People Of The Scroll

I'll be skipping my Friday post for Simchas Torah, the Jewish holiday marking the last reading from the Torah scroll, before we rewind it and start all over again. I don't know enough about scroll terminology to know whether a scroll stored on two wooden spindles has a special name, I just know it's not a codex. For my non-Jewish readers, the Torah scroll contains the five books of Moses, written on parchments sewn together in one long strip, a publishing technology that's been around for a couple thousand years. The rest of the Bible was also recorded on various scrolls, but relatively few are still published that way. The Scroll of Esther comes to mind. Since these scrolls have to be prepared by hand by a scribe following very strict rules, the end up costing tens of thousands of dollars. No print-on-demand need printers need apply.

While many readers know all this already, there's a physical aspect to the practice of Judaism that often goes unnoticed. It's the duty of Hagbah, the lifting of the Torah scroll, unrolled enough to show the portion that has been chanted out loud to the congregation, or is about to be chanted, in Sephardi shuls. Since the scroll is slowly rolled from one spindle to the other through the course of the year's reading, the weight leading up to Simchas Torah ends up all on the right hand of the Hagbah, and the following week, shifts all to the left hand. The person performing the act, the Hagbah, lifts the Torah off the readers desk raising the handles around shoulder height or higher, and turns around 180 degrees so the open section is visible to the congregation over his head. It's recommended to put a seam in the center of the open section as the seams are the strongest part of the scroll.

Depending on how quickly the congregation sings and how fast the Hagbah moves, the whole operation takes between 30 seconds and a minute. If something goes wrong and the Torah gets dropped, everybody present has to fast for 40 days. When the local congregation tried to sustain a morning Minyan (a quorum required for mourners prayers and public Torah reading) for a few years, I was usually the Hagbah because I'm too ignorant to do much of anything else. I dreaded Simchas Torah, intended to be one of the happiest days in the Jewish calendar, because I'm right-handed, and that left-handed lift that hadn't been tried for a year starts looming pretty large.

When I signed up, prior to my birth if I recall, I'd heard that Jews were the people of the book. I've come across plenty of Jews in town who read a lot of books and some of them are even in the publishing business. I just wish more of them had showed up for that morning Minyan. If you're ever attending services in a new place for the first time, and an old man teeters up and asks you if you're right-handed or left-handed, consult your calendar and answer appropriately.

1 comment:

John Cowart said...

Thanks Morris, you've educated me a bit with this post. I didn't know anything about these customs before.

PS: I'm just a right-handed Christian who reads your posts often.