The 1971 film Fiddler on the Roof brings to mind as many delightful scenes as there are poignant ones. Jewish history is a prominent element throughout the movie, and the rabbi is shown early on as a respected figure in the small city of Anatevka. Similar to Jewish communities worldwide, the rabbi is oftentimes the most learned man—if not entirely in worldly aspects, then particularly so in terms of the Torah.
”Torah” in itself is a tricky word to use since it can mean many things: the five books of Moses, the entire Jewish bible, or the whole body of Jewish law and teachings. The whole of the Jewish bible consists of what is called the “Old Testament” in the Christian bible. Collectively referred to as the Five Books of Moses, the Torah is not only respected, but studied and even consulted by generations of Jews.
The Torah begins with Genesis, which tells the story of creation, Noah and the flood, and the family of Abraham and Sarah. Exodus tells of the birth of Moses and how he becomes God’s prophet after leading the Israelites through the Red Sea to freedom. Leviticus is the more law-oriented section of the Torah, which directs proper eating habits and sacrificial rules. The book of Numbers which tells of the Israelites trek through the desert and rebelling against the authority of Moses, and finally Deuteronomy shows Moses’ final message to the people of Israel before they crossed the Jordan River. Moses outlines the rewards that will be reaped by those who observe the laws of the covenant and the punishments of those who do not take heed.
Such a magnificent collection of Jewish history is most notably shown reverence through its form. Torahs are always handwritten on parchment scrolls in a Hebrew calligraphy called SAT”M. Torahs often become not only the authority on Jewish religion, but also a culturally significant work of art. Strict etiquette is followed when handling the Torah—no touching is permitted. Some say it is because the scrolls are too holy; some say because the parchment, made from animal skins, is a source of ritual defilement; others say because sweat from fingertips have acids that will damage the parchment over time.
Jewish or not, it is easy to realize that the importance of handwritten is placed on an entirely different realm in respect to the Torah. The oldest Torah dates back to 7th century BCE and took three years to unravel for very meticulous and careful reading. Ultimately, the Torah shows that tradition is alive and well and the written word continues to flourish, guide, and inspire.