With completion of Torah, rabbi sets aside his quill

March 17, 1991|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

Ronald Reagan was president. Democratic candidate Walter F. Mondale was trying to embarrass him in televised debates.

And on the peaceful Mount Wilson Lane campus of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, in what was then a relatively pastoral Owings Mills, a young Orthodox rabbi was just beginning his daunting task of inscribing on cow-skin parchment with a turkey-quill pen the 304,805 Hebrew letters of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament.

That was fall 1984, when Rabbi Shlomo Naiman was 26.

This evening, at 32, he -- along with expected thousands of students, colleagues, relatives, friends, benefactors and other admirers -- plan to celebrate the completion of the Torah with music, dancing, outdoor torch-light processions, prayers and speechmaking.

Not the least reason for merrymaking at the college, which has about 600 students, is the nearly $1 million total of the many contributions to Ner Israel generated by the Torah project. Individual donations ranged from $18 to $54,000.

But there were times when Rabbi Naiman wondered if this day would ever arrive.

One of those times was in May 1988. A car collided with his on Park Heights Avenue, and he suffered a whiplash injury. He said it forced him to suspend all work on the scroll, which requires unusual concentration and meticulousness because the tiniest error would invalidate that Torah under Jewish law. Its completion was delayed about a year.

The bulk of its 54,976 words have been checked for accuracy three times in Israel.

Unlike the professional scroll-makers of the Jewish state, the source of most of the sacred Torahs in the world's synagogues, Rabbi Naiman is a part-time scribe. The Baltimore native, a full-time graduate student at the college, is also a lecturer at local Jewish schools.

Most of the 2,000 hours he has spent on the Ner Israel Torah project were in his spare time at home. "Gilda, my wonderful wife, gave me the quiet I needed," he said last week. It was not always easy. Their three daughters are ages 5, 3 and 1.

The Bible's first five books, which include the Ten Commandments, are the foundation of moral law for both Judaism and Christianity. A verse of the Torah with special relevance to Rabbi Naiman's task is in the 31st chapter of Deuteronomy: "Now therefore write you this canticle, and teach the children of Israel, that they may know it by heart, and sing it by mouth, and this song may be unto me for a testimony among the children of Israel."

It is a source of Jewish pride that, in the transcribing of thousands of pages of thousands of words over the thousands of years since Moses, there has not been a single permitted departure from the authorized prototype of the Torah in Hebrew.

Rabbi Leonard Oberstein, Ner Israel's director of planning, put it succinctly: "If you want to talk about the wonders of the world, this is one.

"The Jewish people have been scattered for thousands of years. Some have been very isolated. Yet not one of their Torahs was different."

Ancient religious law dictates the kind of quill pens, parchment and ink that must be used. The ink may not contain certain non-kosher animal fats, for example. And the 60 parchment sheets of the Ner Israel Torah had to be sewn together in a prescribed way.

Rabbi Naiman said he first became interested in attempting to transcribe a Torah from start to finish while he was a high school student at Baltimore's Talmudical Academy. The training and permission for the task were acquired over years at Ner Israel.

The ingenious program of fund-raising connected to the creation of his Torah was devised by Rabbi Joseph Schecter, the college's director of community relations. In the Hebrew alphabet, the two letters that spell the word "chai" -- which means life -- also represent the number 18.

So, for a payment of $18 to the college, a donor could dedicate any letter with special significance and watch Rabbi Naiman write it.

Other monetary gifts were multiples of 18 -- up to the single largest contribution: $54,000 from Joseph Schwartz, a local builder, and his wife, Corinne, in memory of Mr. Schwartz's parents.

One of the scroll-maker's colleagues, Rabbi Jonathan A. Seidemann, noted that plans for this evening's celebration combine ancient Jewish tradition with the high-tech.

As dignitaries ritualistically pen the last five letters of the Torah under Rabbi Naiman's supervision, the crowd will observe the movement of the quill on closed-circuit monitors.

But because photographing a sacred scroll is not permitted by Jewish law, no film will be in the cameras.

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