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Mantel of a Torah scroll (detail)
Mantel of PJCEA Torah scroll (detail)

Divine Art: Torah scroll

By Byron Simmonds
The Progressive Jewish Community Of East Anglia (PJCEA) is proud to have a Torah scroll in its possession. A work of art in its own right, chair of the PJCEA Byron Simmonds explains the place the scroll takes within his congregation.

A Torah scroll contains the first five books of Moses, written in vertical columns, on specially treated parchment, stitched together to form one continuous writing surface.

audio Listen: Byron Simmonds discusses the Torah scroll >
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There are rules for the layout - the number of lines of text per column, the number of columns - resulting in a scroll which will be more that 50 metres long.

My congregation's scroll is perhaps 80cm high, with each end stitched to a wooden pole or etz chaim (Heb. = tree of life.)

The writing and repair of a scroll is carried out by a trained scribe over many hundreds of hours.

The scroll is usually 'dressed' externally with an ornamental breastplate, finials (a protective fine fabric cover or mantle), and occasionally a crown, where the metalwork is often made of beaten silver.

The scroll belonging to the Progressive Jewish Community Of East Anglia, based in Norwich, has just a mantle.

History of the scroll

The PJCEA's scroll is one of many rescued from Czechoslovakia in 1964.

PJCEA Torah scroll
PJCEA Torah scroll

They were discovered in disused synagogues in Prague, where they had lain having been warehoused by the Nazis during the Second World War.

While Torah scrolls are the holiest objects in the synagogue, it is not the object itself which is to be venerated, rather what it contains.

Fundamentalist Jews believe this to be literally the word of God, while progressive Jews would say it contains the divinely inspired word of God.

Either way, it remains a truly inspirational and infinite source of guidance for leading a Jewish life.

Ceremony of the scroll

On a Saturday morning, one of the congregation will take the scroll out of the Aron Kodesh (Heb. = Holy Ark), another will 'undress' it ie. remove the yad and mantle.

It is then placed on the reading desk. These are highly-prized duties or mitzvot (Heb.= commandments), as is being 'called up' to read from the scroll.

In my congregation, where men and women enjoy complete equality in all religious matters, the rabbi will read the portion for that week - first in Hebrew and then translating into English.

At the end of the reading, the scroll is held up for the congregation to see the holy words for themselves.

The scroll will then be 'dressed' and paraded among the congregants, who will perhaps be close enough to reach out and touch it with their tallit (Heb. = prayer shawl) or siddur (Heb. = prayer book).

These time-honoured rituals can be incredibly moving and occasionally, just occasionally, will light that divine spark which I believe to be in all of us.

The PJCEA's scroll is on permanent loan from Liberal Judaism, the congregation's
parent organization, based in London.

last updated: 17/04/07
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