Synagogue unfurls piece of Jewish history

400-year-old Torah, found in Iraq and restored, finds a home in Howard County congregation

October 28, 2007|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,Sun reporter

A 400-year-old Torah, saved from the sands of Iraq, has found its way to a synagogue in western Howard County.

The scroll of Hebrew scripture, containing the first five books of the Bible, was found by U.S. soldiers among the ruins of a synagogue in Mosul, Iraq.

A Jewish expert in Torahs who leads a worldwide effort to rescue scrolls like this got it out of the country and repaired it. Now, that piece of history has landed in Fulton, housed in an ark at Temple Isaiah.

The Reform congregation plans a year of educational events centered on this Torah and the Jews of Arab nations, beginning today with presentations by Rabbi Menachem Youlus, who is a sofer, someone trained in the transcription of Torahs. The year will conclude with a Torah dedication service.

Youlus rescued and restored the scroll through the Save A Torah Foundation, which he co-founded.

"We want to tell the story of this very unique Torah," said Rabbi Mark Panoff of Temple Isaiah.

Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that modern-day Iraq, an area known in ancient times as Mesopotamia, was the birthplace of Abraham, considered a patriarch of all three faiths.

"Jewish history really begins in Iraq," Panoff said.

The rabbi noted that Iraq is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Thousands of Iraqi Jews moved to Israel after its creation, leaving only remnants of the community behind. Youlus agreed. "Iraq was a bastion of Judaism for many, many years," he said.

One of the oldest known copies of the Torah is on exhibit at a Baghdad museum, Youlus said - and more than 360 scrolls are in its basement. Youlus, who lives in Cheswolde, said he has saved five scrolls in Iraq through his Rockville-based Save A Torah Foundation. The organization has rescued 557 Torahs and estimates more than 2,000 remain to be saved in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The organization says it researches the history of the scrolls before it buys them and returns them to their owners, if possible. In this case, Youlus said, he consulted international lawyers and Iraqi government officials to ensure the parchment was not covered by antiquities laws. As for an item such as this one, which was found in a severely bombed building, "anybody who wants to take it, takes it," he said.

"With this one, we tried to find people from that particular city," Youlus said. "But a Jewish population hasn't existed there for hundreds of years."

Save A Torah has also returned scrolls to areas such as the Ukraine that experience a resurgence of Judaism, Youlus said.

Mosul was known in ancient times as Nineveh, and in the biblical Book of Jonah, the prophet persuades the city's residents to repent, sparing them from the wrath of God.

These days, Mosul is constantly under attack. "This may have been one of the last Judaica objects that could be safely retrieved, because of tensions with Turkey and Iran," Panoff said.

Youlus said the Torah was found by an American soldier who came under fire in Mosul and ducked down in the ruins of a building. He spotted what he believed were some Hebrew words on the floor and walls.

Later, the soldier returned with friends, who confirmed the words were Hebrew. Then two of them discovered the Torah beneath the floor, Youlus said. He believes it had been hidden there.

In June, he said, he called Panoff, who had told Youlus that he was interested in bringing a special Torah to his synagogue. Panoff met with Temple Isaiah's board members, who pledged much of the $20,000 needed for restoration right away, the rabbi said.

Youlus, who declined to elaborate on how he got the Torah out of the country, soon set to work repairing it. He said the scroll, about 180 feet long, was in good condition despite being four centuries old. During a recent visit to Temple Isaiah, Panoff pointed out several patched parts of the gazelle-hide parchment.

A complete Torah contains more than 304,000 characters, Youlus said. "If one of those letters is not correct, the whole Torah's not kosher," he said, comparing it to scoring 99 percent on a test - and still failing.

Youlus usually encounters Torahs made of cowhide or sheepskin. Because this one was gazelle skin, the scribe could not use his normal implement - a turkey or goose feather - to write on the unusual surface. Instead he used a reed or a sharpened wooden stick.

"It's like writing a Torah scroll with chopsticks," he said.

Because the scroll has unusual creases, Youlus and Panoff surmise that the scribe probably wrote the Torah on his knee rather than at a desk.

The Torah is kept inside an ark at the front of Temple Isaiah's modern sanctuary. The ark is made of Jerusalem limestone, the same rock that forms the temple ruins and outer city wall there.

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