Torah at the Heart of our Community

The completion of our Torah Scroll at the Siyyum on 5th September siyyum procession2004 was a proud moment for our community, and one that will always be remembered by everyone who was there. Although there has been a second Jewish group in Edinburgh for almost thirty years, meeting as a prayer group, we now find ourselves a small but thriving community with regular services, a diverse and enthusiastic membership, a Cheder and our very own Torah Scroll.


Eighteen months of fundraising and searching for a suitable scroll led up to the event. The scroll is over 150 years old and originated in Germany, but no more is known about its history. Finding it was quite a feat. Many avenues were explored in vain, from eBay to a US Rabbi to the Czech Torah Scroll Trust (a charity that repairs and lends out many hundreds of scrolls rescued from Czechoslovakia in 1964 but unfortunately had nothing appropriate left in their collection). Finally contact was made with Marc Michaels, who works under his Hebrew name of Mordechai Pinchas. He found this scroll, which is light enough to be lifted by any member of the Community, young or old.


As is fitting for an Edinburgh-based congregation, the Scroll arrived accompanied by two pipers, father and son Hugh and Ronald Cheape, under a chuppah carried by members of the community. There followed a welcome by Chairman Maurice Naftalin and an interesting talk on the nature of Sofrut, or being a scribe, from Marc Michaels (see below). Daniel Naftalin, the youngest bar mitzvah member of the community, received a brief lesson on sofrut and was then able to write one of the last letters himself before the scroll was completed by the oldest member of our community Mrs Ida Skubiejska. The completion of the last word of the scroll  "Israel" made the scroll kasher and fit for use in services.

siyyum procession


Rabbi Nancy Morris who had travelled from Glasgow New Synagogue with other well wishers, read from the Torah and enchanted the assembled company with her beautiful singing voice. The shofar was blown by Adam Barclay, whose weeks of practice culminated in a memorable performance.


The Siyyum was attended by members of the Jewish community and other well-wishers from diverse sections of Scottish society's other religious groups, Edinburgh City Council, Lothian and Borders Police, Scottish Parliament etc.

D'var Torah for the Siyyum

Mordechai Pinchas, Sofer

The Sefer Torah is one of the most prized possessions of a Jewish community. It commands great respect and reverence and is afforded a degree of kedushah (holiness) not matched by any other ritual object. Its function and importance are well known, even to those with minimal Jewish knowledge as it symbolises the uniqueness of our religious values and the raison d'etre of our culture.


What is less generally well known is that this Torah contains not ten but 613 mitzvot (commandments) and the last, but not the least of which is to write and own a Sefer Torah - not collectively, but a mitzvah which is incumbent upon every Jew (actually every Jewish male, argues Maimonides, but even in Orthodox texts there are some dissenting voices.)


In the past people did write or commission the writing of their own scroll - indeed the king had to have two - and used them for study and in the community. In our day the observance of this mitzvah is a rare phenomenon. The high cost is prohibitive, limiting this to the wealthy only. Moreover very few individuals are capable, or more accurately, happy to take the not inconsiderable time to study the Halacha of sofrut - the scribal laws - and develop the necessary calligraphic technique to produce an Halachically acceptable scroll. Even yeshivot do not study the laws of this mitzvah in any depth.


Nonetheless Sefer HaChinuch - the book of instruction - has this as number 613 and the commandment is derived from D'varim (Deuteronomy), where it states:

'and now write for yourself this song'

In context this probably refers to the song in close proximity to the statement - the poem of Ha-azinu, but is taken to mean the whole Torah by the rabbis.


So each Jew is still mandated to either write for himself or more likely commission an agent to do so on his behalf - this is the sofer (scribe), who will write by hand (printing is not acceptable) with special ink - d'yo (made from gallnuts and copper sulphate) on k'laf (parchment) with a kulmus (quill or a reed). And, as mentioned, if you happen to be the king of Israel - then you have to have two, your kingly one and your own personal one.


In fact the king of Israel gets one other mention in the Halacha of sofrut. If you are the Sofer working around and someone comes in and speaks to you, you must not respond until you have completed the word you are writing. If however it is the king of another nation then you may, presumably because he'll have you killed otherwise. If the king of Israel comes and greets you, you can safely ignore him as he is presumed to know better than to disturb a Sofer at work. Oddly enough the king of Israel doesn't often pop round to my study so I'm fairly safe.


This story really indicates that the writing must be done with kavanah (spiritual intention) and concentration and you should be thinking of the holiness of your endeavour and not get distracted ? it is ?l'shem k'dushat sefer torah' (for the sake of the holiness of the Torah) with special emphasis on God's holy names and in accordance with the various laws and traditions mapped out in collections such as Keset Hasofer and the Mishnah B'rurah. Every letter must be correctly formed and complete and a single mistake. This is derived from D'varim (Deuteronomy):

     'and you shall not will keep to do as the Lord your God has commanded you,           you shall not deviate to the right or the left'

and also in the 'Shema' where it is written u'ktavtam - and you will write them - the rabbis deliberately break the word into two ? u'ktav tam ? and you will write perfectly. So it's no great surprise that it doesn't happen that often and people generally do not have the honour of partipating in this important mitzvah.


Instead, most Sifrey Torah are written or fixed for communal use. This is in itself an interesting development as the Biblical mitzvah does not have a communal aspect and it therefore does not discharge one's individual obligation to have your own Torah. That said,  Rabbeynu Asher explains that the prime purpose of having a Torah is study and this can be achieved through owning a Chumash, Mishna, and Talmud, leaving the Torah for communal public learning. This isn't a universally accepted view.


However a statement within the Talmud 'Menachot 30a) does at least afford the opportunity to a select few to have the status of the mitzvah accorded to them.

It reads:


'R. Sheshet said if one corrects even one letter it is considered as if he wrote [an entire Sefer Torah]' and adds: 'whoever writes a Sefer Torah, Scripture deems it as if he received it from Sinai'.


Hence our Siyyum (completion ceremony) fittingly allows the oldest and youngest members of your Community to perform this mitzvah on your behalf so that your Community can experience a taste of the revelation at Sinai.


Mordechai Pinchas/Marc Michaels Av 5764/August 2004