In Columbia, Synagogue Puts Word Of God On Paper An Israeli Scribe Writing Torah For Temple Isaiah

November 04, 1990|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,Staff writer

Like any good salesman, Shel Bassel presented his wares to a potential customer.

From his bag he took parchment made from fetal calf skin, feather pens, black ink and samples of his work.

Bassel impressed members of Columbia's Temple Isaiah, and it wasn't long before he had made another sale.

The congregation hired him to write a new Torah scroll, a sacred, hand-written copy of the first five books of the Old Testament.

Bassel is a sofer, the Hebrew word for scribe. Through his work he continues a tradition dating back over three thousand years. Following strict laws and customs passed down from scribe to scribe, he meticulously copies the words of the Torah onto parchment scrolls, so its teachings can be preserved for future generations of Jews.

Bassel, who lives in Jerusalem, came to Columbia for a three-day visit last week to begin writing the Torah scroll in front of Temple Isaiah members and to teach the congregation about the many laws governing the writing of the holy document.

It was an experience Temple Isaiah members will not soon forget.

"About ten people stood around him as he wrote the first words of the Torah -- "In the beginning -- We saw him write that," said congregation member Barry Sklar.

Last Wednesday, Bassel returned to Jeruslaem, where he will spend the next year writing Temple Isaiah's Torah. He'll return to Columbia next October, for a dedication of the completed scroll.

"It's a once in a lifetime experience," said congregation member Sklar.

"Nobody I know has seen a Torah written. The Torah is something that's there when you come into a temple. You never think about how it's done or who does it."

Rabbi Mark J. Panoff, head of the reform Temple Isaiah congregation, said that Bassel's visit has brought to life the tradition of the Torah and affirmed its permanence in Jewish history for the synagogue's members.

"I've looked at the people in the congregation and seen the wonderment in their faces as Shel writes the letters and creates out of blank parchment the Torah that has been cherished by generations," said Panoff, who describes the Torah as a book of teachings that guides Jews in their lives.

"I can say to the kids, you have the honor of seeing the making of the Torah," he said. "This is the Torah that you will read from at the time of your bar mitzvah. We're seeing it created."

The deterioration of one of Temple Isaiah's four Torah scrolls led its membership to commission a scribe from Jerusalem to replace the aging document, which was beyond repair.

The Torah scrolls are used during Friday and Saturday morning synagogue services, on Jewish holidays and at events that include readings from the five books of Moses.

The temple's Torah committee asked the congregation to donate money to pay for a scribe. The synagogue's 450 member families responded by raising $28,000, Bassel's price for writing the Torah scroll.

There are local scribes in the Baltimore-Washington area, but Temple Isaiah preferred to have a scribe from Israel.

"It's sort of our connection and bond to the land and people of Israel," Panoff said. "It's very special to know the person and have a sense of who's writing the scroll for us. The people feel very much attached and involved."

Temple Isaiah heard of Bassel from The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, whose members had commisisoned him to write a Torah scroll. He's also completed a scroll for a synagogue in Sudbury, Mass.

During his visit to Columbia, Bassel met with congregants to explain how he will write the temple's Torah. By Jewish law, he is required to follow a strict set of ancient guidelines governing the writing of the scroll.

The scroll must be written on the parchment made from the skin of a kosher animal. Bassel is writing Temple Isaiah's scroll on fetal calf skin.

"The Jewish mystics say since the calf was not yet born it had never tasted sin," Bassel explained to a gathering of synagogue members last week. "It's in a more pristine state than an animal in this world."

The skin, taken from 3- to 5-month-old unborn calves, is prepared for writing through a chemical process. It is then trimmed and each line for writing is scored by hand.

Before each step in the process, it must be declared that the purpose of the activity is to create a Torah scroll.

"Everything we do to make a Torah, you always have to show intent," Bassel said. "It's the most holy thing in the Jewish religion."

He writes the Torah scroll using pens made from turkey feathers, a thousand-year-old practice, described by Bassel as "relatively recent in Jewish history."

The completed Torah scroll is equivalent to a 200-page book. Bassel's finished scroll will measure about 18 inches high and 6 inches in diameter.

Bassel, 33, was born in Pennsylvania and now lives in Jerusalem with his wife and 5 children. He was trained as a scribe in Boston and worked there for seven years, repairing older scrolls and teaching Hebrew calligraphy.

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