Antique Scrolls: Pieces of History Up for Sale

By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

Published January 30, 2008, issue of February 01, 2008.
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When a Torah scroll is so faded or damaged that it can no longer be used, Jewish law states that, like the dearly departed, it is to be buried. But Spiritual Artifacts, a California-based company, hopes to bring new life to presumed-dead Torahs by putting them on display for all to see and offering them up for sale.

Run out of the Los Angeles home of Australian-born computer programmer and educator Sam Gliksman, 50, and his wife, Deborah, 49, a graphic designer, the new company takes fragments of ancient Torah scrolls and then frames them in handmade museum cases using acid-free, museum-quality archival materials.

“The concept for Spiritual Artifacts developed around the time of our older son’s bar mitzvah in 2006,” Sam Gliksman said. “His friends were also having their bar mitzvahs, and we were constantly searching for gifts that didn’t seem trivial — something unique that would also be consistent with the spiritual meaning of the occasion.” And one day it hit him. “Children read a section from a Torah scroll on their bar mitzvah,” he said. “We thought, wouldn’t it be nice to present them with the identical Torah portion on an antique Torah scroll?”

After consulting with a number of sofrim to find out how to get their hands on the scrolls, the Gliksmans have amassed a collection of roughly 50 pieces. Some of them are whole books from the Torah; others are just small sections. Most are between 200 and 400 years old, but some are more than 500 years old. The scrolls cost anywhere from $375 to $1,250, depending on country of origin, age, theme and number of panels in the piece. Popular portions include the Ten Commandments, the Ten Plagues, the Exodus From Egypt and Creation. The most expensive piece they currently offer is a 250-year-old, three-panel Ten Commandments-themed piece from pre-Holocaust Europe that goes for $1,250.

“My parents are Holocaust survivors, and my wife is of Iraqi descent,” Gliksman said. “We’re both from communities that no longer exist, so we like the idea that the Torah fragments we present through Spiritual Artifacts mostly come from communities that have vanished.” The company sells portions from such locales as Poland, Germany, Iran, Egypt, Morocco and Yemen.

The Gliksmans offer customers a choice between mahogany shadow-box frames and Plexiglas museum cases. According to Glicksman, either kind creates a stable, condensation-free climate that should ensure that the scrolls last for decades. “These are antique fragments that have survived for centuries,” he said. “They need to be treated with special reverence — not only because of their intrinsic holiness, but because they represent a valuable part of the history of these older Jewish communities.”

When asked if he thought that some Jews might be opposed to the idea of taking a Torah that should be buried and instead putting it on display, Gliksman was adamant that Spiritual Artifacts is adhering fully to Jewish law. “Part of our research was speaking with rabbis and making sure that we weren’t offending anyone by doing this,” he said. “I understand that some might say that a Torah’s not something that should be hung on the wall. But others love it. We were very careful to make sure that halachically we’re not doing anything wrong.”

According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to destroy documents, such as prayer books or bibles, that contain the name of God. Gliksman said that the rabbis he consulted saw no problem with framing pieces of the Torah, as long as they are preserved and respected and show kavod (Hebrew for “respect”) for the Torah. In keeping with this, Gliksman and his wife are exceedingly careful not to tear the fragments. “Pieces are sewn together when a scroll is created,” he said. “We just undo the stitches.”

While the Gliksmans have their hands full right now getting the business up and running, they’d like to start offering other antique Judaica on their site, and they have been speaking with various museum stores about stocking some of their framed Torah fragments.

“Generations of Jews celebrated their personal and communal events while reading from these antique scrolls,” Gliksman said. “We’re taking these fragments that would have been buried or hidden away and turning them into beautiful and meaningful pieces that will be honored and appreciated — both for what they are and what they meant to the communities from which they came.”

Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York.


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