Hi, it’s Michael again with a guest post.
Every Jewish house of worship has a cabinet or Ark which contains one or more Torah scrolls. Each scroll is made of parchment, on which the entire Hebrew text of the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (a.k.a. Old Testament)—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—is meticulously hand-lettered with a quill pen by an expert scribe. It typically takes a year and a half to write all 304,805 letters; no mistakes are allowed. The scroll is wound on two rollers and stored in the Ark robed in protective fine fabric. The use of parchment has enabled some Torah scrolls to survive intact for over 800 years.
It is traditional to study one section (called a parshah or portion) of the Torah each week. At least a part of that week’s section is read or chanted aloud in Hebrew and/or translation during the Sabbath worship service. The weekly sections are designated sequentially, from the very start of Genesis to the very end of Deuteronomy, so that over a year, the entire Torah is covered. Hebrew is read from right to left, so at the start of the year the left roller is full and the right one is empty. Then the first column is rolled out—it contains the first part of Genesis—and later wound onto the right-hand roller. Each week the scroll is wound to the next section, until the right roll is full and the left one empty. The rolls (so to speak) are reversed.
The end of the “Torah year” is reached in the autumn, at the end of the Sukkot festival on a special day called Simchat Torah (“rejoicing in the Torah”). As part of the same synagogue service, the end of Deuteronomy is read, followed immediately by the beginning of Genesis (usually from a second scroll rolled to the other end). No sooner do we reach the end of the scroll than we start all over again at the beginning. Thus the study of Torah is continuous, never completed.
Why are we having this discussion today? Well, it happens that this week’s parshah—Numbers 25:10 through 30:1—contains the second terse mention of Serakh, and also the story of the Five Daughters of Zelophehad. (The parshah is called Pinkhas, after its first distinctive word.) So it’s a very important week for Blue Thread. The Biblical Daughters are inspired by, and in turn inspire, our 1912 heroine Miriam Josephson. And the mysterious Serakh brings them together across the ages.
The Daughters story is an ancient, famous one about women asserting their rights, and really did serve as an inspiration for the campaign in the 19th and early 20th centuries for women to have the right to vote in American elections. In Oregon, the campaign finally succeeded in the election of November 5, 1912; nationwide, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified and added to the Constitution on August 18, 1920.
The Daughters story can also be thought of as perhaps the first lawsuit: The Daughters bring their case to Moses and argue that the Israelite law of inheritance has a flaw. They ask for a judgement in their favor, allowing them to inherit their father’s property. Moses comes to agree, and goes a step further to announce that his ruling is not just a narrow one but shall serve as a precedent for all generations.