The torah. Central to Judaism and Jewish worship, this handwritten compendium of Jewish law even has its own special holiday. Simchat Torah, next week, is a day to celebrate completion of one yearly cycle of torah readings in synagogue services and the beginning of a new cycle.
But for all of the torah's significance in Jewish life and history, there are fewer than a dozen men in the entire country skilled in the ancient and intricate art of maintaining the sacred scrolls.
Rabbi Bernard Honan, in addition to serving as spiritual leader of a congregation of about 175 families in this university town, is one of those uniquely skilled artisans.
It is not necessary to be trained as a rabbi to create or repair torah scrolls, said Honan, believed to be the only scribe, or sofer, in the Reform tradition of Judaism.
But the complexities of the craft call for the mastery of a variety of skills, from Hebrew calligraphy to pickling and preparing hides to produce the parchment-like sheets that are stitched together into one continuous scroll.
The torah contains the first five books of the Bible, tracing the spiritual origins of the Jewish people -- from the creation story of Genesis and the deliverance of the early Israelites from the oppressing Pharaohs, to God's covenant with them as His chosen people and the handing down of His commandments as to how they should live.
A scribe working full time takes six months to a year to complete a torah, Honan said. "A good torah scroll will last several lifetimes."
Because a new torah costs about $15,000, Honan said, congregations have financial as well as sentimental and spiritual reasons for keeping scrolls in good repair.
That's where Honan comes in. "I don't write scrolls. I repair them," he said. A scribe uses different skills in creating a new scroll from scratch and in cleaning and mending the wear and tear of a used torah.
"The greatest wear comes from abuse rather than use," Honan said. "The scroll should be rolled tightly, but not twisted tight," because that can scour off fragments of letters. "The trained reader knows how to turn the scroll in such a way as to avoid damage," he said.
The scroll can be written on leather from "any animal that's kosher -- cow or calf, but not a horse or pig." Honan said he once worked on a torah from South Africa that was made from the "very dark" hide of a gazelle.
Rectangles of uniform size are cut from the hides and stitched together with gut -- also from kosher animals. A complete scroll will be about 150 to 175 feet long; "it depends on the hand" of the scribe," said Honan.
Once the hide is properly tanned, the writing surface is "plated" with a white coating to make the letters stand out. Two different kinds of ink are used, one that "penetrates down into the plating . . . and one which remains on top, which is shinier, more brilliant," Honan said.
"Scribes usually prepare our own ink; we have our own secret formulae," he said. For scroll repair, the ink has to be carefully mixed for the best possible blend with the rest of the text.
An art so old predictably has numerous rules and traditions that guide the writing and repair of the torah. The whole of the five books of the Bible must be arranged in columns 42 lines long.
One or two damaged letters in a line may be scraped out with a scalpel and replaced. But a line with three defective letters must be replaced; three faults in a paragraph and the whole paragraph has to be scraped out and rewritten.
If more than one paragraph is flawed, that entire section of the scroll is cut out and replaced.
Over the centuries, torah scribes have built in hidden clues to guarantee authenticity.
"A certain letter may be written smaller, or larger, or darker, or even upside down," Honan said. To an ordinary reader of Hebrew it may look like a mistake. "It's not. It's a test for the competency of the scribe."
Scribes have "a special benediction relating to working in the torah" to assure that "the scribe ought not begin work until he has directed his heart" properly, Honan said. There is also a special prayer to be uttered "when you come to God's name," to encourage proper reverence.
Honan can look at a scroll and describe the person who wrote it.
" . . . A man in his early forties, not yet come into his full hand -- he'll have 30 or more productive years ahead of him," said Honan, who is 57, after only a brief look at one of the torahs in his synagogue.
Honan's skills as a scribe are self-taught, and he fell into the avocation by accident. While studying for the rabbinate in his native New York City, he lent to a Jewish book fair a handwritten Scroll of Saragossa, which relates to a minor Jewish festival, that his grandfather had brought from Sicily.
"Well, they lost it," Honan recalled of the still-painful incident. He tried to make amends by reproducing the scroll, copying the material from a reproduction in a book he found in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
For all its rigors, the work of a scribe carries great pleasure, Honan said, adding, "I do it mostly for the fun of it."