Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sotheby's Auctions Oldest Complete Ashkenazi Torah Scroll

It's fascinating to see so many important books being auctioned lately, with top dollar hammer prices.

What really got my attention is this Torah of c. 1270, in good condition, which actually sold for the lowest estimate - 310,000usd. Check here for more details.

What is interesting to see is the many alterations that clearly were added by later hands - erasure of Peh Lefufa, adding of Shaatnez Getz tagin and others.

Also, it's interesting to see how much the Sofer had to stretch the letters in order to conform with the Vavei Amudim layout - something later authorities advised to avoid.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Daf Yomi Insights: Lot, His Daughters and the Dots on top of the letters of the Torah

The Talmud in Nazir 23a discusses the story of Lot and his daughters, who fled the destruction of Sodom and were alone in a cave, thinking they were the world's sole survivors. In the first night his older daughter cohabitated with him after giving him wine, and in the next night, his younger daughter. Look at the Pasuk:

וַתַּשְׁקֶיןָ אֶת אֲבִיהֶן יַיִן בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַתָּבֹא הַבְּכִירָה וַתִּשְׁכַּב אֶת אָבִיהָ וְלֹא יָדַע בְּשִׁכְבָהּ וּבְקוּמָהּ.
'And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. (Gen 19:33)'

It´s pretty clear that the Torah is saying the Lot did not know of what happened, nor before or after the episode. Now the Talmud makes a really puzzling commentary; while noting that the word ובקומה has a unique scribal oddity of having a dot over the letter Hey, this oddity gives a whole different meaning to the passage:

 "בשכבה ובקומה – למה נקוד על וי"ו ובקומה של בכורה? לומר – שבשכבה לא ידע, אבל בקומה ידע" 

The Talmud is saying that Lot knew about what happened after the first daughter stood up - and he did nothing to prevent a repetition in the second night. Now that's the exact opposite of the plain reading of the Torah - the Torah clearly states he did not know of what happened before AND afterwards. How can the Talmud spin the reading against what's actually stated in the Torah?

This is a very strong question and it almost makes us wonder if we are missing something. We are.

The scribal oddity addressed here is found in rare occasions in the Torah. The famous oddities of Inverted Nuns, or special Tagim (we discussed these oddities in an older post) are unlike this oddity. The Dots over Letters is a much older tradition and it actually dates all the way back to Ezra the Scribe, who saved the Torah from oblivion when he brought the Jews to Israel in 457 BCE. In Ezra's time, the Jews almost forgot many of the teachings of the Torah and he singlehandedly took upon himself to set the correct text of the Torah for generations to come. But he was not always certain about the correct text. The Avot of Rabbi Natan, a Gaonic early work often quoted by the Tosafists, quotes (here, in Perek Hey) all the words that are dotted in the Torah and then he explains the backstory: 
 למה, אלא כך אמר עזרא: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר לי מפני מה כתבת כך, אומר אני לו: כבר נקדתי עליהן. ואם אומר לי יפה כתבת, אעביר נקודה מעליהן.
'Why (are the letters dotted)? Ezra said: if Elijah comes and asks why I wrote these words, I can answer that I dotted these. If he tells me that it's good I wrote them, then I can just erase the dots'

It's clear that Ezra was unsure about the correct Mesora, and in some places he was unsure to write or not to write an extra word. For instance, in the story of Lot, he was unsure if the word ובקומה should be written or not - and writing it (or not), would cause a completely different reading of the passage. If he wrote it, it would mean that Lot did not know about what happened at all, but not writing it would mean that he knew what happened after the firstborn left. 

Therefore Ezra decided to write ובקומה and leave both readings as a possibility. If Elijah comes and asks 'why did you write it', he can counter that there is a dot over the word and that signifies that it's a word that maybe should be erased. 

Coming back to our original question - how can the Talmud spin the reading of the Pasuk against the plain reading of the verse, we were missing this crucial piece of information. The Talmud assumes we know what the dot over the word means, and the Talmud is offering its interpretation of the reading of the Pasuk without the word if ובקומה. That reading would clearly indicate that Lot knew about what happened afterward, so the Talmud is actually just conveying to us the alternative reading of the Pasuk Ezra was contemplating when he was writing the Torah. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I saw this beautiful picture the other day of an artist illuminating a Megillah. Enjoy

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jpost: Torah scroll held captive by Iraqi secret police restored for use in Foreign Ministr

Print Edition

A Torah scroll written some 150 to 200 years ago in Iraq but which fell captive to the Iraqi secret police has been restored to its former glory and was recently inaugurated in an official ceremony at the synagogue of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

Buffeted around Mesopotamia for the last few decades, the scroll found its way to Israel and is now being used for the first time in dozens of years in prayer services as was originally intended.

The exact story behind the Torah scroll and how it made its way to Israel remains, to some extent, shrouded in a diplomatic and political fog, but the basics of the account are now known.

The Torah scroll is believed to be originally from the region of Kurdistan, now in northern Iraq. It was most likely used in prayer services for many years until the Jewish community was subjected to persecution and discrimination following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Following Israeli independence, harsh restrictions were imposed by the Iraqi government on Jewish employment and trade, which, along with violent anti-Jewish riots, led tens of thousands of Jews to flee the country, starting in earnest in 1949.

By 1951, some 121,000 had left, with just 15,000 remaining.

In addition to the restrictions and persecution, the Iraqi government also banned Jews from taking their property with them and seized assets from those who left.

Among these confiscated goods were dozens of Torah scrolls and other items from synagogues that eventually made their way to various museums and archives.

With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, a period of anarchy took hold in the country and, before order could be restored to the conflict- torn nation, numerous museums were raided by looters and thousands of historical and archeological artifacts were plundered.

It is unclear how the Torah scroll obtained by the Foreign Ministry exited Iraq, but in around 2006 or 2007 it ended up in the hands of the Israeli Embassy in Jordan. There it remained for another five years until the outbreak of the spate of revolutions and civil wars in Arab countries that began at the end of 2010.

In September 2011, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked by a huge mob and the Foreign Ministry decided to remove all extraneous items from its embassy in Amman in case of similar incidents. Among those items was the Iraqi Torah scroll, which was brought to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and left there until preliminary steps were taken to assess the state of the scroll and the possibility of restoring it.

Amnon Israel, the new manager of storage and supplies for the ministry, noticed the scroll in a storage room on his first day in his new job in November 2013.

He realized the scroll was in poor condition and sought to find out how much a restoration job would cost.

Israel eventually was put in contact with Akiva Garber, a Torah scribe whose company, The Jerusalem Scribe, specializes in restoring damaged Torah scrolls, and is among the leading experts on such work in Israel.

Garber and another of his scribes were invited to view the scroll in the ministry and upon seeing it immediately identified it as having come from Iraq by certain characteristics of the scroll and the way it was produced.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Garber said the Torah scroll had been in poor condition, with tears in parts of the vellum parchment that was used to make it; mold degrading the scroll; damaged letters; and other problems that invalidated it for use in formal prayer services.

In total, it took Garber and his team of two other scribes approximately six months and hundreds of hours to repair, restore and clean the scroll to make it fit for use.

During the restoration process, Garber also noticed a round stamp on the back of a section of the scroll, which later was identified as being the seal of the Iraqi secret police, testifying to its confiscation by Iraqi authorities.

“A Torah scroll which is ritually unusable is like someone who is sick, and it’s very satisfying and a great pleasure to take something like this, which had been for used for decades as a vehicle for prayer and learning, and restore it so it can be used once again for the purpose for which it was originally made,” Garber said.

“This scroll, in particular, suffered the vicissitudes of its journey, and was lying for decades in the vaults of the secret police most probably, but is now being read and used in a synagogue here in Israel,” he said.

Once the scroll itself was restored, a suitable case had to be found for it, and Israel was directed to several Torah cases that had made their way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Israel chose a case that originally had been in the possession of the Jewish community of Aleppo in Syria and was itself over 100 years old.

This, too, required restoration work and when that was completed, preparations were made to inaugurate the Torah scroll at the Foreign Ministry synagogue, which previously had not had a scroll.

The ceremony took place last Thursday in the presence of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and between 200 and 300 ministry employees.

“The story of this Torah scroll embodies Jewish fate more than any story,” Liberman said. “Over some 200 years it wandered from Kurdistan to the archives of the Iraqi secret police, and to Jordan, until it reached here. Like the Jewish people, it has taken root again once again in Israel through faith and strength.”

Israel, himself of Iraqi origin from a family that came from northern Iraq, said he was thrilled to have played a part in bringing about the restoration of the Torah scroll.

His paternal grandfather was a mayor of the town of Dohuk, close to the border with Turkey.

His family, including his father, seven siblings and two grandparents, left Iraq in 1951 and had to leave all their possessions and property behind.

Israel said his father, who was 22 when he left Iraq and is now 86, was moved to tears by the ceremony.

“Perhaps my own grandfather once touched and read from this Torah scroll,” Israel told the Post. “Somehow the merit to help bring about the restoration of the scroll fell to me. The story of Kurdish Jewry has not really been told, but here we have a tangible part of our history back in our hands and it is uplifting to have been part of this process.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

70-Year-Old Mezuzah in Perfect Condition Found in Poland

As part of project to memoralize Jews who disappeared in Holocaust, remarkable discovery made on doorpost in Przemysl.
Mezuzah (illustration)
Mezuzah (illustration)
Noam Moskowitz/Flash 90
A unique discovery was made last week in the Polish town of Przemysl, as a 70-year-old mezuzah scroll was discovered in excellent condition as part of a national initiative to identify homes whose former Jewish owners disappeared in the Holocaust.
As part of the project, doorways featuring mezuzah niches bearingwitness to the Jewish families who lived there prior to the Holocaust are marked with a certain color to commemorate the former Jewish residents - all with the permission of the current residents.
Resident Hanna Merlak provided information about the remarkable mezuzah discovery in Przemysl last week according to Virtual Shtetl, after she saw a flat piece of metal mounted diagonally on the home's doorway at Wladycze Street.
Merlak suspected that under the metal other remnants of the mezuzah were concealed, and with permission nails were removed in taking down the metal and revealing the mezuzah niche underneath, which still contained parts of the mezuzah and an intact scroll.
The 70-year-old mezuzah was brought to the Jewish community in Warsaw, and after being inspected it was found to be in a condition allowing usage according to Jewish law. Currently the Jewish residents who owned the home are being searched for.
Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar of the Mi Polin studio specializing in Jewish art were involved in the recovery of the mezuzah.
"The parchment seems to be perfectly preserved," said Czernek. "It has been taken care of by experts on the preservation of monuments of history from the National Museum in Warsaw. We will decide together what to do with that precious piece of Jewish ceremonial art."
Mi Polin studio has been preparing an exhibit of mezuzahs, featuring casts of mezuzahs left from before the Holocaust along with information about the Jewish residents who are thought to have lived in the homes.