Rabbi Levi Selwyn: Our Sofer On Site

SoferAtWork3_CongregationBethSholom_October2015The week before last, CBS hosted Rabbi Levi Selwyn. Shortly after he arrived, every Torah scroll in the CBS collection was gathered in the Sanctuary so that Rabbi Selwyn could "undress"(1) and unroll them.

Outside of religious services, visitors to Beth Sholom aren't generally encouraged to handle our sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), but Rabbi Selwyn wasn't a typical visitor. He's a sofer, or Jewish scribe, who works for Sofer On Site, a team of sofrim based in Miami, Florida, that offers scribal services to synagogues and other Jewish communities worldwide.RabbiLeviSelwyn7_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 The name sofer comes from the Hebrew root "to count." It's a fitting appellation; one of the principal halachic (Jewish legal) specifications governing a Torah scroll is that it consists of exactly 304,805 letters, and soferim must count each letter to ensure a scroll is kosher. Soferim do a lot more than count letters, though, and their training usually requires a period of shimush (apprenticeship) with an expert. The calligraphy skills needed to write or repair a sefer Torah take time to master, but the bulk of the training is dedicated to learning the thousands of laws that apply to sifrei Torah, tefillin, mezuzot, megillot, and any other religious text written on parchment.

Although now based in Miami, Rabbi Selwyn is originally from London, England, and he served as the Chief Rabbi of the Newtown Synagogue in Sydney, Australia, before he and his family settled in the United States, first in southern California, where Rabbi Selwyn directed youth programs, and then Florida, where he trained as a sofer.

Rabbi Selwyn spent his two days at CBS pouring over our sifrei Torah, inspecting, cleaning, and repairing them (or detailing what repairs still need to be made before they can be deemed kosher). Because some sifrei UnrolledTorah_CongregationBethSholom_October2015Torah are quite old, their parchment is affected by temporal and environmental factors, often breaking down and becoming discolored, and the letters of a scroll can crack. Rabbi Selwyn's assessments of our Torah scrolls make for a fascinating read, as the selections below attest.

"In Bamidbar and Naso, there is a very fatty part of the parchment where [it] is partially transparent. / There seems to have been a different scribe writing from the area of the Shema till the end of the Sefer." (These two observations were made about an approximately 130-year-old sefer Torah from Bohemia.)

"This Torah has a mix of thin and thick letters, presumably from someone that repaired it but did not manage to keep letters the same size as the original writing." (This note pertains to a 60-year-old Russian sefer Torah in our collection.)RabbiLeviSelwyn&RabbiGlazer_CongregationBethSholom_October2015Rabbi Selwyn was most excited about our 169-year-old, German sefer Torah. In his notes, he wrote,

"Besides telling from the type of font about the age and place of the Torah -- this Torah has the original Etz Chaim which has the year that the Torah was dedicated written on them. In Hebrew, it says Tav-Resh-Zayin."

In his note, etz chaim (literally, "tree of life") refers to the wooden poles that the sefer Torah is mounted on. The numerical values of the Hebrew letters Rabbi Selwyn spotted on these poles are 400 (Tav), 200 (Resh), and 7 (Zayin). Added together, that makes 607. Hebrew years are often written with an implied addition of 5,000, which would make the year in question 5,000 + 607, or 5607. Because we're currently in the early weeks of year 5776, Rabbi Selwyn deduced that the German sefer Torah was 169 years old!
RabbiGlazer&RabbiLeviSelwyn_CongregationBethSholom_October2015RabbiLeviSelwyn3_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 SoferTools_CongregationBethSholom_October2015Rabbi Selwyn chatted amiably with anyone who cared to pop in on him, and he also met with several CBS Preschool and Shabbat School groups, teaching them about a sofer's responsibilities and showcasing his tools, the special ink (the recipe of which is guarded by a handful of families who supply it to soferim worldwide), animal sinew (used to sew together different sections of a scroll), a writing quill from a domesticated turkey, and less novel items like a small bottle of Elmer's glue. His enthusiasm and dedication to the craft was palpable, and it was a treat to watch him work, whether he was carefully repairing the Hebrew script on our scrolls or replacing a section of binding.

We look forward to having him back in the future!

(1) When not in use, a Torah remains "dressed" in a cloth covering called a mantle, and is often topped with ornate finials or draped with a breastplate, or shield. RabbiLeviSelwyn2_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 CBSPreschoolStudents&RabbiLeviSelwyn4_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 CBSPreschoolStudents&RabbiLeviSelwyn3_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 DressedTorahScrolls_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 RabbiLeviSelwyn4_CongregationBethSholom_October2015 SoferAtWork_CongregationBethSholom_October2015