Trees of Life

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According to halachah one is to hold the scroll by its back side not touching the written side of the scroll.

In the time of Jesus, Torah scrolls were handleless. There is not one mention in all of rabbinic literature of a Torah scroll being rolled around two wooden rods with handles. Today this is the custom of Ashkenazim, who call these rods עֲצֵי חַיִּים (atse hayim, trees of life) on the basis of Proverbs 3:18. Sepharadim encase Torah scrolls in special wooden boxes with spindles around which the ends of the scroll are wound. This case, like the handles of the “trees of life,” protects the parchment of a scroll from unnecessary handling that shortens the scroll’s life. When reading from the scroll, the case is opened, often being placed upright on the reading stand.

Man reading the scroll of  Song of Solomon at the Western Wall. Photograph by Craig Dunning. Photo ©

Ashkenazi reading the scroll of Song of Solomon at the Western Wall. Notice the “trees of life” around which the scroll is rolled. Photograph by Craig Dunning. Photo ©

In the time of Jesus a Torah scroll was held in one’s hands, and rolled and unrolled with the hands. No handles were used to grip the scroll. Even now among Ashkenazim, the five biblical books which are read at home during the minor festivals (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther) have no handles, being read from a parchment roll as in the first century.

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This article originally appeared in issue 37 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

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