The Pittsburgh Torah Scrolls Project

Because many Jews consider Torah scrolls to be sacred and treasured objects, and because of great expense involved commissioning new scrolls, many Torah scrolls have long, fascinating histories. When synagogues dwindle and decline, they do not discard their Torah Scrolls but pass them along to new congregations. When, historically, Jews have been forced to flee their communities because of persecution, they often took Torah scrolls with them as they sought safer shores. Uncovering the histories of individual Torah scrolls, therefore, can tell us a great deal about Jewish history.

In the spring of 2017, the students in Dr. Rachel Kranson’s “Jews and Judaism: Modern” course at the University of Pittsburgh researched the histories of ten of the Torah Scrolls that can be found in the Pittsburgh area. In the process, they discovered a rich history of Jewish migration, mobility, spirituality, and community-building. We invite you peruse this exhibit and learn from their efforts.

What is a Torah Scroll?

A Torah scroll, known in Hebrew as a “Sefer Torah,” is a rolled parchment upon which a ritual scribe has handwritten the words of the five books of Moses. In synagogues around the world, Jews publicly read from Torah scrolls as a component of their prayer services.

While the scroll had been a common format for manuscripts in the ancient world, the codex – or book manuscript – generally replaced the scroll in about the sixth century of the common era. While Jews adopted the codex for certain sacred Jewish texts – such as prayerbooks and tractates of Talmud — the scroll has remained the preferred format for public ritual readings of the five books of Moses and other texts from the Hebrew Bible.

Creating a Torah scroll that is considered acceptable for the purposes of synagogue ritual is an exacting process. The scroll must be written on parchment from the skin of a kosher animal and processed according to careful specifications. The sofer, or ritual scribe, must write the text out by hand with a quill on pieces of parchment, which are then sewn together using a thread made from the tendon tissues of the foot of a kosher animal.

Jewish communities generally treat their Torah scrolls with reverence. It is customary for Jews in a synagogue to stand when in the presence of a Sefer Torah, and to engage in a communal fast should the scroll mistakenly fall to the ground. When a Torah scroll is no longer considered acceptable for ritual purposes because of damage, it is not discarded but buried.

Who Worked on this Project? 

The following students worked on this project: Jessica Alperin, Alyssa Berman, Noah Donnenberg, Caroline Ford, Jake Hurwitz, Zachary Johnson, Kelsey Kayton, Sarah Koros, Morgan Medvedz, Breaunna Napier, Brenna Rosen, Dorothy Sherman, Mariel Tabachnick, Serena Tally, Lena Vodovotz, Madelyn Olson, Chelsea Lopez, Meaghan Farley