A Pocketful of Torahs

small torahs

Among the unexplored mysteries of the Klau Library’s Rare Book Room is a plain and simple gray Special Collections box filled with over 20 miniature Torah scrolls. At first glance, one might think these little scrolls are just like the cheaply made “tchochkes” currently sold in Judaica stores world-over. However, a closer examination suggests these may in fact be the “great-grandparents” of our modern-day mini scrolls.
Miniature Torah collectionThe collection, as you can see pictured here, features both duplicate items and variations. What these Torahs all have in common is that they are printed, not written by hand and thereby fit for ritual use. That is where the similarities between these Torahs end. Some have a mantle that is silk, other mantles are satin, and some Torahs appear to have arrived “uncloaked.” The colors of their mantles range from cream to pink, with one in a mottled blue and green. The designs on the mantles differ in minor ways, with some including text. The Torah roller shapes are varied, and while most texts are in Hebrew, one of them is a translation into English.

Like a true Sefer Torah, these little scrolls do not include any publisher information – they simply begin with “Bereshit bara Elohim” (In the beginning God created) and end with “Le’Ene Kol Yisrael” (before all the Israelites). And so, to find out more about where these miniature Torahs came from and how they were used requires us to investigate representations of them in secondary sources – where they are mentioned or depicted elsewhere.

Dr. Jenna Weissman Joselit in her article titled “Tiny Torahs” provides our earliest source for the existence of these artifacts; an ad that appeared in the 1893 editions of both the Hebrew Standard and the American Hebrew. As you can see from the advertisement reproduced below, Bloomingdale’s sold for the price of $1, a “Miniature Sefer Torah” or “Scroll of the Law” described as “A most appropriate present – containing the five books of Moses taken from the original. Though miniature in form, it is correct in every respect. Each Torah is covered with a Satin Cloak, similar to those used in the Synagogue, and packed in a neat box.” As a gift, this would have been a significant one, as a dollar in 1893 is valued at over $30 in today’s dollars.

thumbnail of bnai brith messenger newspaperAnother ad, a bit later in the B’nai Brith Messenger of 1911, offered to every subscriber a free “miniature Sepher Torah” assisting them in the fulfillment of one of the mitzvot. As the ad proclaims, “In olden times every Israelite considered it his duty to possess a Sepher Torah (Scroll of the Law). There is an opportunity now for every man, woman and child to secure a miniature Sepher Torah…” This item would be mailed to the subscriber’s home when all dues were paid. Interestingly, the cost of the newspaper subscription for the year was $1, so one might assume that by this period the small scrolls were either much more cheaply produced than they had been by Bloomingdale’s in 1893, or this functioned as a loss-leader for the newspaper, motivating sales of the paper despite the cost of producing and mailing these little gifts for subscribers.

It should be noted that the above advertisements as well as the final one described here all ran prior to the High Holidays. While the Bloomingdale’s Torah seemed to function as a general “holiday gift,” and the B’nai Brith offer as a promotion tied in some way to the New Year, the ad in Cleveland’s Jewish Review and Observer of 1903 makes the holiday connection quite explicit. Here, sellers Levy and Stharn offer that “Amongst other novelties this year we have a miniature ‘Sephar Torah’ with Hebrew text to send as a New Year’s Card.” Indeed, this would explain the three Torahs in our collection that include on their mantles some form of the greeting that typically appeared on Rosh Hashanah greeting cards – “L’Shana tova tekhatev besefer haim” (May you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a good year).

Rosh Hashanah Card

Collection of Prof. Shalom Sabar, Jerusalem

Once these little Torahs were procured, it seems from other external evidence that they were often used by children as part of the revelry of Simhat Torah. Pictured here is a Rosh Hashana greeting card from the collection of Professor Shalom Sabar, dated to the second decade of the 20th century. Here, children are portrayed with Simhat Torah flags as well as a miniature Sefer Torah. As Dr. Sharon Liberman Mintz points out, these well-dressed children may well have been the intended audience of Bloomingdale’s pricey novelty gift.
prayers in the shape of a small torahAvraham Yaari’s compilation of Simhat Torah customs devotes several chapters to the cultural emphasis on children’s participation in the celebration of the Torah. Here he cites that the Rashba in the 13th c. observed that in Barcelona children were bedecked in the crowns normally adorning the Torah scrolls, despite the possibility that this act constituted disrespect to the Torah scrolls. Later in history, children were even given the honor of holding the Torah scrolls themselves. However, this custom was abolished by the 19th c. because of concerns that the practice lacked honor for the Torah. And so, in communities from Yemen to Ashkenaz, children were instead given other holy items, including the mahzor, assorted holy books, or rolls that “appeared” like Torah scrolls. In fact, in our collection are two tiny scrolls that have the shape of a miniature Torah but simply contain some holiday prayers with instructions in German.

Where exactly these Torahs were created and where they ended up in the world may be the subject of further investigation. For now, we content ourselves with appreciating these little Torahs as charming additions to the Jewish holiday experience in the turn of the 20th century, when our great-grandparents gave these little treasures to friends and family for holiday gifts, sent them to each other as a New Year’s greeting, and entrusted them to children to enhance their celebration of the beloved holiday of Simhat Torah.

With appreciation to Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Dr. Jenna Weissman Joselit, Prof. Shalom Sabar, Dr. Sharon Liberman Mintz, and Dr. David Stern for their assistance in the research for this post.