Torah represents covenant with God for Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands
— Editor’s Note: Symbols of Faith is a new series in The Woodlands Villager exploring the symbols and icons associated with the various religious faiths found across the community. Have a tip or symbol you would like to share? Contact Staff Writer Jane Stueckemann.
This time of year, congregants from The Woodlands area synagogue may be reading or chanting from the Torah scroll with special significance in order to observe the High Holy Days.
The holidays are known as Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. During these days in mid-September, those of the Jewish faith focus on repentance.
Rabbi Matthew Berger leads the Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, a reformed Jewish congregation. Berger said that throughout each Jewish calendar year, the congregation reads through the entire Torah.
“(The Torah) is a treasured ritual object because of the guidance it can give in terms of Jewish living. It also connects us to the generations past and the notion that every generation is renewing the covenant with God,” Berger said.
Traditionally, the Torah contains five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. It can come in two different forms — either in a Hebrew bible with an English translation or on a large scroll.
In scroll form, it takes a scribe a full year to write out the text in Hebrew.
Outside of the High Holy Days, the Torah is just as important. Berger reads from the Torah at weekly services and then gives a talk about how its message can apply to a congregant’s daily life.
Berger uses certain tools to read from the Torah scroll.
“Hebrew letters have no vowels, so you use a special book (to read from the scroll). It could be a printed Hebrew bible or a book that has the vowels,” Berger said.
On the scrolls, there are also symbols attached to the Hebrew letters, called cantillation marks, to allow someone to sing or chant the text.
Berger also demonstrated what a yad is: a Jewish ritual pointer used by the reader to follow along with the text.
“(The yad) is used so you don’t touch the Torah scroll, and it shows you where you want to go rather than you dragging your hand across the text,” Berger said.
Congregants can also follow along in the pews with their Hebrew bibles as Berger reads the text. A Hebrew bible contains books of minor and major prophets writings such as the psalms in addition to the Torah text.
Berger explained that the Torah represents the original covenant God made with the Jewish people, the Israelites, revealed to Moses thousands of years ago at Mount Siani.
Since it is considered holy and sacred text, Berger said, there is also a Jewish value of making ritual objects beautiful. That is done through the Torah’s mantle, or cover, and shield.
The shield, Berger explained, is a silver plate hung over the scroll that shows either a biblical event or image.
Congregation Beth Shalom possesses three Torahs; while two were gifted to them, one is a special Czech Memorial scroll on loan to the congregation.
“There’s a group called the Czech Memorial Scroll Trust. They took about 1,600 Torah scrolls that were saved by the Jews of Prague during the Holocaust,” Berger said. “They were purchased in various states of disrepair, cataloged and then repaired.”
Then, Berger said, they created a permanent loan program where a congregation can house, read and care for the scroll.
Each Torah scroll is dedicated in a ceremony when it is given to the congregation, but the Czech Memorial scroll is acknowledged in a dedication ceremony once a year, Berger said.