Writing the Torah and Honoring the Name of God
There was such joy in his voice as Rabbi Kevin Hale talked about going to the river near his house to wash himself in a mikveh (ritual bath) before writing the name of God in the Torah scroll he worked on.
Letters gather into words. Words spiral into sacred texts. Each one is different. Each one strives to create a world of peace. Each one calls out a name of God.
One of about 100 Torah scribes in the United States, Hale taught a dozen or so attendees at the 2015 Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City, UT, how to sing out each letter and word as we inscribed "shalom" and "peace" on a pure white piece of paper. Some attendees were Jewish and of other faith traditions; more than 50 different faith traditions were represented at the 2015 Parliament.
Hale, the son of Holocaust survivors, said he creates Torah, in part, "out of an acute sense of how much has been lost."
"On the edge of the paper make six marks that are the width of the art marker. Each letter should be three marker-widths high with a little white space around each letter. The lamed or L-sound letter goes above the line," he explained, teaching us the beginning of how to write the 304,805 letters in the Torah.
Hale, noting that women only recently began writing Torahs, told us some of the rules. No animal can be harmed in the making of Torah. The animal whose hide is used doesn't have to be killed in a kosher way, but it has to be an animal that could be kosher, he said, showing us a large ostrich feather that some use as a quill. It could never be used to write Torah.
He explained that no base metals are used in the making of a Torah, showing us a pair of gold-plated scissors and a small piece of glass used to scrape the skin of the Torah. "If you make a mistake in a letter, you can scrape off the ink and do it again," Hale said, "but not in the case of the name of God. If you make a mistake, which very few scribes ever do, you have to set aside that section and begin again."
The reason there are very few errors is the intentionality that goes into the writing of the name of God and the whole Torah writing process.
"Every letter is sung out as you write, and there is an acute awareness of being in the presence of something great," Hale said, noting that name of God is written with a unique quill using special ink, a 2,000-year-old recipe.
Tanic acid is produced by grinding oak galls and making a tea that starts brown and eventually becomes an inky black. Oak gall, Hale explained, is a small ball on an oak leaf that is caused when a tiny wasp lays its eggs in the leaf. Thomas Jefferson used the same ingredients for the ink with which he wrote the Declaration of Independence, Hale said, asking participants to think about what other documents or papers are currently written on parchment with ink. Other than invitations to special events, none of us could think of anything.
Torah text written by a scribe also appears in the mezuzah scroll on the doorway of many Jewish homes, as well as in a tiny scroll in the boxes of tefillin (phylacteries) that some Jews wear to clothe themselves in Torah during the practice of morning prayer. The other places that Torah text is written by hand on parchment is a ketubah (marriage contract) and a get (divorce papers).
Hale told us that the Megillat of Esther is a good place for a Torah scribe to begin because it does not contain the name of God.
The number of American Torah scribes is much smaller than those in Israel – and only recently has that number included women. American scribes are more diverse in the Jewish traditions they come from and participate in; scribes in Israel tend to be more associated with the Orthodox community. He raised the possibility that, as the number of independent scribes dwindles, congregations that don't fit the guidelines of the Orthodox rabbis may find it difficult to buy new Torahs.
On the other hand, he noted, a Torah is never signed by the scribe, so once it has been accepted by a community, the scribe’s identity becomes a very minor point. In the cases of many older Torah scrolls, no one knows anything about the scribe at all.
This experience motivated me to find the beauty and meaning in each letter and word in the Torah. I also have a greater appreciation for the sacredness of the name of God.
Recently, a prayer book fell off the bed of my partner's 6-year-old daughter and onto the floor as she slept. In the morning, when I went in to wake her up, I picked it up and put it on the bookshelf. She got up, went over to the bookshelf, and kissed it.
"You have to kiss it when it falls on the floor because it contains the name of God," she told me, reminding me of all the precious things in my life.