Celebrating the Scroll

The “Book of the Week” for this week is in a different format. The codex is what we usually think of when we think of a book today; but books bound together on one edge, with pages that can be turned, were only invented about 2000 years ago. Before that, a book may have been a clay tablet or a scroll. Roman books were typically scrolls made out of long sheets of papyrus.

This example from the MTSU Art and Design Historical and Teaching Collection is a reproduction of a Roman scroll. It includes Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid and must be read by rolling the sheet from one page to the next.

The scroll format offered some problems for the reader, such as identifying the text, since there is no spine on which to attach a label (hence the tab with the author’s name, which you can see in the top image). The other logistical problem was having to “rewind” the text after finishing it, to get back to the beginning.

Scrolls are not used in many contexts today, but one place to find scrolls is in Jewish synagogues. The torahs that are read at bimahs every week are always in the form of a scroll; although torah scrolls are made out of parchment rather than papyrus. But, like ancient Roman scrolls had been, they are still written by hand.

A torah from the former Glockengasse Synagogue in Cologne. This is now on display in the Kölnische Stadtmuseum. (Photograph by W. Horsch and distributed under a CC-BY 4.0 license. See this page.)
“The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghor, Italy” depicts a Simchat Torah celebration and was painted in 1850 by the British artist, Solomon Alexander Hart. This painting is housed at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Of course, returning to the beginning means rewinding the scroll. The act of rewinding has became a joyous celebration in its own right, as the community has an opportunity to see, and even hold, the torah unfurled in its entirety, as shown in the videos below:

In this video, the rabbi explains how torah scrolls are made and used while the scroll is being rewound.

More videos that explain Simchat Torah:

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