In Jewish tradition, a Torah scroll is more than ink on parchment detailing God's commands and promises. It becomes if not a soul in and of itself then the embodiment of what saves souls and helps secure them in an insecure world.
So when Benny Zippel, Salt Lake City's orthodox rabbi, learned that a Provo antiques dealer had a Torah scroll of unknown origin, he went to the shop, owned by Brent Ashworth, and found that pieces of the scroll had been sliced up, framed and sold to area collectors by another dealer before Ashworth purchased it.
On site, the rabbi plunked down his credit card, asking for not only the scroll, but also the cut-up pieces still waiting to be mounted and framed.
"For Jews, this is a serious desecration of the most sacred object in the Jewish faith," he said, noting he didn't have cash at the time for an unplanned purchase. But he was following a commandment found in the Torah known as "Pidyon Shvuyim," which means "redeeming the captives."
Having survived the Holocaust in which Hitler's war machine was determined to destroy both the Jews and everything Jewish the scroll made its way to Provo, but the rabbi said no one knows for sure how it got to Utah, or where it was in the interim. Markings in the back of the scroll indicate it was owned pre-World War II by a family in Poland.
The rescue happened about nine months ago, and the rabbi began to wonder how he could possibly "redeem" the scroll by having it restored.
Enter former Utah real estate developer and U.S. Ambassador John Price and his family foundation. Rabbi Zippel contacted the Jewish philanthropist, and Price agreed to provide funding to restore the scroll to its original condition. "His background goes back to pre-Holocaust Europe. I thought there would be a lot of affinity between he and his family and the origin of the scroll."
After funding was secured, the scroll was sent to Israel, where a highly-skilled Sofer, or Jewish scribe, worked to restore the scroll and rewrite the parts that were missing, under the direction of Rabbi Moshe Klein, a Sofer from Brooklyn.
Though observers may wonder about the time and expense involved in such a project, Rabbi Zippel said a perfect Torah scroll is imperative in Jewish life and worship.
"When you buy a book and you read it, you may find some pages a little blurry or missing some ink, but it's still readable. But for a Torah scroll to simply be legible, it's not sufficient. Every single letter has to be perfectly intact, with no scratches or missing corners," symbolic of the "interdependence of all Jewish people amongst one another.
"There are great people out there, but as long as one person is not the way he or she should be, the entire nation is lacking something. So the Torah scroll is written with 340,805 letters, and if one of those is scratched or damaged, it invalidates the entire scroll. That's why it's so imperative that when we come across a scroll that's being desecrated, that we go out of our way to make sure that we bring it back to its ultimate perfection."
On Thursday, members of Utah's Jewish community and the public are invited to attend a dedication ceremony at 6 p.m. at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, 1760 S. 1100 East, to celebrate the "redemption" of the scroll. At that time, the final letters will be hand-written in the scroll by invited participants, who have purchased the opportunity to be instructed by a scribe as a way of honoring a commandment for each Jew to own a scroll of his or her own, the rabbi said.
Since expense makes the request impossible for some, it's permissible to write a letter in the scroll as fulfillment of the Torah's directive, he said. The completed scroll will be put to use during future services at the synagogue, Bais Menachem, particularly during holiday celebrations.The salvaged scroll will be dedicated to the memory of Simon and Margaret Price, the late parents of John Price. It also will be "dedicated with love to our unsung heroes, those who perished in the Holocaust and those who survived, and to all our loved ones whose great sacrifice paved the way for all the good we share today," he said.