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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

April 16, 2010  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

Rescuing centuries-old Torahs online

By ELAINE MARKOWITZ Jewish Press

This 15th century North African Torah of 15th century is written on gevil — that is three layers of animal skin, in this case, goatskin. The tanning process in that time produced a reddish hue on the scroll. This 15th century North African Torah of 15th century is written on gevil — that is three layers of animal skin, in this case, goatskin. The tanning process in that time produced a reddish hue on the scroll. David First of Apollo Beach collects Torahs, or, in his words, he rescues them from abuse, desecration and neglect.

That has been his mission, one he shares with his wife, since 2005, when an auto accident triggered his early retirement from a career in banking and finance.

About that time, First, 54, happened to notice Torahs on sale on a seemingly unlikely source — e-Bay, an online auction and marketplace website.

“I went to e-Bay out of curiosity,” he said, and that first foray shocked him.

“They were selling pieces of Torahs that had been cut up,” he said. “It was like a used car market.”

Some of the Torahs, in varying conditions, were purported to be very old — a description First has since verified is true in many cases.

David First points out a backwards lamed in a Kabbalistic Torah. All those decorative fans over the letters (left) were declared “unkosher” after about 1880 by Askenazic rabbis who declared those flourishes constituted extra letters. Photos by ELAINE MARKOWITZ David First points out a backwards lamed in a Kabbalistic Torah. All those decorative fans over the letters (left) were declared “unkosher” after about 1880 by Askenazic rabbis who declared those flourishes constituted extra letters. Photos by ELAINE MARKOWITZ “Torahs seem to come from everywhere,” he said. “Some turn up in synagogue basements and a lot of them come from Israel.”

It’s buyer’s choice. Buyer—beware.

“You can find ancient scrolls too damaged to be considered kosher,” he said, “or $9.99 bar mitzvah Torahs that are mass-produced paper replicas.”

First has seen Sefer Torahs (hand-scribed) ranging in age, according to descriptions, from 800 years old through the 20th century. He has purchased 22 of them thus far, for which he paid from $200 to $2,000.

This 16th century Persian Torah was imtentionally smaller so it could travel more easily. This 16th century Persian Torah was imtentionally smaller so it could travel more easily. In the mix is a southern European Torah inscribed on lambskin with fan-shaped flourishes over many of the letters. This Torah, First said, was the most expensive he purchased. He dates it between 1750 and 1850.

Another, a small lambskin traveling Persian Torah of the 16th century, has evidence of repair work done some 300 years ago. A large 15th century North African Torah, which First said is probably from Tunisia or Morocco, was made from three layers of goatskin. It has a reddish hue resulting from the tanning process used at the time.

First is interested in Torahs from all over the world, but he has a special goal—securing a Chinese Torah. “I would love to find one of the 13 Torahs written in China several thousand years ago,” he said.

The Firsts’ mission isn’t just to rescue, restore and collect centuries old scrolls for a private collection. The collection, housed in his home office, constitutes a “Torah Museum,” which First exhibits, takes to temples or organizations to use for lectures, or lends to various local organizations to use in fundraising or special events. He does not charge for any of his presentations.

As First’s efforts became more known, another source for Torahs opened up. A number of Torahs were placed with First, on loan from other collectors or private families.

“This is our personal mitzvah,” said First’s wife, Connie.

Connie First, who works for the Children’s Legal Services Bureau in Hillsborough County, organizes the exhibits and loans and fully supports her husband’s efforts. She, however, has a dream of her own.

David First David First “My goal is to acquire an RV with air-controlled storage,” she said, “and take the Torahs out to the world — or at least as far as we can drive the RV.”

The “touring museum” is the current step for First on a slow journey that began with a conservative Jewish upbringing in Miami. He said he became disenchanted with religion as a teenager and only returned to it after taking a religion course in college where he re-read the book of Genesis. His interest, he said, was rekindled.

He took three trips to Israel, read avidly and consulted with local rabbis, all of which contributed to his understanding of the origins and rules governing the physical aspect of Torahs. He gained some ability to recognize overstated claims for the value of some of the Torahs for sale online.

A further boost was provided by the scribes and dealers he met through e-Bay.

This 15th century North African Torah is written on gevil—that is three layers of animal skin, in this case, goatskin. This 15th century North African Torah is written on gevil—that is three layers of animal skin, in this case, goatskin. E-Bay has become his primary purchasing source.

In the last five years First has learned whom to trust. He has gotten to know favorite dealers and seeks them out right away. He also has gained some expertise of his own in judging a Torah for authenticity, age and place of origin.

“I got taken many times at the beginning,” he said.

Torahs claimed as “Holocaust Torahs,” he said, are among those most often faked. He said that although he prefers the older Torahs to more recent ones, he still would love to have an authentic Holocaust Torah.

“Many people want one of these Torahs,” First said. “Some individuals want to buy them to donate to their synagogues.”

First said he isn’t easily taken by unscrupulous sellers anymore.

“Now I can look at pictures and tell a lot about a Torah, including what kind of skin was used.”

The skin of the scroll is one key to dating a Torah. Modern Torahs are inscribed on calfskin, whereas the oldest ones are more likely on goat or sheepskin, he said. First’s North African Torah is inscribed on “gevil,” which he said refers to all three layers of animal skin, rather than just one layer, which is more common.

Parchment, or velum, he said, is the middle layer and the most commonly used.

Another key to placing and dating a Torah is in the lettering. First said Sephardic, mostly earlier Torahs, and Askenazic, more recent Torahs, have different lettering styles.

Other special lettering features involve European Torahs. In the 18th and early 19th centuries some European scrolls had flourishes on top of many letters, fanned out like crowns.

“In the late 19th century rabbis in Europe banned that type of letter,” First said. “They claimed those were adding extra letters to the holy Torah.”

First also has discovered damages to the centuries-old Torahs have driven down the price, because the Torahs are no longer kosher, and the current owners aren’t interested in paying for restoration.

“To a lot of people it’s just a Torah that’s not kosher anymore and it basically gets kicked to the curb,” he said.

Not so to First, who said he sees the hard work that went into each of the old Torahs, and appreciates its history.

A modern kosher Torah today can sell for upwards of $30,000, in some cases much more.

Sometimes, First said, he has gotten what he calls a bargain.

In 2006, under advisement of one of the contacts First has made in recent years, he flew to New York to look at 10 Torahs and bought them all for $7,000.

“That was all our life’s savings,” he said, “but when I came home I discovered that some of those Torahs were phenomenal.”

First, a father of five grown children, said he plans to continue his mission to find, rescue and share the Jewish Scrolls. A traditionally observant Jew, he said the Torah means something personal to him:

“I’ve been interested in Torah for more than 30 years,” he said. “The Torah was something that worked, no matter what problems I’ve had in my life.”

“When you touch the Torah you touch the heart of the Jewish people,” he said.

For more information, go to www.torahmuseum.org.


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