Sermon

Address at re-dedicated of Sefer Torah by Elkan Levy for Kehillat Kernow on 28th May 2014 – 28 Iyyar 5774

Rev Elkan Levy, Past Director of the Chief Rabbis Office for Small Communities

There is a collection of Psalms, numbers 113-118, known collectively as the Hallel, the special Psalms of Rejoicing, which contain a verse particularly appropriate to today’s celebrations.

ZE HAYOM ASA ADO-NAI, NAGILAH VENISMECHAH BO…

This is the day that the Lord has made; we will be glad and rejoice on it. (Psalm 118:24)

This is a very great day. It is a great day in the history of the Royal Cornwall Museum; it is a great day in the history of Kehillat Kernow; it is a great day in the lives of those of us who have been involved in this project; it is a unique day, because so far as I can tell never before has a Scroll of the Law which was unused for well over 100 years been brought back to life in the way that we are doing today.

The story of this scroll begins about 350 years ago in German Bohemia, today the Western part of the Czech Republic around Prague, when a scribe wrote our scroll in the way that has been traditional among Jews for thousands of years, and which is still used. It was written on parchment from a Kosher animal, using a quill pen, and using ink which the scribe himself would have made in accordance with the traditional recipe incorporating gall nuts, ferrous sulphate, gum Arabic and water.

The scribe would have viewed his task as being particularly sacred for he was writing the word of God, and before writing the name of God he would have immersed himself in a Mikveh, a ritual bath as a sign of purity, for he was a human vessel for Divine words.

A Torah scroll is written using only Hebrew consonants. The system of dots and dashes which indicate the vowel sounds, which appear on your service sheets today, and the various signs that set out the sequence of musical notes by which the Torah is chanted during the service, are both missing. It would have taken the scribe about a year to write the Torah scroll which contains the whole of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

Prague was a well-known area for the production of Torah scrolls, and this scroll would have been taken at some stage to Hamburg.  Around the year 1740 a group of families moved from Hamburg to Falmouth under the leadership of a man called Alexander Moses, known to history as Zender (a diminutive of Alexander) Falmouth. When he asked the community at Hamburg, then one of the largest and most important in Europe, for scrolls for his new community they would have agreed, possibly reluctantly, but are unlikely to have given him new ones.  Sifre Torah, Torah scrolls, are very precious and very valuable, and this scroll was probably already 100 years old.

The community of Falmouth flourished for about 140 years. The synagogue that they built in 1808, in what is now called Gyllyng Street, still stands although it was sold over a century ago, and is currently a private residence. The community involved itself in local life. Mainly they traded as ships chandlers but they were also involved in tin mining, and one leading figure in the 18th century was a well-known clockmaker. They acquired a cemetery at Ponsharden which is still extant.

By 1879 the community had come to an end and Samuel Jacob, a great-grandson of Zender Falmouth, took the Torah Scrolls and their silver adornments to his new congregation at Hampstead in London. There the scrolls remained until 1892. My guess is that the Hampstead Synagogue declined to repair them. Scrolls of the law when they are no longer repairable are buried in a Jewish cemetery and I think this is what the Hampstead Synagogue wished to do with the Falmouth Sifre Torah. Samuel Jacob, being made of sterner stuff, repossessed his Scrolls and deposited them with the Royal Institution of Cornwall where they slumbered peacefully until the year 2010.

About five years ago I was driving down to the West Country with my late wife when the person whom we refer to as the benefactor, and who wishes to remain anonymous, called me. The Benefactor suggested to me that we should try to persuade the Museum to give the emerging new Jewish community of Cornwall one of the scrolls for ritual use, and that the benefactor would meet the costs of refurbishment. I remember being very intrigued and at the same time thinking that it was probably impossible. Museums did not return artefacts, and a Sefer Torah that old would probably be well beyond the possibility of repair.

It was known that there were scrolls in the Museum. I remember my late father, who was the Minister of a synagogue in London, telling me about them in 1964 but as far as I can tell no one had a serious look at them until Leslie Lipert and I came to the Museum in April 2010. I believe I was possibly the first person with some professional knowledge of the subject who had visited the Royal Institution of Cornwall since 1892 to look at the scrolls.

Soon after that, my friend Bernard Benarroch the scribe who is here today, came down and in his report said that while normally it would not be economic to repair any of the scrolls, one of them could be repaired with difficulty but in view of the emotional significance of returning that scroll to Kehillat Kernow he was prepared to undertake the task.

Negotiations then ensued with the Museum, lead and driven for the community by Leslie Lipert, with the full support of his wife Pat to whose remarkable skills and knowledge much of the credit is due. In May 2013 the scroll was handed back by the Museum to Kehillat Kernow, and by December Bernard Benarroch had finished his holy task. This included replacing the wooden rollers, or Eitzei Chayim, Trees of Life, as they are known in Judaism.

There are new small silver plates on the top of each roller. On one it says “In Memory of the Congregants of the Falmouth Synagogue 1768-1879” and on the other “Kehillat Kernow Rededicated 2014-5774.”

Anne Hearle, a member of the community, then used her artistry and skill to design and create two mantles for the Sefer, one in white for the High Holyday services, and the other the beautiful blue one that we have seen today.

Its main emblem is a pomegranate, a symbol of faith and fruitfulness, used in the days of the Temple to adorn the robes of the High Priest. On the back of the mantle, Ann has placed the logo of Kehillat Kernow.

Another family gave the Yad, the silver pointer used when reading from the Torah.

It is worth remembering that these are not the only Hebrew artefacts in the Royal Museum of Cornwall although this is not to be construed as an attempt to get hold of them! One of the major benefactors of the Museum was Alfred de Pass, ultimately in 1920 a Vice-President of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, and among his benefactions are an exquisite scroll of the Book of Esther, also hand written on parchment with a beautifully carved ivory handle, an interesting Hebrew Pentateuch printed in Hamburg in 1663 and an Italian prayer book dating from 1751 in mint condition.

And so we come to today’s remarkable celebrations. As I have said to the best of my knowledge this is a unique occasion, but which also reflects the tolerance and mutual respect between religions in this country, which tolerance is an essential ingredient for a modern multi-faith civilization.

We have today brought together a scroll written in the time of the Stuarts, carried to this country during the reign of George II, put to sleep in the reign of Queen Victoria, and now resurrected in the reign of her great-great-granddaughter, our Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth. It brings together the last generation of the family which founded the Falmouth synagogue, and the generation that has resurrected Jewish life in Cornwall.

And that itself is quite remarkable. Jewish communities rarely resurrect, and for Jewish life in Cornwall to have re-emerged after such a long interval with the vigour that has been shown by Kehillat Kernow is unique. Much of this is due to the community’s founder and chairman, Harvey Kurzfield, whose leadership of this community which is widely spread both geographically and religiously, is worthy of the highest praise. Without Harvey’s efforts and achievements, aided and supported by Jacqueline, none of us would be here today.

And since we have now both finished one task, and begun a new one, let me conclude with my favourite blessing to my friends on these occasions.

The Torah relates that when the Tabernacle was finished, Moses went to inspect the structure,

Vayevarech Otam Moshe

“and Moses Blessed them”, (Exodus 39:43) but scripture does not give the text of the blessing.  The Rabbis however supply it; Moses said

Yehi Ratzon Shetishre Shechinah Bema’asey Yedeichem

“May it be Gd’s will that His SHECHINAH, His Divine Presence, should rest upon the work of your hands.”  (Rashi ad loc quoting Tanhuma)

Let that therefore be our prayer on this significant milestone, the rededication and reconsecration by Kehillat Kernow of a Sefer Torah first used in this Duchy of Cornwall almost three centuries ago, that in the years ahead as this wonderful congregation goes forward from strength to strength, that the Shechinah, Gd’s Divine presence, should rest upon the work of our hands, and be with us in all our undertakings.

AMEN

Jewish Community in Cornwall