In his home office in a small Israeli town 30 minutes outside Jerusalem, Shmuel Charif uses the nib of a turkey quill to meticulously transcribe the five books of the Torah — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy — on sheets of parchment made from the skins of kosher cows.
Charif has handwritten six Torah scrolls in his 13-year career. Three have found homes in the United States, with the newest dedicated recently in a once-in-a-lifetime ceremony at Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. The scribe's sister and her family are members of the local synagogue.
The holiest of Jewish writings, the Torah is believed to have been revealed by God to Moses at Mount Sinai. Jewish law dictates that handwritten Hebrew scrolls, rather than printed versions of the Torah, be read in synagogues on Sabbaths and holidays. Over the centuries, Jews have defended the sacred scrolls with their lives during times of persecution.
For Charif, 36, the painstaking task of handwriting Torah scrolls is a family vocation that began with his paternal grandfather in Yemen.
"I learned the profession from my father, and then also I learned from somebody very professional from Jerusalem,'' he said during a telephone interview.
Most comfortable speaking Hebrew, Charif at times relied on his sister, Shevy Silverberg, who lives in St. Petersburg, to precisely convey his thoughts during a three-way phone call.
A laborious task
It takes a year or more to create a Torah. Charif, a father of three young children, concentrates on the task for four to five hours a day.
"The first thing is, you have to pick the parchment. Then you take the parchment and you have to cut it into a shape, a rectangle, and then you have to draw the lines into columns,'' he said.
Some parchments — which can be from a kosher cow, deer, goat or sheep — have three columns, but most have four, he said. A Torah is made of about 62 parchments sewn together with thread from the sinew of a kosher animal. Ink for the calligraphy is made from a special stone and the fruit of a pine tree, the scribe said.
As for the quill, "I use a feather from a turkey. I make it myself,'' he said. He sharpens his quill often and uses about 15 to 20 for each Torah.
Unlike some scribes, he does not wear gloves for his work, which are said to protect the parchment from body oils.
"It's against Jewish law, because the Torah is very holy and I need the contact between the hand and the parchment,'' he said.
Charif begins his daily writing with a short prayer.
"He makes a prayer that he would have luck writing it and not make a lot of mistakes,'' Silverberg said.
For that he needs quiet and lots of concentration, but mistakes sometimes happen. When they do, Charif uses a razor blade to gently scratch and peel away the incorrect letters. He then uses sandpaper to restore the parchment before the new letters are added.
Modern inventions have made proofreading simple. Charif uses a computer program designed to help scribes check for errors.
He finishes his project with decorative flourishes — crowns — that are added to 13 of the 22 letters that make up the Hebrew alphabet.
In honor of their parents
Charif's newest Sefer Torah, or Torah scroll, was dedicated on March 16 at Congregation B'nai Israel. The scroll was a gift to the synagogue from Shevy and Tom Jess Silverberg in honor of their parents, Jane and Don Silverberg, who live in Redington Beach, and Nadra and Chaim Charif, who are in Israel. The occasion was historic, said Rabbi Jacob Luski, adding that no one remembers the last time the synagogue received a new Torah.
"We dedicated a refurbished Torah many years ago, probably 20 years or so,'' Luski said.
A synagogue needs more than one Torah, he said. On days when different portions are to be read, it is easier to have a separate Torah for each reading. It takes a few minutes to unroll a Torah, he said. Typically, the rabbi said, each Torah scroll is preset to the section to be read that day.
For the Silverbergs, it will be easy to know which Torah was their family gift. Tom Jess Silverberg, who commissioned the $40,000 scroll from his brother-in-law, said he chose special hand rollers — etz hayim — with a touch of silver on them for the new scroll.
"It's the only one of all the Torahs that have silver on it,'' he said.
Both sets of parents are pleased.
"Not many parents have such a wonderful thing happen,'' Don Silverberg said. "We are very, very grateful for being honored in this way.''
Shevy Silverberg's parents, who were not able to attend the ceremony, were excited, their daughter said.
"They thought it was an amazing thing. ... My dad said, when you do something like this, you actually honor yourself. It's the Torah that keeps the Jewish people going.''
Charif keeps that thought in mind as he works.
As his sister said, "The Torah he reads and writes was written thousands of years ago and has a lot of things that are very relevant to today.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.