Torah thefts are down thanks to some detective work

Torah thefts are down thanks to some detective work

Zerach Greenfield of Machon Ot examinies a Torah.

Photo by Toby Tabachnick
Zerach Greenfield of Machon Ot examinies a Torah. Photo by Toby Tabachnick

Several local sefer Torahs may now be safer Torahs, following a visit from a Jerusalem-based nonprofit with a computerized technique of Torah scroll identification and registration.

The system, developed and implemented by Machon Ot, which specializes in Torah repair, restoration and maintenance, ensures that if a scroll were stolen — or its ownership otherwise called into question — the Torah could successfully be identified and returned to its rightful owner.

Zerach Greenfield of Machon Ot was at Congregation Beth Shalom last week examining and cataloging the congregation’s 19 Torahs. He also paid a visit to New Light Congregation, and met with Rabbi Daniel Wasserman of Shaare Torah Congregation, whose Torahs have been registered for the last 15 years.

More than 17,000 scrolls worldwide have been registered with Machon Ot since it began doing this work in the early 1990s, said Greenfield, who lives in Israel but is in the United States about six months each year to examine and register Torahs. The organization’s system of identification was developed at the request of Interpol and the Israeli police, he said.

Beth Shalom had reached out to Machon Ot primarily to check its scrolls for imperfections, and to identify their native countries and dates of origin. The identification and registration comes with the package, which runs $100 per scroll, according to Greenfield.

Torah registration not only helps in the case of theft, Greenfield said, but also in cases where a family who lent a Torah to a congregation needs to identify which one is theirs.

A stolen Torah can be difficult to identify because, without its cover and adornments, scrolls can look interchangeable.

When a Torah is stolen, Greenfield said, “the first thing [thieves] do is remove the identifying marks, the atzei chaim,” the wooden rollers. “So, how do you prove it’s yours? Today, all insurance companies in Israel demand that Torahs be registered with Machon Ot.”

Because Torahs are all handwritten, no two are exactly the same, Greenfield noted. Machon Ot makes a template of a particular column, and 20 specific lines, in each Torah it registers — using an iPad to photograph it, then creating a transparency — which it is then able to use to identify the Torah.

Since it began doing the work, “numerous” stolen Torahs have been recovered and delivered to their rightful owners, Greenfield said.

Most of the perpetrators of the Torah thefts are sofers, scribes who write and sell Torah scrolls, according to Greenfield.

Torahs are very valuable, and can sell for anywhere between $35,000 to $60,000.

At New Light, Greenfield examined and registered six Torahs, according to Rabbi Jonathan Perlman, spiritual leader of that congregation.

“It’s an exciting project,” Perlman said of the Torah registration program, although the registration was incidental to the central purpose of calling in Greenfield: checking the condition, origin and value of the congregation’s scrolls.

Although Machon Ot has been registering Torahs since the early 1990s, another organization, the Universal Torah Registry, an independent non-profit founded by the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, has been doing similar work since 1984.

Founded at the request of law enforcement agencies at a time when Torah thefts were rampant, the Universal Torah Registry has registered about 10,000 scrolls worldwide. Its method differs from that of Machon Ot, and a sofer is not necessary for the process. Rather, any congregation can apply to the registry, and then receive a registration kit with the materials necessary to record various specific characteristics of a Torah scroll.

The process involves the use of a superfine needle with which a special code of micro perforations is applied to specific places in the scroll. The method, like that used by Machon Ot, is halachically acceptable, according to David Pollock, associate executive director of the JCRC of New York and the administrator of the Universal Torah Registry.

“Both methods are valid,” Pollock said. “The important thing is to register your Torahs, and that Torah owners are protected. The gonifs know they could get caught now if they try to sell a stolen Torah.”

Since Torah registration has come on the scene, thefts are way down, according to Pollock. In 1981, prior to the creation of the Universal Torah Registry, more than 200 Torahs were stolen in the United States, most of them from the New York area.

“Now, we have just one or two a year,” he said. “It’s usually just a dispute in a congregation, where someone takes a Torah to solve their problem, or a homeless person comes into the synagogue and takes it. Usually, those things get fixed.”

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

read more: