New Torah, new concept


Carrying the Torah is never a burden, but for congregants at Shaare Zedek Synagogue the honor just got a bit easier to bear — literally.

The congregation dedicated a new lightweight Torah last week. At a mere 11 pounds, the scroll, named the Mark Raiffie Torah, is a fraction of the weight of a standard Torah which can tip the scales at upwards of 30 pounds. Congregant Peggy Nehmen, who co-chaired the project said she was able to notice the difference immediately.

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“When it came in last week and came out of the box, I was able to pick it up,” Nehmen said. “I’ve never lifted other Torahs before. They’ve just been too heavy.”

And that’s the idea, said Nehmen: a Torah anyone can hold.

“This Torah is so lightweight that everyone can be included — women, younger people, older people,” she said. “It is really easy to lift and maneuver.”

According to Rabbi Mark Fasman, the difference in weight is due to the use of a thinner klaf, the parchment used to make the Torah.

“It’s processed somewhat more carefully, somewhat longer. It’s still very, very tough,” he said. “It’s not going to tear just because it’s lighter weight.”

Fasman said the new Sefer Torah would become the primary one for the sanctuary. The congregation has eight other scrolls. Fasman said he was unaware of the exact numbers but did note that this Torah was more costly to produce than the heavier versions, which today can run upwards of $40,000.

“It’s more expensive because it takes so much extra work to prepare the parchment,” he said. “The cost of the klaf itself is much more expensive.”

Shaare Zedek congregants were given the opportunity to help fill in letters in the scroll. During a series of five visits to St. Louis over the course of the Torah’s production, a trained sofer (Torah scribe), would meet with congregants and allow them to touch the quill while he inscribed a letter. One hundred and sixty families filled in letters. Rabbi Fasman said that since Jewish Law mandates that every letter in a Torah be perfect for it to be fit for use, it meant that everyone would play a vital part in the Torah’s assembly.

“The whole process is remarkable in that each person’s letter completes the entire scroll,” Fasman said. “Without that one letter that they wrote, we couldn’t use any part of the scroll.”

For some the process of filling in letters had an even more special meaning.

“It was like I was writing to God,” said Seymour Raiffie. “My wife felt the same way. She said, ‘I feel so good that I had the chance to write the first letter.'”

The Raiffies, who recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, were granted the honor of filling in the first and last letters of the scroll. Due to their generous support of the project, the Torah is named after their late son, who was murdered in 1999, apparently by intruders at the family’s vending business. Seymour Raiffie said his son had spent a great deal of time at the synagogue as well as at Aish HaTorah, where a room is named in his honor. Seymour said 500 people had attended the younger Raiffie’s funeral and that he had been trying for some time to think of the best way to honor his son.

“I was waiting for something where his name would be remembered for very many years,” he said. “We think of him every day. When we get [to synagogue] it’s a sad feeling to not have him there. I really think I’ll feel much better now when we go for the holidays because we’ll have the Torah there.”

Seymour’s wife, Yetta, echoed her husband’s feelings about the power of the moment when she was able to fill in the letters in her son’s Torah.

“It was an inspiration,” she said. “I could never believe that you could feel like that.”

She also noted that writing a Torah is one of the 613 mitzvot.

“It means everything,” she said. “Somebody said that the more mitzvahs you do for your son, the higher his soul rises in heaven.”

Others recognized for their contributions to the Mark Raiffie Torah included Marshall and Sara Myers, Carol and Barry Pessin, Sherri and Dan Weintrop and family, the Sisterhood of Shaare Zedek, Leo and Sara Wolf and family and the entire synagogue congregation.

In addition to the dedication, events on Sunday included the filling in of the scroll’s final letter and the Torah parade.