marriage of a torah scroll

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he’s recording it for posterity

As a child, I was taught to treat books with reverence; to handle them with care… to put them down in a respectable place; never to put a banal object on top of a book. And if a book happened to fall to the floor, which in itself was an unhappy event, I would pick up the book and kiss it. In our culture, books were a vehicle of knowledge, and knowledge represented the elegance of the human being.

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the beginning of the procession

We have many old books that have been copied from generation to generation. They have been copied with great care and as exactly as humanly possible. These books were copied by scribes using a quill and ink prepared according to ancient tradition, and inscribed on parchment. In our time, ancient remains of books have been found, and when compared to the copied texts available today, the texts have been almost identical. Of all the books, the most precious and revered of them all, are the five books of Moses. In the event that one of these books falls to the floor, it is common for the whole community to declare a day of fast. People are overcome by sorrow because of the disrespect to the book. But this has happened only very rarely in our history.

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the wagon with the torah on it

On the other hand, the way these scrolls are usually treated is characterized by joy and friendship. The scrolls themselves are dressed in clothing, and often have a crown at their head. Occasionally, a wealthy person will commission a scribe to copy these five books of Moses, which we call the book of torah. Sometimes the copy is dedicated to the memory of a loved one, or to the memory of an event. Such books, written on parchment, can be found in private homes, in schools, and in synagogues. When such a book is given to a synagogue, the event is seen as something like a marriage between the book and the community. The book is carried in the arms of different members of the congregation, and there is singing and dancing along the way.

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the way they do it in Jerusalem

When the book reaches the synagogue which will be its home, the books within the synagogue are taken out of their special closet, and they approach the new book in the arms of the congregation, and welcome the new book. Music is played, and the devout dance and sing in honor of the occasion.

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children celebrate with torches in their hands

Yesterday evening, I was visiting with Chana at her village, outside of Jerusalem, and as we approached the close of the day, we went out with the dog, so that she could do her business in nature. After Bonnie had taken care of business, we continued to walk around the village. It was a day in which we celebrated the new moon. Ours is a lunar calendar, and a new moon means a new month, and it’s a happy day. All of a sudden we heard cheery music, highly amplified and filling the air.

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and the adults in their own way…

We walked in the direction of the music, and saw a van moving down a side street, decorated with numerous symbols of our people and our faith, and with crowns above it, illuminated with many little colored lights, and loudspeakers broadcasting the music. And behind the van was a wagon, and on the wagon a book of the five books of Moses inscribed on parchment, and around the wagon were common villagers in their everyday clothes, singing and dancing.

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the villagers are more informal

We approached the celebration, and followed at a respectable distance. This was a holy assembly. Men were in one group, and women were in another. The two of us with a dog in tow were in a separate category altogether. But our hearts were with the congregation. And as the procession made its way through the village, more and more people joined the celebration. I was reminded of such scenes I had seen in Jerusalem, where thousands of people had lined the streets to pay their respects to the new book. On an occasion such as this, children will dance in the street. Police close down the streets where the procession will pass, and police cars are seen moving very slowly, with their blue lights blinking as they protect the festivities, and move at the speed of the walking and dancing public.

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as seen in Jerusalem

I thought of the many years of our history, and how we had continued this tradition of love for our books even in foreign lands, when we were in exile… sometimes very modestly, for fear of recriminations by hostile neighbors. And I was very moved by the sight of this ancient ceremony taking place at a time when even books printed on paper seem a little old fashioned, and a great many people read ebooks and articles on digital devices and telephones. I myself enjoy the new media, and take pleasure in my computer and Kindle. But there is something very special about reading an ancient book written in our own language on parchment. And how wonderful it is to see such a celebration in honor of a book.

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and yesterday in the village

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53 responses to “marriage of a torah scroll

  1. Thank you for sharing this story- yes,we are people of the book – books– I’d say.

    • It’s a pleasure, sharing a bit of our culture. And yes, you’re right, Lisa. It’s books and not just one book that we love. Though I think we’re known as people of the book in some quarters.

  2. A fascinating insight into your culture Shimon. Thank you for sharing this. I, as ever, enjoyed this friday morning read. Something I always look forward to.

  3. As cultures change, it is good to see traditions remaining.

    • It’s true that cultures change, Frank. Ours does too. It seems that that is one of the signs of a vibrant life. Some traditions too… but some seem to hang on.

  4. “When such a book is given to a synagogue, the event is seen as something like a marriage between the book and the community.” What a mindful sentiment. Thank you for this insightful post, Shimon. I also love the image of you, Chana and the dog, trailing the procession at a respectful distance, the bonds of community unfurling outwards to embrace all believers.

    • Yes Tish, it’s still rather new for me, the inclusion of a dog in my life… we live and learn. And life continues to be an adventure…

  5. Enjoy reading the tradition while viewing these beautiful images. Sadly to say, we live in a disposable society. Thank you so much for sharing, Shimon.

    • Yes, we too find ourselves influenced by the ‘disposable’ attitude. But I do hope that eventually we’ll find a better balance with our environment. Change is very rapid these days, but I believe there is a general desire to show more respect to materials. Thanks for your comment, Amy.

  6. It’s a wonderful thing to see traditions carried on. In America we seem to have a lot of traditions revolving around what has become commercialism. This must have been delightful for you to have happened upon and take a little part in.

    • I think that commercialism, when carried to extremes… and it is, at times, can be intrusive and even obnoxious. But we have to remember that it connected to the tradition of free speech, which is one of the hall marks of a free society. Lets hope that as a society, we’ll become more discriminating about what we’re willing to suffer in that area, and that high pressure sales will moderate their message a bit. Thanks, Angeline.

  7. Thank you for sharing your treasured tradition.

  8. Beautiful, and so well photographed, as always, Shimon: a moving tribute to honoring the words we value. As a person of (mostly) Irish heritage, I can identify with holding books as treasures and doing what’s possible to ensure their preservation. I love the way all generations and strata of the community participate in this, and there is something so sacred about the movement through their village, at night, by candlelight…Thank you, Shimon!

    • When I was a young man, Kitty, I visited other countries and got to know other peoples, and I was often struck by certain universal traits that I found in other cultures, expressed differently at times… but often reminding me that we all have common concerns. I believe that our common interests have grown in my lifetime, and it inspires optimism. Thanks for your comment.

  9. a lovely tradition, and thanks for sharing the photos

  10. I can sense the joy coming through this post, Shimon. What a wonderful custom. Our joy in our sacred books is something that needs to come from heart and mind and soul as well as outwardly.

    • Yes Gill, the joy that comes from the heart and mind is much greater and deeper than what is shown or seen on the outside… and I’m sure it accompanies both sacred and every day books. Thanks for the comment.

  11. What a lovely tradition, Shimon. How fortunate to happen upon such a ceremony. We grew up in a house where books were respected, but that meant being careful with the spine, not folding over the pages or writing in the books, except to mark the occasion by writing on the inside cover something like, “From Mommy and Daddy to Naomi, Happy Birthday, 1963.

    • I still do that these days… write in the inside cover… now for grandchildren, of course. Such words, written in books, whether a dedication or a comment by a friend or by myself, have brought back wonderful memories after many years… and you comment too, Naomi, brings back memories that touch the heart. Thank you.

  12. I will never get used to those e readers … books are friends … I “schleppte” many of them to Canada … love, cat.

    • Dear cat, it’s no greater difference… then that between an old friend and a new friendship just made. The ereaders carry the same wondrous treasure, and I believe that in time they will trigger many of the same responses we have today for books. Thank you very much for your comment.

  13. Beautiful sharing, I didn’t know. Thank you, dear Shimon. Have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • Thank you very much, Nia. I think of you often… often when I’m meeting cats along the streets of my neighborhood… this has been a period almost too intense, but I am looking forward to more relaxation. My very best to you.

  14. I’ve always treasured books. I teach my children to do the same. The printed word has great power – it deserves to be respected. It’s lovely to hear of this tradition!

    • Yes, it seems to me, Emily, that most of us have learned to love books as children. And if we share with our children just a bit of what books have offered us, they in turn will learn to love them too. There are so many stories I could tell regarding my meetings with very special books. Thanks for your comment.

  15. Even as a non Jew, my Dad taught me to respect books in a manner similar to what you describe. I have never heard of this tredition. I’ve seen very very few books on parchment, Nowdays, here, books are written on/in, words and sentences underlined or highlighted, and the specialty books (in my case) are pathetically expensive.

    • It’s a strange thing, Bob, that you brought to mind with this comment… for it seems to me, that we book lovers are a people too… and we recognize one another, even if we’ve never met before, and share something precious that we have in common. The love of knowledge and learning is a culture in itself, and a very precious tradition that transcends the bounds of a particular culture. Thanks so much for your comment.

  16. I like the way the Torah is brought to the people, in a most colourful and, yes, joyful way! I would be enticed to go and see what it’s all about. For me books represent knowledge of those gone before me and alongside me and I definitely feel a reverence for them.

    • Yes, I share your reverence, Janina… and it is combined with love and affection. There are some books, that just the sight of them, brings a smile to my lips. There are so many emotions that accompany books. Thanks.

  17. My father also taught me to revere books, and so I was deeply moved by your account of how the Torah is carefully copied, then presented with such celebration. How did you put it, “…the elegance of mankind”. Beautiful.

  18. I so love learning about your wonderful traditions and their meaning, Shimon. The van and the trailer with all the illuminated crowns is so festive! Truly something to celebrate.

    • Actually, sometimes as a teacher, I would grow impatient regarding some of the gestures and the symbolic behavior of my students. And I would wonder if they weren’t tiresome. But when I considered their place in a cultured society, I realized that they serve a valuable function in reminding us of our values. Thanks for your comment, Cathy.

  19. I am absolutely enchanted by this custom. How I wish we honored books in this way in America. I have been a passionate book lover siince I was a child and my mother sacrificed the money she’d saved for her new dining room chairs to buy me the Books of Knowledge. That set of twenty volumes in beautiful maroon leather bindings defined my childhood. How I would love to carry them in procession through the streets of Honolulu, just to honor them and the doorways they opened. And to honor my mother and her sacrifice to give me those books.

    Thank you so much Shimon, for these beautiful images and another view into your rich culture and traditions.

    • Yes, it’s a very beautiful custom. And there are other customs, involving books, and our relationship to the written word, that I haven’t mentioned here. But as I was saying to my friend Bob, on a previous comment, the love of books as something we have in common with a great many people from many different cultures and nations. And it is something that brings us together in a way. For regardless of customs or language, we share the essence… which is a love for the content as well as the vehicle. It’s moving to read of your mother’s sacrifice to buy you the Books of Knowledge. It is a classic story of mother’s love, and I thank you for sharing this here, Nikki.

  20. What a beautiful custom and how lovely that you could observe it, also wonderful how such a very special book is treated with such love and reverence by the community as a whole. Fantastic pics and such a marvelous post, as always, the more I learn about your culture the more i want to know. xxx

    • There are times when I consider customs and traditions. It is always easier to do so when we are a bit removed from the hub of activity, as I was this time, walking with the dog. It gives us a chance to see what’s happening from the outside… And then, I often wonder about certain customs that become stale after some time. The more I think about it, the more complicated it seems to keep even very positive customs alive… a bit like keeping a garden vibrant and green. If we just enjoy the garden, and don’t work in it, it can easily come apart. Thank you so much for your comment, Dina. xxx

  21. As a lover of the ancient,I wonder if one can look at any ancient scrolls via the internet.I know that some libraries here in Oxford allow that… but their manuscripts are not as old.. I would really love to see one.

    • That’s a very interesting question, coolperson. I have a feeling it is possible. But I have to add that though I often read from ancient texts, written on parchment, these texts that I read are written on rather modern parchments. They continue to be copied. So while the texts may be ancient, the books themselves are quite new. And those old books that I have seen, are not much different from the new ones we read from now. It might also interest you that when a book starts having flaws, and is no longer seen as appropriate for reading, we bury them, and don’t recycle or put them in a museum.

      • How unusual that seems to me at first.But the way I can understand burying an ancient holy scroll is that in part of the mind it is seen as synonymous with the person who wrote the original words,perhaps someone very holy and in touch with the sacred.So burying the scroll would be an acknowledgement of that connection.Indeed it seems almost an identification between the person and the scroll.
        Storing it in a museum seems rather pedestrian compared to that,although there could be a wonderful feeling one could obtain by seeing a very ancient human construct with writing on it at a time when much of humanity had not yet invented an alphabet or
        writing.I once had a pendant with a word on it which was in a dead language which was still not understood by scholars.
        Well,that was an interesting study

        • Actually, the way I understand it, most of us see the text as being sacred in itself, without attaching that much importance to the person. We believe that burial is the most honorable way of dealing with something or some one that is no longer alive. It is perhaps the ancient form of recycling. We see man himself as coming from the earth. And back in the earth again, both people and objects are broken down to essential particles and redistributed. In a museum, things are objectified… a book no longer serves its intended purpose, and becomes an object that is looked at. For this reason, we consider burial a greater honor. Thank you for your comment.

      • Yes,I am interested

  22. What a wonderful surprise to come across the procession, Shimon. Especially when you are able to feel at one with the crowd.

    Both processions look to be quite an experience.

    • Yes, it was a great pleasure, Bill. And truthfully, I was sort of at the edge of the crowd… and being one step away only helped me to appreciate the event more.

  23. It is a wonderful tradition. And interesting too.

    • Though some of our traditions are well known, outside of our country, this one is a bit more obscure. I find it very moving, and so wanted to share…

  24. I liked this one the most of all

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