Reporter's notebook304,805 letters means 304,805 opportunities for a mitzvah

October 7 massacre spurs massive Torah scroll writing project

Thousands of Israeli Jews, including President Isaac Herzog, fill in letters on parchment to commemorate the 1, 200 dead and raise awareness for the 138 hostages still in captivity

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Michal David holds the tip of a quill as Rabbi David Avraham writes the initials of her five grandchildren in a Torah scroll in Tel Aviv, Israel on November 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Michal David holds the tip of a quill as Rabbi David Avraham writes the initials of her five grandchildren in a Torah scroll in Tel Aviv, Israel on November 27, 2023. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

On a quiet evening in Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square, the sound of an acoustic guitar drew visitors to a white tent where two musicians performed next to a seated man holding a quill.

Those who understood the situation queued up spontaneously near the empty chair to the right of the man with the quill. Others at the November event were invited by a third man to join the line, asking each: “Would you like to write in a Torah scroll?”

The event was one of several Torah scroll projects connected to the October 7 massacre in Israel, which occurred on Simhat Torah, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the annual completion of reading the Torah. This year, some 3,000 terrorists killed more than 1,200 people and abducted 240 more, 138 of whom are still believed to be held hostage.

The tragedy is prompting many secular and observant Jews to rally around the Torah and other Jewish symbols in what they view as a source of strength and a show of resilience.

“When I see an event that connects my Israeli identity with my Jewish roots, I‘m instantly drawn to it,” Michal David, a 63-year-old artist from Rishon Letzion, told The Times of Israel in the tent last month after she filled in five letters: the initials of each of her grandchildren’s given names.

“I saw, listened, connected, and now my family is immortalized here,” said David, who leads a largely secular lifestyle.

Rabbi David Abraham writes in a Torah scroll in Tel Aviv, Israel on November 27, 2023, as a visitor to the tent of the Ayelet Hashachar organization holds the quill’s tip. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

She is one of tens of thousands of Jews who have participated in the writing of Torah scrolls with Rabbi David Avraham of The Torah Scroll of the People of Israel, a nonprofit that seeks to involve Jews in the writing of Torah scrolls. Avraham, a scribe from the city of Elad, is currently writing one scroll specifically for the synagogue of Kibbutz Be’eri, an epicenter of the October 7 massacre.

For years, he has been preparing the scroll in which David wrote. Each of the 304,805 letters that make up the text is meant to be written or filled in by Jewish people from across Israel and the world. (That scroll is mostly complete, said Avraham, who added that he has been making big strides with that scroll since the massacre).

Kibbutz Be’eri residents and visitors on November 27, 2023, inaugurate a Torah scroll in the kibbutz in memory of Amit Man, among those murdered by terrorists on October 7, 2023. (Courtesy of Amit Man’s family)

To Avraham, the Torah writing project symbolizes the plight of the hostages, whose fate is one of the most emotionally wrought aspects of the war that the October 7 onslaught triggered between Hamas and Israel, and which has shaken Israel and the Jewish people to the core.

“Just as a Torah scroll is not whole and usable until each letter is present, so is our people incomplete until all our hostages are accounted for,” he told a participant of his project, prompting applause from others waiting.

On December 3, President Isaac Herzog wrote a letter in another scroll that Avraham recently initiated that is earmarked for Kibbutz Be’eri. Herzog dedicated the letter, Alef, to the memory of Elhanan Kalmanson, a reserves army captain who died rescuing people in Be’eri.

“I find it particularly moving that the scroll will be in Be’eri,” Hezrog said during a ceremony.

President Isaac Herzog writes in a Torah scroll in memory of Elhanan Kalmanson in Jerusalem, Israel on December 3, 2023. (Courtesy of the Torah Scroll of the People of Israel)

Writing a Torah scroll is a mitzvah, a religious duty, but the writing process is long and expensive, meaning that opportunities to fulfill it are few and far between.

Herzog filled in the outline of a letter that Avraham delineated for him. But even this simple coloring job carries a heavy responsibility: if botched, it would render the scroll non-kosher, wasting hours of labor. Those hesitant to take on this responsibility generally rest their palms on the writing hand of the scribe as he writes the letter or fills it in.

Labor MK and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv holds up a Torah scroll in the women’s section of the Western Wall on December 25, 2022. (Hila Shiloni/Women of the Wall)

The woman who launched a Torah

Women hold on to the upper tip of the quill to avoid touching the scribe — which is inappropriate in Orthodox Judaism — and because many Orthodox Jews believe only men should write in Torah scrolls.

This gender limitation, whose validity some Orthodox rabbis dispute, is one of many that critics of Orthodox Judaism perceive as exclusionary to women. Israel has several female scribes, including Shoshana Guggenheim, an artist and Jewish studies scholar, who in 2014 completed a Torah scroll and regards this as part of her feminist worldview.

Rachel Priker hosts soldiers at the synagogue of Kibbutz Be’eri, Israel in November 2023. (Courtesy of Priker)

But even within these confines, the Torah scroll that Avraham is preparing for Be’eri’s synagogue is prominently marked by a woman: Rachel Priker, the founder and caretaker of Be’eri’s synagogue, who survived the massacre and on November 5 had the honor of writing, together with Avraham, the very first letter of the first word in the Torah: the letter bet in “Bereshit,” which is commonly translated as, “In the beginning.”

It was an act of deference to Priker, 70, who grew up in a religious home in Ramat Gan and led the effort to open a synagogue in Be’eri in 2006, about 18 years after she moved there from the city.

The house where the remains of 12-year-old Liel Hetzroni were found in Kibbutz Be’eri, near the Israeli-Gaza border, November 19, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Priker, a nurse and mother of four, said that her thoughts at the time of writing were with the family of Kalmanson, the reserves army captain who on October 7 died in Be’eri while fighting terrorists with his brother, Menachem, and nephew Itiel. The family of Elhanan, a father of five, was present at the December 3 ceremony launching the Torah scroll, which is named for the fallen hero.

“I was so deeply moved by Elhanan’s beautiful family and by this extraordinary moment of unity around the source of Judaism,” said Priker.

The Kalmansons live in Otniel, a religious settlement near Hebron where 71 percent of the votes in the last elections went to the hawkish Religious Zionism party. Be’eri is a stridently secular kibbutz, which before 2006 had no synagogue, and where 51% of voters last year cast their vote for the left-wing Labor or Meretz parties.

Taking the scroll on the road

Avraham is not the only scribe inspired to engage the masses by the conflict, which many Israelis call the Simhat Torah War, and in which more than 100 Israeli soldiers have been killed, in addition to the October 7 massacre fatalities.

Several scribes are taking their books to be completed by soldiers, survivors, and others in the wake of the October 7 massacre. Additionally, Israel Defense Forces troops have brought with them into Gaza multiple completed scrolls, provided by the Army Rabbinate.

Noga Safer, a 38-year-old scribe and father of three from Pardes Hanna, has been writing a Torah scroll for years. But the war made him move the project into turbo mode, said Safer, a graduate of the Betzalel Arts Academy in Jerusalem who works in high-tech.

“When the war happened I just started taking the scroll everywhere. To survivors of the massacre, to families of victims, to soldiers in bases,” said Safer, who for reasons he cannot explain had left several thousand hollow letters in his scroll (typically, scribes leave only a few dozen to be filled out by members of their community.)

Did he need to convince people to participate?

“No, their eyes just light up when they see the scroll,” Safer said of thousands of people who have participated in the writing of his scroll. “They instinctively know what to do.”

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