Today a torah is written just as it was in olden days, by a sofer – a highly qualified, religiously observant scribe – writing in traditional Hebrew calligraphy with special ink and a quill pen on parchment made of sheepskin. The scroll is attached at the beginning and the end to wooden posts fitted with rollers that allow it to be unrolled a little at a time, as each portion is read. The posts are called etz chayim (translation: tree of life). It is said that the Torah is a “tree of life to those who hold it fast and all its paths are peace.”
Modern copies of the text are unchanged from centuries-old copies. Because every word or mark is thought to have divine meaning, none of the letters or spaces may be changed. A mistake in a single letter, ornamentation, or symbol of the 304,805 stylized letters would make a scroll unfit for use. The painstaking process of writing a scroll may take a year or more and completion of a scroll is a cause for great celebration. Torah scrolls are kept in the holiest part of the synagogue, usually on an eastern wall, in a cabinet known as the Holy Ark. Scrolls are dressed in beautifully-decorated mantles and are often adorned with silver breastplates and crowns. It is an honor to hold a torah or to be called upon to read from it. Special blessings are said before and after a portion is read, and the scroll is treated with great care and deep respect at all times.
Because in ancient days most people could not read, priests chanted the words aloud in public, a portion at a time, at least once every three days, with the entire five books being read over the course of a year. Nowadays, even people who can read Hebrew usually can’t read from the Torah without special study. Reading from a torah scroll is not easy. The words in the scroll are written without vowels and without punctuation and there is no indication of the trope—the cantillation marks that tell how to chant the words. Because the trope highlights important ideas and provides understanding of the grammar and meaning of the text, torah readers must learn and memorize the trope in order to properly chant the text. While a rabbi or cantor or practiced torah-reader chants, the congregation usually follows along in books that include the vowels, punctuation, and cantillation marks, as well as an English translation of the Hebrew.
To emphasize that study of torah is never-ending, as soon as the closing words of the last book, Deuteronomy, are read, the scroll is immediately rolled back to the beginning and the public reading continues with the first words of Genesis: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth…” This happens on the 23rd day of the Jewish month of Tishri (late September or early October), observed as Simchat Torah (translation: Rejoicing in the Law), a joyous holiday celebrating the completion of the study of God’s word and the opportunity to begin study all over again.
The holiday is a unique and joyful experience, with everyone having the opportunity to hold a Torah and to honor it with blessings, song and dance. Everyone can see the entire five books of the Bible as the scroll is rolled from the end back to the beginning.
In this way, the never-ending study of Torah, which provides a foundation for Jewish communal life, can be seen as a work-in-progress, providing infinite possibilities of interpretation and understanding.
The words in a torah scroll never grow old and they provide fresh insights every time they are read.