Czech Torah Project at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda
fThe Ktav f
« מחדש הבריאה (the re-creation) »*
A sefer Torah contains precisely 304, 805 Hebrew letters in a special script (ktav), all following a myriad of halachic rules where the major halacha are found in the Talmud and the Masechet Soferim (The Tractate of the Scribes). The letters are in Ktav Ashurit, and we note differences in calligraphy; for example, the calligraphy differs between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Torah scrolls. There are also differences in the writing implements used. An Ashkenazi scribe (sofer) will use quills whereas a Sephardi sofer will use reeds.
Tagin—decorative « crowns » are placed on letters and are composed of strokes resembling the small letter zayin. These tagin also have significance in Talmud and Kabbalah and over time, there have been various studies (limudim) for them.
When we look at the Czech Torah, we immediately discover some very striking facts. The ktav is very distinct and, while Ashkenazi in style, there are Sephardic influences in some of the letters. The tagin really stand out. Rabbi Zacks, our Magiah (proofreader) who is reviving our Czech Torah, tells us that it is written with a flowery style Bohemian tagin—extra tagin on top of one another and some below the letter. These tagin together with unusual prominence of letters had a special significance. However, the masorah (textual guides) for these is long gone.
The photographs and the photo stories below are inspired by the information Rabbi Zacks discusses as he brings our Torah back to life—from pasul (invalid) to kosher, and by the history of this Torah which was described in the previous article.
This article is the second in a series of short photo essays to help our community members see and learn with us. We welcome you in being part of the journey of the Czech Torah Restoration Project at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda. Please contact the shul office at 416 633 38 38.
Very unique tagin and flourishes above and below the letter « nun ». Notice that the letters « nun, » « shin » and « lamed » are Sephardi in style. Why do you think there is an influence of two styles? What might that tell you about where this Torah has been, and about the sofer (scribe) who wrote it?
Note the unusual flourishes on the letters « lamed » and « chet » as well as the « pei lefufim. »
« the nakedness of adam and eve and the cunning of the serpent »
The Torah text in the photograph is Bereishit, 2:25 and 3:1 : They were both naked, the man and his wife, and they were not ashamed; Now the serpent was cunning beyond any beast of the field that Hashem G-d had made. The Hebrew word for naked is ערום . It is also the word for cunning. Notice that the sofer made the letter ayin for each word more prominent and with distinct tagin and flourishes. What was his reason? Perhaps this was the message: the nakedness of humanity was the intention of Hashem, and all we need to do is listen to Hashem. However, humanity is perpetually tempted by the cunning of others and by the cunning of our own frailty, doubt and yetzer harah.
The Torah text in this photograph is superimposed over one of the stained glass panes in the main sanctuary. The tree image is appropriate to the text, but superimposing the text on the shul’s window is a way to show that BEBY is fulfilling the wish of those who safeguarded the scroll during the Nazi occupation, hoping that someday, it will be brought back to life.
« lech lecha: unique tagin on lamed »
The Torah script here is from the opening line of Lech Lecha where Hashem instructs Abraham (then called, Abram) to leave his land, Haran, and go to Canaan where Hashem promises to make him « a great nation. » Notice the very distinct tagin on the two « lamed. » The imagery in this photograph offers interpretations of the tagin. First, it would not be surprising that the sofer would decorate the two words, lech lecha with unique tagin since they are very significant. Indeed, they have elicited many commentaries. Rabbi Morrison sums up Rashi’s explanation of the word, lecha, meaning that Hashem is saying to Abraham that going is for his benefit and his good.
Second, the very shape of the tagin might be considered. The tagin look like manicules—pointing hands that first appeared in medieval manuscripts to draw attention to something important. And they are pointing toward the left, which, on the compass rose, is westward. Canaan was west of Haran where Abraham had been when Hashem instructed him to leave.
Again, the purpose of superimposing the text on the shul’s stained glass in the Lerman Chapel is to show that BEBY is fulfilling the wish of those who safeguarded the Torah and other Jewish treasures during the Nazi occupation, hoping that someday, it will be brought back to life. The window is part of the panes that paint the port of Yaffo overlooking the sea, welcoming newcomers. But here is an inimitable point. If the text were actually on the stained glass window of our chapel, the tagin would be pointing eastward as one looked at it from the inside. East is Israel—Hashem’s covenant with Abraham, east is Jerusalem—Hashem’s holy city, and east in the chapel is the Aron Hakodesh where our Czech Torah rests as it is coming back to life.
* «מחדש הבריאה (the re-creation) » The Czech Torah Network, A Holocaust Education Project, (2003, The Story of the Jewish Torahs of Czechoslovakia, Chapter One – The Trip from Prague to London, para. 2) states that, in storing the collection as the Jewish curators did, « one would like to believe that as the Torah scrolls and the other sacred objects, including some of great value and antiquity, passed through their hands, these martyrs took comfort in the hope that ultimately Hitler would fall and that the ceremonial objects, in some cases hundreds of years old, would be returned to the restored Jewish communities. »
The Torah is open at Breishit—it is open wide and in bright light from the Ner Tamid and the light in the ceiling, suggesting that right at the beginning, this Torah is ready to give its love and life and the words of Hashem. Letters in Torah script appear to rise from the Torah itself—their transformations and skewed positions suggest that they are free, unfettered, light and happy. They are colored in reds and yellows, being bathed in the light of the Ner Tamid. These letters are tamid—eternal, truthful, constant, and continuous, because they spell the fundamental statement, « Am Yisrael Chai. » And that BEBY, in restoring this Torah, is honoring the memory and the desire of those Jewish Czech curators can be seen in the words above our Aron Hakodesh where four letters in the flowery Bohemian script from the Torah are permanently affixed.