The high point of services every year came when we rose and someone opened the ark where the Torah was kept. The temple was fortunate to have at least six Torahs, each one robed in resplendent garments. Awaiting the opening of the ark, I would run my hand along my velvety chair and imagine that it had been cut from the same cloth that protected those scrolls. Even though most members of the congregation could not read Hebrew and were not observant Jews, there was always a palpable sense of awe when the ark was opened and a Torah was removed, paraded around the sanctuary, and kissed. I remember, as a young child, being fascinated with this beautiful object. What was it that it drew people to touch their lips to it, through a siddur (prayerbook) or a tallis (prayer shawl)?
Today, with the predominance of electronic media and word processors, we take for granted the power of the written word and the page upon which it is written. I had always assumed, in my childhood, that the Torah scrolls were prepared by some machine--they had to be, their lettering was so perfect. Human hands could never perfectly record the laws and words of God, I thought. But the Torah had been in human hands ever since Sinai, well before Xerox or IBM existed. So I wondered how the gifts of Jewish law were recorded, passed down, and perpetuated for so many generations.
When I, suddenly an adult, chose writing as my profession, my old attraction to the Torah scroll returned, as I pondered whether my own writing would ever merit anything approaching the permanence of the holy scroll.
I wondered how soferim--Hebrew for "scribes"--go about their task of communicating the holy law to generations yet unborn. If the Torah is the holiest object in Jewish life, then the scribe who writes it must be as invaluable. It was to a scribe that Rabbi Ishmael said, "My son, be careful in thy work, as it is a heavenly work, lest thou err in omitting or adding one iota, and so cause the destruction of the whole world." The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism, often traversed many miles with one companion--his scribe. Jewish life is sustained because of the written word, beginning with God's recording of the commandments at Sinai and continuing to the present day.
Like so many Jewish professions, though, the scribe's daily task consists mostly of physical and technical labor, infused of course with spirituality, but with the primary concern of following, literally, the letter of the law. Hunched over his small table, eyes strained and lips moving meticulously over the words being written, the sofer is as connected with Ezra, the first sofer identified as such, as he is with the melee that may be swirling around him in his home, where he most often works.
Ironically, the sofer is one of the lowest paid of the Jewish professions, although many soferim today support families on the living they make. Centuries ago, the work of the sofer was commissioned from patrons who wanted their own Torah or a mezuzah, tefillin, or Purim megillah. Soferim were pillars of their communities, interpreting the law even as they recorded it--the word for scribe was often understood to also mean "wise man" because so few people could accomplish this daunting task. But there is very little financial compensation for the sofer's labors, despite the fact that the work is quite costly. Parchment, ink, and quills must be fashioned, at the sofer's expense, and then the sofer must devote many hours to each project.
Things that modern readers of books and e-mails take for granted are painstakingly and artfully created by the sofer, elevating the most mundane objects to a spiritual level. I am guilty of this; I think of paper as something you take notes on and discard. But the parchment that makes a Torah is so much more, even before a single letter is written on it. In accordance with the law, the parchment is made from the skin of a kosher animal, usually a sheep but sometimes a goat or a calf. It is soaked in a mixture of lime and water for up to two weeks, until the hair comes off. Then it is hung on a frame, and excess water is extracted before its surface is sanded to the preference of the sofer. Then the parchment is cut to the appropriate size, scored with perfectly straight lines, and ready for writing.
Everything that touches this immaculately prepared parchment is itself elevated. For the ink, a chemical element, ferrous sulfate, is mixed with tannic acid, which is found in tea or red wine, to produce a reaction that elicits a black color. The sap of an acacia tree is added to make the ink act as a glue to the parchment. It is interesting to think about how the ink must cling to the parchment or else it is a formless blob. Similarly, the Jews must--and do--cling to the Torah to sustain the very form of their life.
The vehicle that transfers the formless ink onto the orderly, scored parchment--the small, elegant quill--is also formed with care. Feathers are cut to a "chisel point," the equivalent of a fine-point calligraphy nib, which is split to hold the ink longer. One sofer said to me, "God makes the quills, we just cut them," and it struck me that the same could be said of the words that those quills record.
The final commandment in the list of 613 mitzvot (commandments) is that every Jew is obliged to write a Torah scroll at some point in life. The ultimacy of this mitzvah is striking, as is the fact that so few Jews are actually capable of fulfilling this obligation. A Torah is a painstaking labor of love; if a single letter is written incorrectly, everything written after that letter is to be erased completely and re-written in perfect sequential order. Most people have neither the patience nor the time for that kind of "heavenly work," so they contribute money that goes toward the sofer's expenses. But even that contribution is a mitzvah because it enables the essence of Jewish life to continue for that much longer.
The Torah has sustained the Jewish people for many thousands of years, and in its own way it sustains me, in my work and in my life. I may continually struggle with the extent to which its teachings about food, modesty, and work are relevant today, but the moral essence of the Torah is what makes me a Jew. And the way that physical labor yields spiritual results in the case of the sofer makes me proud to be a Jewish writer, inheritor of that legacy of recording the truth for others' eyes.