Give him an hour and Neil Yerman can teach you a lot about a Torah.
Yerman, a sofer (sounds like so-fair), or scribe, from New York, spent Thursday in Billings at the invitation of Congregation Beth Aaron. He examined the Jewish temple’s three Torah scrolls for any flaws that needed fixing.
He also spent an hour in the afternoon in a hands-on lecture with three children of the congregation and then did a lecture for adults later in the evening.
At the afternoon session, Yerman, 62, started by explaining to 4-year-old Lily Shore exactly what a Torah is.
“It’s a very special book,” he said, pointing to the scroll sitting on a nearby table. “And it has lots of wonderful stories. It starts out with a story of how God made everything, clouds and the sky and the birds and trees.”
Then he explained a bit about the Torah itself.
“You know in a book how we turn pages in a book?” he asked. “This is a different kind of book because all the pages are put together and they’re sewn together with very special thread.”
That thread is made from the sinew of the legs of a kosher animal, he said, in response to a question from an adult. Very small strands are twisted and braided together, forming a strong thread.
The parchment is calf skin and has a calcium carbonate-based coating on the outside.
Two other young students, Zach Patterson, 9, and his sister, Hannah, 5, arrived for the practical lesson.
He told the trio that not only does he repair Torah scrolls — he also writes them.
“I write these from beginning to end on blank parchment,” Yerman said. “I have to write 304,805 letters, or 79,847 words. It takes a year. It’s like a one-year homework assignment.”
If the Torah is missing just one letter or has one letter too many, it can’t be used.
A Torah contains five books, he said, as he unwound the scroll to the beginning of the fourth book. He then explained the types of wear and tear he was searching for in his inspection.
“See that letter there?” he asked, pointing to one spot on a page filled with Jewish scripture written in Hebrew. “It has a little white spot there. It’s not supposed to have a white spot. It’s supposed to be black.”
He pulled out a sheet on which he records the work that needs to be done.
“I have to write down the patient’s condition, and then I would like some help cleaning the Torah,” Yerman said. “Because the more we clean the Torah, the more she can be healthy and live and teach us.”
There are very special rules from God in the Torah called commandments, he told Zach. A commandment is not a gentle suggestion.
“If God says it’s a commandment, you’d better be listening,” he said. “And there are 613 commandments in the Torah.”
Yerman handed each of the three a sponge and demonstrated how to gently clean the parchment.
“We don’t usually touch the Torah with our hands, but today you have very special permission,” he said.
The children went to wash their hands before they tackled the task, and Yerman took a moment to share his background. He has been a scribe for 27 years, working in a studio in New York, specializing in restoration.
Yerman lives in Manhattan with his wife, Rabbi Jo David. And the couple’s son is also a rabbi, in North Hampton, Mass.
“What I like to share about my work, and this is an example of it, is to show congregations and temples how members can participate in giving health to their scrolls and protecting their scrolls by learning to take care of them,” he said.
It can only happen under the supervision of a professional scribe, he said, and there are many things congregation members can’t do. But some things they can, like cleaning with a sponge.
Asked what drew him to becoming a scribe, Yerman said he has always loved letters and writing.
He proceeded to let the children help him clean some of the parchment. Then Yerman launched a search to find letters that were cracked, chipped or faded, which he succeeded in doing.
He pulled out a quill, a goose feather, and trimmed the tip with a scalpel. He dipped the quill into a small bottle of ink and let Lily hold the top of the feather as he dabbed ink on a letter where the original ink had faded.
He did the same with the other two children, and praised all of them for their handiwork.
“When we restore the Torah, we give live to the Torah so it can keep teaching for hundreds of years to thousands of people,” he said. “Three wonderful jobs. Very well done. Thank you.”
Scribes are sort of like Torah detectives, he said. Just by examining the Torah scroll he could tell that it is 80 to 90 years old or maybe a little older.
It was probably written somewhere in Russia. And it was written by more than one hand.
“It could have been a father training a son or a grandfather training a grandson,” he said. “This could have been part of a training session, we don’t know.”
By studying the letters he can tell how the scribe was sitting and where he did his work. In this case, it might have been in a basement.
“One of the reasons the letters are so well absorbed in certain areas is that if it was done in a damp location, the initial dampness will actually help the ink absorption,” he said. “But not any time after.”
The lesson done, he bid the children goodbye. Then he got back to work scrutinizing the Torah scroll, to figure out what is needed to restore the sacred writings back to their original condition. That way, generations to come will be able to study them.