10 March 2009

New York: A Spanish Torah discovered

The things you may find on Staten Island now include a Spanish Torah created between 1272 and 1302, and attributed to the famous Spanish sofer (scribe, Hebrew) Shem-Tob ben Abraham ibn Gaon.

The New York Times story here posits who should get the Torah and I've included my own suggestions at the bottom of this posting.

THE weathered brown parchment with its frayed edges and inked Hebrew letters seemed beautiful but unremarkable.

Itzhak Winer, a 34-year-old Torah scribe turned Judaica seller, considered the item a nice find, but just one of the 30 or more Torahs he buys and sells in a year. From his Jerusalem dealer, he learned that the Torah had been owned by a family in Morocco and was in excellent condition.

“He knew that it’s old, but he didn’t really know — and neither did I — how special it was,” said Mr. Winer, who works out of his home in Willowbrook, Staten Island.
Winer was curious about its origins and took it to Rabbi Yitzchok Reisman on New York's Lower East Side. He's an expert in identifying antique Torahs, the scrolls containing the first five books of Moses.

Reisman has been interested in the field since he was a Brooklyn teen. The Lower East Scribes scribes shared their knowledge and he learned the stories of the ancient scrolls. He went on to the purchase and sale of Torah scrolls. He also restores them using handmade ink and carved turkey feathers at his Grand Street workshop.

“There were 400 congregations that were declining, closing up and selling off the Torahs and the assets,” he said. As Torahs from the Lower East Side migrated to the suburbs and across the continent, the sellers, he saw, “helped transfer the Torah scrolls on to the rest of America.”
Reisman realized that this particular scroll was unique.

The materials and calligraphic style identified it as Spanish, which meant that it was written before 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain. In addition, the strong swirls on the top of certain letters matched the style favored in kabbalah, the Jewish mystical movement.

“There are very, very few manuscripts and pieces of manuscripts that are older than the 1400s,” Rabbi Reisman said on a recent day in his ramshackle office as Mr. Winer looked on. And the kabbalistic flourishes, the rabbi added, make it “the only Spanish Torah known done in that way.”

These special markings are “like thorns that appear in certain letters that only show up in a small window of time,” Rabbi Reisman said.

Where should this Torah find a home? The men said that they hope to find a person, a community or an organization that wants to preserve the Spanish kabbalistic tradition, and it's important to give the scroll the respect it deserves.

Personally, I hope that this very special Torah will find a loving home at a true Sephardic congregation where it belongs as a tangible symbol of its membership's ancient roots.

I would further suggest that Reisman and Winer carefully vet congregations interested in obtaining this important scroll, and help it find a loving home in an authentic recognized Jewish congregation, and not a so-called Messianic congregation which is a church and not an authentic synagogue.

Further, I believe it should be a Jewish congregation which includes Converso Hispanics who have returned to Judaism centuries after having their faith stolen from them by the Inquisition, which forced their conversion to Catholicism. This Torah scroll is a direct link to their ancestors, and will provide a continuous emotional, spiritual and tangible connection to their history and faith.

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