7 min read

Torah scrolls are the most sacred, perhaps the only truly sacred, objects in the Jewish religion. These parchment scrolls contain the text of the Torah, also known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses. The five books are Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. The scrolls are handwritten by a master scribe in the original Hebrew consonants, with no vowel signs or punctuation. Additionally, the parchment must be made with the intention of being used to write a Torah scroll, and the text must be written in black ink.

Despite these strict requirements, however, not all Torah scrolls are the same. Within the bounds of the rules for creating a scroll, there is room for regional and historical variation, as well as scribal creativity. The style of the writing, for example, varies across time and space, providing one of the clues scholars use to determine where and when a Torah scroll was written. There are also certain spelling variations and different traditions of writing specific letters in elaborately decorated styles or in other odd ways. Though scribes cannot choose the text, nor alter the script significantly, these decorated letters allow for some expression of personal style. In addition, scribes have historically had a fair amount of leeway in layout, which sometimes allowed them to present aesthetically pleasing designs through the spacing of paragraphs. To see some of these unique features, scroll through the images below.

Today, alternatively, most Torah scrolls are written following models laid out using computer programs, making this kind of historical creativity rare. The scribal profession has become more international with the ease of communication, and this has created standardization across the globe. The trend today is toward more uniformity among Torah scrolls.

Torah scrolls are not for private reading or study, at least not for more than a millennium. When Jews today want to study the Torah, they consult the text in a book or look up the section they are interested in reading online. Instead, Torah scrolls are ritual objects, opened and read from only during prayer services as a part of the liturgy. As sacred objects these must be treated with respect. For example, the Talmud, an ancient collection of Jewish law and legal commentary, requires everyone to stand in the presence of a Torah scroll, as if in the presence of a king. The scroll is more than just the text it contains. It is a symbol of God’s revelation to the Jewish people and their relationship to the divine through that revelation, though different Jewish denominations have their own ways of understanding what revelation means.

Museum of the Bible’s collections hold more than 1,500 Torah scrolls. This presents a unique opportunity for scholarship and public education. The scholarly documentation of each scroll as an individual object with its own features and history allows for communities across the world to engage with these scrolls and share unique stories about them. This is the hope of the museum’s Torah Scrolls Database and Research Project, which will make our scrolls available to the world in a variety of ways. The project is working toward three major goals: 1) the production of a comprehensive, online database of the entire Museum of the Bible Torah scroll collection, including a webpage to promote access and facilitate engagement with the collection; 2) the creation of a new body of scholarly literature in medieval and modern Torah scroll research; and 3) the restoration of scrolls that have no long-term research value to a condition where they will be fit for ritual use, and the distribution of these scrolls to Jewish communities in need of a Torah scroll. 

As custodian of this unique and important collection, Museum of the Bible has a responsibility to share it with the world. The Torah Scrolls Database and Research Project is the first step in fulfilling that responsibility, of engaging people with these sacred, biblical texts. That’s the mission of the museum. The database launches soon.  

Examples of Scribal Creativity in Museum of the Bible’s Torah Scrolls

The curses in Deuteronomy 27 each end with the word “amen.” In this scroll, the text is laid out so that each line begins with amen and is followed by a large space. The spaces are mandated by the Masoretic tradition, but by placing amen at the beginning of each line, an aesthetically pleasing design is created. This is one way scribes showed their creativity and skill.

Elaborate decorative tags on a single word. Though scribal tradition requires these particular letters to have these tags, the elaboration into the space above the word is a product of scribal creativity.

Here, you can see two decorative letters circled in red: on the top, a final peh with decorative hooks; and beneath it, a “looped” peh with hooks coming off the bottom. These two decorative examples may be compared to the undecorated peh circled in green.

This scroll shows how standards evolved over time. The letter ḥet here once had decorative hooks at the bottom, like the peh in the previous image, but you can see they have been corrected in the circled letter. This correction was made by a community that thought these decorated forms were not valid.

Traditionally, Numbers 10:25–26 are set off in their own paragraph. In the spaces before and after the verses, the letter nun is written in reverse. In this image, marked in red, we see reversed nuns in the actual words of the text, rather than in the space between them. A normal nun is marked in green for comparison.

By Dr. Jesse Abelman, Curator of Hebraica and Judaica 

7 min read