Judaic Studies Brings Rabbi to Restore Mysterious 200-Year-Old Torah Scroll

Amanda Ballard and Carina Johnson
Feb. 11, 2014

The origins of a centuries-old Torah anonymously donated to the University of Arizona may be a mystery, but the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies is taking steps to ensure the scroll survives for centuries to come.

A Torah is a parchment scroll containing the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, which are handwritten using a quill and ink. Beth Alpert Nakhai, associate professor of Judaic studies at the UA, said the scroll donated to the UA was likely written 200 years ago in Europe. It is the first and only Torah to be owned by the University.

"Somehow, the scroll survived WWII and ended up in Israel," she said. "The anonymous donor purchased it in Israel and brought it back to the States and, in 2009, it was donated to the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies."

Nakhai said the scroll, which measures 100-feet long and weighs around 20-25 pounds, arrived in her office wrapped in newspaper inside a cardboard box. Since then, she has made efforts to ensure it is housed safely and properly in UA Special Collections.

Thanks to a donation by the Thomas and Sara Borin Foundation, the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies was able to bring an expert to campus in an effort to learn more about the scroll and repair some of its damage. Rabbi Yochanan Salazar is a traveling sofer, a Jewish scribe who travels the world repairing Torah scrolls.

He visited the UA on Feb. 4 to start restoration efforts on some of the scroll's damage and speak to the public about the traditions and meanings surrounding Torahs.

Rabbi Yochanan Salazar travels around the world to repair Torah scrolls. During a February visit to the UA, he begin restoration of a 200-year-old Torah scroll owned by the University.  (Photo credit: Amanda Ballard/UANews)

"It's very special, holy work to us," Salazar said.

Salazar explained that all ingredients used to write the Torah must be kosher, or deemed "pure" by abiding to set requirements of Jewish law. Everything from the animal hide used for the parchment to the ink and feather quill used to write must be kosher. Often the ink is made using a special combination of ingredients, like ash and honey, a natural preservative that also has special meaning.

"It's a reminder to the sofer that the word of God is sweet," Salazar said.

Salazar explained that the Torah has exactly 304,805 letters. If one is missing, the Torah is no longer considered kosher.

During his visit, Salazar mainly focused on treating some areas where letters had chipped off the scroll over the years.

Nakhai said that she is less concerned about restoring it to perfect condition and more focused on preserving it for future education.

"We're really more interested in it as a historical unit and retaining that history. We want it in good shape for teaching," she said.

Certain clues, such as handwriting styles, led Salazar to estimate the scroll originated in Northern Italy, though it can't be confirmed. The Torah's precise origins remain a mystery.

No matter where it came from, Nakhai said she's glad it survived an incredible journey to the UA.

"It's amazing," she said. "It really is."

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