Jews fulfill special rite by scribing Torah scroll


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Hundreds of local Jewish families got the chance on Sunday to fulfill one of the most important mitzvahs -- or commandments -- in Judaism by participating in the scribing of a new Torah scroll at the Beth El Congregation of the South Hills in Scott.

"We're embarking on the beginning of what we call the 'Beth El Inclusion Torah,' " said Steve Hecht, executive director of the synagogue. "We refer to our new Torah as inclusionary because we feel that Beth El is a congregation that's inclusive," allowing all genders and ages to participate.

At a celebration that also marked the last day of Hanukkah -- the final candle was kindled at sundown Saturday -- congregants gathered from noon until 9 p.m. Sunday to get their chance to help scribe the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

Jews are required to fulfill 613 commandments in their lifetime, the last being the scribing of a Torah scroll.

But, it isn't as simple as putting pen to paper.

Steeped in symbolism and rituals, Judaism requires that a specific process be followed, including a special handwashing for those who will touch the sacred parchment, along with kosher instruments, such as a feather quill and a certain type of ink.

"It takes years and years to learn and nine to 12 months to scribe an entire Torah," Mr. Hecht said.

The congregation is having its new Torah scroll scribed in Israel, with the exception of the first few passages, which are reserved for congregants. It will be completed in September, in time for Simchat Torah -- a festival celebrating the completion of the annual cycle of Torah readings.

And not just anyone can scribe a Torah scroll.

It's a process that Rabbi Levi Selwyn of North Miami Beach, Fla., spent years learning -- from the proper use of Hebrew text, which is read from right to left -- to learning the complicated and painstaking details of calligraphy script.

"It takes lots of practice," said Rabbi Selwyn, a specially trained "sofer" -- or scribe -- who travels across the country scribing Torah scrolls for his organization, Sofer on Site. "You have to train your hand."

Part spiritual leader, part artist, Rabbi Selwyn leaves behind his wife and four children, ages 7 months to 9 years, several times each month to help congregations learn about the importance of scribing a Torah scroll.

"It's an experience that you wouldn't normally get," said Rabbi Selwyn, who said the process was meant to be unifying and enriching for the entire congregation. "This is a community Torah. It's a beautiful experience, and it's really rewarding."

Rabbi Selwyn does the actual writing with a quill and ink, but those who want to participate place a finger on the quill as he is writing in the bold, beautiful Hebrew script.

One of the families who gathered around Rabbi Selwyn to help scribe the Torah scroll were the Finkelsteins of Upper St. Clair. Parents Jay and Megan Finkelstein and their three sons, Zachary, 16, Seth, 13, and Taylor, 10, each had a chance to hold the quill as Rabbi Selwyn scribed letters.

"It's a pretty rare experience," Mr. Finkelstein said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Young Taylor was especially excited about the Torah scroll, since he will have the opportunity to carry it during his bar mitzvah when he reaches Jewish adulthood at age 13.

The new scroll will weigh just 11 pounds, substantially less that the seven other Torah scrolls at the synagogue, most of which were donated by congregants and weigh between 19 and 28 pounds.

Once it's completed in Israel, every letter in the new five-volume text will be checked by a sofer for accuracy, before the parchment is sewn together.

The commissioning of a new Torah scroll -- costing nearly $40,000 -- was made possible by 100 bingo volunteers who donated their tips to the congregation.

Jay Feuer, co-chair of the bingo fundraising program, said the purchase of the Torah scroll was a gift for the volunteers.

"We decided to spend the money on something special for the bingo volunteers," he said. "In the Jewish religion, there's nothing more special than a Torah."

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Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-851-1867.


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