The old sofrim (scribes), they used to do freestyle. You would never see such a thing today,” said Langer.  

Based on the handwriting employed within the scroll, the Torah may have Czech or German origins, said Tuchman. “It’s a mystery.”  

But apart from the scroll’s place of origin is the question of why the contents of one piece of parchment differ from the rest.

“My suspicion is that that section is a replacement,” said Rabbi Daniel Yolkut, spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck in Squirrel Hill.

The scribe “for whatever reason chose a standard size claf (piece of parchment) but had too little text,” surmised Tuchman.

“This was a restoration done much prior to the war,” claimed Druin. Back then, “you were only able to get the parchment sheet based on what the shochet was able to get you.”

Traditional Jewish law mandates that each piece of parchment in a Torah scroll must come from the hide of a kosher animal.

“The sofer could have lived in a little town and only had access to parchment that he had next door,” said Druin.

Alternatively, the scribe may have needed to stretch two columns’ worth of text into three.

According to the Shulchan Aruch, a 16th-century code of Jewish law, there must be between three and eight columns of text on each piece of parchment in a Torah scroll. Parchment with only two columns is permissible but unadvisable.

It is possible that the scribe originally wrote a piece of parchment with two columns, “and somebody said you can’t do this and he replaced it with three,” said Silver.

Also possible is that the distorted text reflects an assemblage of salvaged parchments.

“It may well be that you had two pieces of sifrei Torah that you were trying to cobble together, and therefore you needed to add an extra sheet that conformed to the regular sizing of the claf (parchment) and lining. But because you were filling in the gap between one Torah and the other, you ended up with a short text that you had to write in one place,” said Yolkut.  

Similarly, the scribe may have written the pieces of parchment out of order and when writing this piece of parchment realized that in order to conform with each adjacent piece of parchment, two columns of text needed to be stretched into three, posited Silver.

While theories abound like a talmudic discourse, one thing is certain.

“We’re getting enjoyment out of something sacred and different,” said Greenwald.

“Even though it isn’t kosher, it’s a kli kodesh (sacred vessel),” said Tuchman. “Objects tell us a lot about communal history, and this is a part of the Jewish story.”

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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