Iraqi Torah’s aliya to Foreign Ministry
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Iraqi Torah’s aliya to Foreign Ministry

Bearing stamp of Saddam’s secret police, 200-year-old scroll traveled to Jerusalem from Kurdistan through Baghdad and Amman

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, right, carry a Torah scroll in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 22, 2015 (photo credit: Elram Mandel/Foreign Ministry)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, and Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, right, carry a Torah scroll in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, January 22, 2015 (photo credit: Elram Mandel/Foreign Ministry)

A 200-year-old Torah scroll that was once hidden in the basement of Iraq’s Secret Police was brought Thursday into the synagogue of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, where it is being used for daily prayer services.

Thursday’s hachnasat sefer torah, or Torah inauguration, marked the first time a Torah is being housed in the headquarter of Israel’s diplomatic apparatus.

The scroll has traveled quite a bit: Following the Second Gulf War, American troops found it in an archive in Baghdad and took it to the Israeli Embassy in Jordan, where it stayed until the Foreign Ministry, mindful of the sacking of the embassy building in Cairo by rioters in 2011, decided to safeguard nonessential items in other embassies deemed at risk.

It was evacuated to Israel, and after a seven-month restoration process, it was brought to the Foreign Ministry, where it serves Israel’s diplomats, who have been conducting daily services for years but never had a kosher Torah scroll for the customary Monday and Thursday morning reading of a section of the following week’s parasha, or Torah portion.

Saddam Hussein’s secret police appears to have taken a special interest in the scroll, as evidenced by a stamp with the insignia of the Iraqi secret police on the parchment in the Book of Exodus.

The Foreign Ministry's 200-year-old Torah scroll (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI staff)
The Foreign Ministry’s 200-year-old Torah scroll (photo credit: Raphael Ahren/TOI staff)

At a ceremony attended by dozens of Foreign Ministry staff, Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and several members of Israel’s Kurdish-Jewish community, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said the scroll’s journey from Kurdistan to Baghdad to Amman to Jerusalem was reminiscent of the destiny of Jewish nation.

“People try to expel us and to destroy us, but in the end we arrive in the Land of Israel,” he said.

“I am sure that this Torah scroll will help us with all kinds of foreign policy problems,” he added jokingly. “I asked the chief rabbi for a special secret blessing that next week we’ll wake up and hear in the news that Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas] stepped down and Hamas was defeated,” he said to raucous laughter.

Rabbi Yosef, who carried the Torah scroll together with Liberman into the ministry’s small synagogue, lauded the foreign minister for the “respect and love” he has for the Jewish heritage. During his speech, Yosef recalled a meeting with Vladimir Putin, during which the Russian president said the cultures of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome all disappeared, but that the Jews remained — “because of the Torah.”

The scroll is distinct in that it was written on deerskin — most Torahs are made of cow parchment — and in that the ink was prepared with concentrated pomegranate juice, which is customary in Northern Iraq, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. After it was repaired and prepared for ritual use by a Jerusalem-based scribe, the scroll was placed in a case from Aleppo, Syria and brought over to the ministry.

Until recently, the ministry’s observant workers only held afternoon and evening services — during which no Torah is required — in the building, but since the scroll arrived they have started conducting regular morning services as well.

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