Transcript of Treasures Revealed episode 7
Théo Martin (TM):
Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Théo Martin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
Welcome to Treasures Revealed!
In this podcast series, we’ll be showcasing certain items in the Library and Archives Canada collection. Each episode, we’ll speak to a LAC employee and highlight an item that they consider a real “treasure” in our collection.
They may be rare items, perhaps unusual or valuable, or items with historical significance. Perhaps they will have a compelling or interesting story to go along with them. More importantly, all of them will showcase our vast and rich collection that is the shared documentary heritage of all Canadians.
Now, on to Episode 7, Sefer Torah.
In 1768, a small group of Jewish settlers came to Montréal from England, Germany and the American colonies. They established the first Jewish congregation and synagogue in Canada, known as the Shearith Israel Synagogue. When a collection of the synagogue’s records was donated to LAC in 1979, archivists were excited to discover that the donation included one of the synagogue’s most treasured items, the oldest document it owned: a Sefer Torah. Instead of the Torah being buried, as is Jewish custom when it is no longer being used, it found a new home at LAC. Why here?
Christine Barrass (CB):
Because it was the first one for their congregation, and their congregation was the first Jewish congregation in Canada. So this is basically the first Torah scroll of the first Jewish congregation in Canada. And for that reason, we felt that it, well, we agreed with the congregation that it did belong at LAC, for preservation reasons, really.
That was our guest for this Treasures episode, Christine Barrass. We wanted to know, what is a Torah scroll, and how is it used?
So it’s mainly used in the ritual of Torah reading, during Jewish prayers. It’s a handwritten copy of the Torah, which is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. It’s an extremely sacred text, and a scroll would be one of if not the most prized possessions of a synagogue and a congregation.
Many synagogues have more than one Torah scroll. Shearith Israel, right now, has around 60. Now, of course, you’re not using them all the time. Sometimes they’re gifts, they have different origins, that kind of thing. So they have a few that they would use all the time, but right now, they have 60.
And as the name implies, a Torah scroll is exactly that, it’s a scroll. It’s made of parchment, so animal skin. And it’s pieces of animal skin sewn together to make one really long piece, and then it’s rolled on dowels. So when it’s not being used by the synagogue, it’s kept in a very specific place in the synagogue, in what they call an ark, or it’s in a special sort of curtained-off area there, where they would keep it, and it would be built along the wall that faces Jerusalem, which is the direction that Jews face when they’re praying.
It takes about a year to produce a Torah scroll, because they’re handwritten. It’s a very long, complicated process that’s governed by many rules, which I won’t go into here, but it is certainly a major undertaking and usually done by a professional scribe, so it’s not something that just anybody would do.
Every Torah scroll since the time of Moses features the same 187 chapters, 5,845 verses and 304,805 letters, and they are always written on kosher animal skins.
Christine tells us more about this particular scroll that we have at LAC.
In terms of the object we have, it’s quite a large scroll. I have tried to lift it in the past. It’s liftable, but it’s awkward and it is heavy. It’s about 75 centimetres high, about 30 centimetres in diameter when it’s rolled up. I’ve never seen it completely unrolled, so I couldn’t tell you exactly how long it would be, but I would guess it’s at least 35 metres long for this size of a scroll.
It currently lives in a custom-made wooden box, which is very large and heavy and requires at least two people to move it. I can’t do that on my own. In the box, along with the scroll, there’s something called a mantle, which is just a cloth covering that goes over the scroll when it’s not in use. It’s quite fancy, usually. So, in the box with the scroll, there’s the mantle and a lot of archivally-friendly packing that’s in around it, so that it doesn’t move at all.
The parchment itself is very well-worn. You can tell from the discolouration and some of the sort of scars to it. There’s a few places where you can see where there was some fire damage, so probably at some point someone was reading it by candlelight and got a little bit too close, that kind of thing. So you can tell it’s been a well-loved object over the years.
And when it was first donated to the National Archives, it was thought that the scroll dated back to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which would have made it close to 500 years old at that point, and that would have been something quite major to have. However, we did some investigation once we acquired it, partly we wanted to know how old it was, and partly for insurance sake. We had a librarian at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America have a look at it, and in the end, they figured that it was a bit younger than originally thought, most likely from the late 17th or early 18th century and may have been written in North Africa. So, a little younger, but still, by Canadian standards, quite old.
Old, but not quite as old as originally thought, the Sefer Torah is an impressively large and beautiful document, and it had been in continuous use for more than two centuries. Given that the Sefer Torah donated to LAC was no longer suitable for use, a customized “ark” was built to house and display it. The ark was designed to fit in with the architecture of the Jacob M. Lowy Room, where the rest of LAC’s outstanding collection of over 3,000 rare and unique Hebraica and Judaica items dating back to the 15th century are stored. To learn more about the Jacob M. Lowy Room, check out episode 45 of our podcast from May 2018 entitled “Mr. Lowy’s Room of Wonder.”
Christine, how did you first discover this in the collection?
I was working on a guide to Jewish records at LAC, and in their collection, I was reading the description of their records, and I saw that we had a Torah scroll, and I thought, that’s a little strange, so I went and visited it out in Renfrew—at that time, that’s where it was being stored—just to have a look at it, to see what we were dealing with, to see the condition of it. And so that’s basically how I became familiar with it. And then from there, I did a bit of research on it, and it just, one of these things, it just kind of kept coming up as a point of interest after that, so I don’t know if I was the one who kind of pushed it or [laugh] if it was just serendipity.
We asked Christine why she thinks this item is a treasure.
LAC’s archival collection is incredible, and I think anyone looking for a treasure would be spoiled for choice. One could argue that everything we have is a treasure. I think there’s a few things that are interesting about this one. It is unusual to have a Torah scroll in an archival collection, and that’s partly why it’s interesting.
I think, though, for me this one really came to the forefront of my mind in 2018 when it was the 250th anniversary of the Shearith Israel Synagogue. And I was able to participate in a celebration that was being held by LAC, actually, because we have this scroll.
So what we did is we had a pop-up event, and we had the scroll there in the room, rolled out a little bit, so people could see it. And they bussed in people from Montréal who were congregants of the synagogue, so they could come and see the scroll. And people were so excited to see it and so happy. People had their picture taken with it. And it was really quite an emotional journey for some people as well, you know, they hadn’t seen it in a long time, and it was a real way to, I think, connect with ancestors, to connect with their own history. This item, who knows how old it is, who knows what it’s seen. It could tell so many stories, but I think that’s a part, so, having a congregation be so tied to it, but then also knowing, how many, you know, the kind of history it’s seen. It really made me think, yeah, this is something that we need to be putting out there as one of LAC’s treasures.
If you are interested in viewing the Sefer Torah, you can go to LAC’s Flickr page. There, you will find an album of images called Treasures Revealed. We will update that album with each episode, giving you a chance to view the treasures that we will be highlighting.
Thank you for being with us. I’m Théo Martin, your host. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” A special thank you to our guest today, Christine Barrass. Special thanks also to Isabel Larocque and Melissa Beckett for their contributions to this episode.
The music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions.
This episode was produced, engineered and edited by David Knox with additional editing by Tom Thompson.
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