Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld carefully inks letters on parchment for a Torah that he is writing by hand at Ohev Sholom synagogue in Washington. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

There are 304,805 letters in the Torah, so if you’re writing the Jewish holy book out by hand — on animal skin, with a quill-style pen whose nib you have to keep filling with ink from a little bottle — you’re bound to make a few mistakes.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld has just made one, a tiny smudge on the Hebrew letter tzadi in the word that means “from Egypt” in the part of the Torah that’s about Moses encountering the burning bush.

Herzfeld mutters and leans back from the writing desk he’s installed in his office at Ohev Sholom synagogue on 16th Street NW in Washington. On every day but the Sabbath, he works for at least an hour on writing the Torah.

“If you want it to be easier, blot it with a tissue and then you can erase it with the electric eraser,” counsels Rabbi Eliezer Adam, a scribe from Israel and Herzfeld’s mentor in all things calligraphic. “You don’t need the knife. But you only have 20 seconds to do that.”

It’s too late. Herzfeld will have to use a tiny blade to scrape the smudge from the parchment and then re-ink the offending letter.

Ohev Sholom doesn’t need a new Torah scroll. It already has a half-dozen, each handwritten by a professional. And the vast majority of Jews don’t follow the part of the Torah that commands that they write a Torah, one of the 613 mitzvot it contains.


It could take longer than a year for Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld to write the entire Torah. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

But Herzfeld likes a challenge.

“I never in my life did anything artistic,” he says. “I never thought that I would enjoy it. I wanted to do it because it’s a commandment. But it’s become transformative for me. It’s like everything slows down. When you write 304,805 letters, you have time to think about each letter. I mean, these were the most powerful words in history.”

Sometimes, synagogue members come to watch. Some help out by adding the little vertical lines atop the 13 Hebrew letters that require them. (Today, Silver Spring architect Daniel Alhadeff is adding the so-called crowns.)

Herzfeld’s coach, Rabbi Adam, has been in town for a year, hired by the Museum of the Bible to write a Torah there while visitors gaze at him.

“I know I am far from the best scribe,” Herzfeld said. “That’s not the point.”

He began his project Labor Day weekend. It will probably take him a year to complete. Then the 62 separate pieces of parchment will be sewn together to make a scroll.

“When we finish this Torah, we’re going to throw the biggest party ever,” says Herzfeld, putting down the pen to go lead morning prayers. “Are you kidding me?”

Rock of ages

If Rabbi Herzfeld does have a party, I know the perfect band: Avraham Rosenblum & the Emmesaries.

A Philadelphia native who lives in Maryland now, Rosenblum basically invented a genre of music called Jewish rock. That was with a group called the Diaspora Yeshiva Band, founded in 1975.

Before then, Rosenblum played in bands in Philly, including one with Frank Stallone Sly’s brother — called Valentine.

“They referred to the two of us as ‘spaghetti and matzoh balls,’ ” Rosenblum told me.

An agile lead guitarist with a lovely voice, an ear for harmony and a passion for the Band, Rosenblum was part of an influx of young American Jews to Israel in the early 1970s, all eager to connect with their roots. His Yeshiva Diaspora Band looked like a young ZZ Top, but with kippah and tallit fringes, and sounded like Crosby, Stills and Nash singing the Psalms.

Was there pushback against celebrating the very old with the music of the very new?

“Absolutely, yes,” Rosenblum said. “We ran into the Orthodox establishment. . . . The rabbinical leaders in that world were not quite ready to let rock-and-roll happen and attract a lot of the young students and seminary girls. They thought we were a big distraction. What they didn’t understand was that the westerners and the American Orthodox kids were already into rock-and-roll.”

Rosenblum lived in Israel for 18 years before returning to the States in 1988 and settling in Baltimore. His new band, the Emmesaries (“emmes” means “truth” in Hebrew), includes the classically trained double-bassist Akiva Trout, drummer Ira “Dr. Beats” Friedman and Z.Z. Ludwick on mandolin. (Ludwick used to play hard-rock bass and is a memorable character in the cult documentary “Heavy Metal Parking Lot.”)

Avraham Rosenblum & the Emmesaries perform at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 at the Chabad of Silver Spring, 519 Lamberton Dr. For information and reservations, call 301-412-3758.

Helping Hand

The Torah says to be charitable to the stranger. So does the Bible. Most religions do, but even if you’re not religious, now is a good time of year to give. And here is a good way to do it: The Washington Post Helping Hand.

Our charity partners — So Others Might Eat, N Street Village and Bright Beginnings — all work with homeless adults and children in our area. You can learn more about them — and make a donation — by visiting posthelpinghand.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.