Rabbi Mendel Serebranski bent over the parchment, his feather pen scratching audibly as he inked each letter from right to left.
He glanced at a copy book pinned under his left elbow for the next letter.
“If it’s not written properly, then it doesn’t have the holiness,” Serebranski said while taking a break from writing the Hebrew calligraphy.
The first Torah scroll to be produced in the Capital Region by hand is nearing completion for a summer debut at the Chabad Center, 130 Circular St.
By then, Serebranski will have inked 304,000 Hebrew letters with his feather pen.
As the area’s only Jewish scribe, between stints of working on the Torah he also makes house calls to inspect and repair the mezuzah people put on their doors, and writes new mezuzah and the tefillin scrolls that Orthodox Jews wear strapped to their heads and arms .
All of these documents must be produced by hand, or they’re not holy, Serebranski explained.
Five years ago, Serebranski started creating the Torah for the local Chabad Center. Chabad-Lubavitch is a Hassidic sect of Orthodox Judaism.
The Albany man was writing his first Torah, commissioned by a man in Australia, when he was hired to do the local Torah. A native of Australia, Serebranski has been a scribe for eight years and moved to Albany five years ago from Brooklyn, where the Chabad-Lubavitch sect is based.
He’s almost finished with the Saratoga Springs Torah, having done more than 200 of the 245 columns, Serebranski said.
The Torah is being created in memory of Morris and Marlene Aronson, who founded the local center in 2001, said Rabbi Abba Rubin of the Chabad Center.
The center currently has two older Torahs, which it will keep even after the new one is finished.
Rubin said the Chabad Center chose Serebranski because of his spirituality, in addition to his skills as a scribe.
“They should have the fear of heaven,” Rubin said. “He has to think holy things when he writes it.”
Serebranski takes frequent breaks while penning the letters. Six hours of writing, including breaks, is a full day of work.
He says a prayer before he starts writing and washes his hands. “We say the writing should be for the sake of the Torah scroll,” he said.
“Every time we come to God’s name, it has to stop and say it has to be written for the sake of the holiness of God’s name,” Serebranski said.
And if he makes a mistake on the Torah, it must be fixed or the scroll won’t be kosher. And if the mistake is in the writing of God’s name, he must start that piece of parchment over again.
Serebranski makes few mistakes as he writes, he said, but when he does, he scrapes away the top layer of the parchment and writes the correct letter.
The kosher animal hide is scored with nearly invisible lines that direct his writing into neatly measured columns, and the ink is made from kosher ingredients.
According to Jewish law, the Torah has no pictures, only the Hebrew letters of the first five books of the Old Testament.
Although the scrolls are made by hand as they’ve always been, some things have changed with the times. Computer programs can now scan the written text to find errors, Serebranski said.
As he worked recently at Chabad Center, Serebranski’s cellphone jangled loudly from his front pocket. The rabbi took the call, put the phone away and went back to work.
As a result of the time and materials involved, new Torahs cost between $30,000 and $70,000. Used ones can be purchased for as little as $5,000, but the frugality often isn’t worth it because those documents are older and need to be touched up and repaired.
As the scroll nears completion, the Torah’s 304,000 letters will be available for sponsorship. People who “buy” letters will then be part of the Torah, Serebranski explained.
After Serebranski finishes writing the Torah, the sheets of parchment will have to be sewn together. Then the whole thing will be attached to two wooden pins and wound around them as a scroll.
And then Chabad Center will celebrate, he said. “They dance with the Torah. They have a meal with it.”
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Categories: Schenectady County