When we talk about the Torah, we usually mean the spiritual Torah, the words, the laws, the stories, the teachings that it contains and the teachings that Jews have derived from it over the centuries. What we don’t usually mean by it is the material form of the Torah.
The latter is the subject of a delightful new book, The Jewish Bible: A Material History, by David Stern. The book is the latest to emerge from the Stroum lectures in Jewish studies at the University of Washington, a series that has produced many fine books. The title, which sounds vaguely familiar and self-evident, is one that the author claims he coined for this book: “Jewish Bible” meaning the unique material shapes, designs etc. that Jews have used to embody the Torah and Tanakh. The old architectural expression “Form follows function” certainly applies to the Jewish Bible, as the ways that Jews have produced, distributed, stored, studied and read the Book speak to the ways that Jews have understood and used it.
The book offers a handy survey of its topic–from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Sefaria–while presenting current scholarship on a wide range of issues, all in some 200 pages replete with illustrations. For those familiar with much of the scholarship, there are still many fascinating nuggets for thought. Eg: The earliest Torah scrolls, from Qumran and elsewhere, were written on different materials, including papyrus, and contained only a single book of Tanakh. They were designed to be easily read and carried, like other scrolls from ancient times. The rabbinic injunction to compose the 5 books in one scroll, on heavy parchment, confirmed a process that transformed the written text itself into an object of veneration–one much harder to use for everyday study. Another: The regulations for Torah scribes appear in the Talmud in Megillah, a masechet about the scroll of Esther. Why? Because that is the only biblical book that Jews are commanded to hear and read from a scroll. Interestingly, the medieval Jewish sect the Karaites permitted the reading of the Torah in synagogue from a codex (book) with nikud (vowels) and te’amim (notes). One more: The beautiful, hard cases in which Sephardi Torah scrolls are usually housed, called a tik (from Greek theke, receptacle), originated in ancient synagogues where Torahs were sometimes stored in an open niche.
How do you teach about the physical forms of the Torah?