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  • Writer's pictureTzipporah Johnston

The ties that bind (the Torah scroll)

Along with the Torah mantle, I will be making a binder. The Torah binder is a kind of band or belt that goes around the middle of the sefer Torah, to keep the two wooden rollers together, so that the scroll stays rolled up and protected from accident or humidity. All communities that use soft, fabric mantles need to use a binder to ensure the sefer is sufficiently rigid to be stood upright in the ark without the risk of tearing the parchment. Because they are in such close contact with the scroll, binders are tashmishei kedusha – regular objects made holy through serving holiness – and are actually considered the holiest of the synagogue dressings - perfect for honouring the scrub-makers.

Detail from a German Torah binder, showing gaily embroidered text and a little embroidered bird

(Embroidered Torah binder, c.1750, Germany. Held in the collection of the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license)

Traditionally binders (called mappah/mappot in Hebrew) were made from long strips of embroidered or painted cloth – sometimes as long as 3 metres – that would be bound around the entire length of the scroll from top to bottom. In many modern Ashkenazi communities, these long ornate binders have been replaced by short, thin and rather ugly but functional ones made with elastic and Velcro or metal clasps, to make it quicker and easier to undress and dress the Torah. However the old-fashioned binders are increasingly making a comeback as people seek ways to feel more personally and emotionally connected to synagogue life.

Just as with mantles, women were historically very involved in the production and donation of binders. There are two major geographical traditions: in Ashkenaz (mostly German lands and Denmark), and in Italy. In Ashkenaz binders called wimplech were made in honour of baby boys. Shortly after the birth of a boy, the mother or another close female relative would take the swaddling cloth from his brit milah (circumcision) ceremony and sew it into a long band. The child’s name, date of birth, and the name of the father would be embroidered on, and often also the blessing from the brit milah service – May he grow up to the Torah, Chuppah (wedding canopy) and good deeds. Sometimes the child’s zodiac sign would also be recorded, or alluded to in the illustrations.

detail of a Torah binder showing the phrase, in Hebrew, "to grow up to Torah, Chuppah and Good Deeds" embroidered on it

(Detail from Jewish. Torah Binder, 1872. Embroidered linen, 71 1/2 x 123 in. (181.6 x 312.4 cm). Loaned by Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc., L50.26.18. Creative Commons-BY (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, L50.26.18_section1_PS1.jpg))

Once the boy reached around 3 years old, and was out of nappies, he would be brought to the synagogue with great ceremony (a ritual known as Shultragen). He would present his binder to the congregation, and use it to wrap the Torah scroll in use that day. Congregations where this ritual was practiced could end up with many hundreds of Torah binders, creating a kind of birth registry for males that was occasionally consulted to settle disputes.

There are some extremely beautiful, elaborate examples of these Ashkenazi wimplech, but the majority are quite homespun and clearly came from an amateur hand. They are sometimes compared unfavourably with their Italian cousins, but I think there is something really sweet and heartfelt about these simpler binders. They often show a rather idiosyncratic sense of design or layout, and the meaning of some of the motifs embroidered can be mysterious, but that is all part of their charm.

a collection of little line illustrations, including a naive Torah Scroll and Chuppah, a lion, a man blowing a shofar, a leyer vav with a fish for a stalk, a letter lamed with a bird perching on it, a floral motif, a chuppah with very rugged-looking bride and groom, and letters decorated with flowers

(Sketches of lettering and motives taken from Ashkenazi binders in the collections of the Magnes Museum of Jewish Art and Life, Berkeley CA, and the Museum at Eldridge Street, NY.)

By contrast, Italian binders were often very chic and exquisitely made, reflecting the high standards of needlework in the Italian Jewish community. Like the Ashkenazi binders, they were almost exclusively made by women, but the traditions around them were slightly different – they might commemorate the birth of a child, but they also marked other kinds of important life events, such as engagement, marriage, recovery from illness, fulfilment of a vow, or the passing of a loved one.

(Detail of Embroidered Italian Torah binder, possibly by Miriam Foa, 1615. Held in the collection of the Met Museum, public doman. Universal (CC0 1.0). For pictures of this incredible piece, please visit the Met site here.)

Something that’s interesting about the Italian binders is that women’s involvement didn’t stop once they were donated. Italian women were active shul-goers, and they developed a kind of women-only kibud, Torah honour, to add to the ones that only men could receive. Once the binder was removed so that the scroll could be read, it was passed to the women’s section, and important women would be honoured with the job of rolling it up ready to be passed back to the men’s section for the end of the reading. Reviving this custom might be of interest to Orthodox congregations looking for ways to increase female participation in the service while maintaining halachic norms.

Making a Modern Binder

Some Italian wrappers and binders also offer suggestions for how different fabrics could be incorporated into a single object. There are a number of examples were small panels of linen are joined by bands of lace or embroidery to form a long binder. These are usually quite plain, or sometimes embroidered with an inscription, but the structure could easily accommodate pieces of different patterned fabrics. A less common type combines pieces of precious fabrics with embroidered panels - for example, the Roman wrapper sketched below – and could also serve as a model for how to combine fabric pieces.

sketches of 3 binders - two made of linen pieces set with embroidered strips, and one made of assorted fabrics pieced together

(Annotated sketches of three Italian Torah binders/wrappers, based on photographs in Bracha Yaniv’s Ceremonial Synagogue Textiles.)

Given that the binder will be in use by an actual congregation, I do have to consider the issue of whether to make a traditional long binder, or one of the uglier, utilitarian modern varieties. There are halachic concerns about long binders that need to be tied, because of the prohibition on tying knots on Shabbat (certain forms of ‘work’ involved in the creation of the Mishkan, or Sanctuary, are forbidden on the sabbath). Historically, many rabbis allowed a simple bow knot that could be easily undone to be used; others had a child tie the knot, and still others (especially in Ashkenaz) decreed that the binder should be tucked into itself rather than tied. This discomfort with the possibility of transgression, or even the appearance thereof, may have contributed to the rise in the 20th century of short, elasticated binders with Velcro closures, as Velcro is not a permanent connection and is never prohibited on Shabbat.

Three undressed Torah scrolls side by side, each with a different type of binder, to demonstrate the differences.

(a comparison of 3 types of binder, L to R: Traditional long binder, tied; traditional long binder, tucked into itself; modern elastic and velcro 'gartel' binder)

These may seem like esoteric concerns, but to a traditional congregation they could make the difference between something being usable and treasured or completely forbidden. But although I’ve never seen it done, there’s no real reason why a binder couldn’t be made in the traditional long length, with a Velcro closure or clasp instead of a tie. This would offer the benefits of a longer binder – greater protection of the scroll, and greater beauty – but without raising any halachic concerns. A bit of experimentation and the right balance could surely be struck.

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