Hundreds of fragments of sifrei Torah from different lands and many eras — all waiting to be studied and analyzed
Photos: Elchanan Kotler
"Reb Yehoshua, maybe you can help me.”
The man on the other end of the line sounded miserable. He was an elderly Persian dealer in sifrei Torah who would buy used scrolls, refurbish them, and resell them from his Meah Shearim storefront, but now he was stuck. He’d just spent a considerable sum on a sefer Torah an agent had assured him was a rare antique, but one interested buyer took a look and pronounced, “Something here doesn’t look right.”
The dealer called Rabbi Yehoshua Yankelewitz, an expert on sifrei Torah and the most arcane details of the world of sta”m, asking him if he could give the sefer Torah a look.
“It took me three minutes to determine that the sefer Torah was a fraud,” says Rabbi Yankelewitz. “The seller had expertly sewn together the yerios of various sifrei Torah that he’d acquired from a bunch of different locations and communities and passed it off as a valuable antique.”
The dealer despaired at all that lost money — but then Rabbi Yankelewitz threw him off guard with an unexpected offer to purchase it. The dealer was thrilled to recoup his thousand dollars after learning that the sefer Torah wasn’t worth anything as an antique, and Rabbi Yakelewitz had hit the jackpot too.
“This conman thought he was ripping off the dealer, but instead he had brought together perfect materials for my collection: dozens of yerios from around the world.”
When the dealer saw how happy Rabbi Yankelewitz was with this new find, he upped his price to $3,500. In the end, both of them got their treasure.
The Newer the Better
A person like Young, energetic Yehoshua Yankelewitz isn’t exactly who comes to mind when you envision a world expert on sifrei Torah and the halachic development of various scripts, or ksavim. He’s no stodgy, hunched-over collector, but a 30-something, friendly, and outgoing American avreich living in Bayit Vegan who takes the Jerusalem light rail to and from his kollel in the Old City every day. He also gives tours of the Old City, and runs a camp for American yeshivah boys every summer. Collecting scrolls, he says, “is really just my hobby.”
It’s a “hobby” that has taken over much of his life and garnered the attention of talmidei chachamim all over who are involved in sta”m and the halachic aspects of writing. Yet Rabbi Yankelewitz isn’t necessarily looking for antique treasures or whole ancient Torah scrolls. He’ll pounce on a piece of parchment of any sefer Torah, Megillah, or Navi scroll over a hundred years old, and he collects them from around the world. His gallery, he says, is really a service for scholars, who are invited to peruse the collection.
“They can sit there for hours studying what I have,” he says, explaining that his finds aren’t generally ancient collectors’ items, because that’s not his purpose. His purpose, he says, is to provide a real service to talmidei chachamim and students of sta”m. He prefers not to publicize the exact location or too many other technical details of the temperature-controlled, secured storeroom where his treasures rest , although it’s accessible to both scholars and laymen.
“An ancient sefer Torah might be valuable for a collector and would definitely give me great bragging rights, but a talmid chacham learning halachos of sta”m can’t put the kind of scroll into context because it’s so radically different. However, if you study a sefer Torah similar to today’s but written, say, 100 years ago in Gemany, you have something concrete to compare it to and can put it in a halachic context — the slight differences you can learn from, the radical differences you don’t really have a context for.”
His collection, interestingly, contains hundreds of folios of parchment but few complete sifrei Torah (although he somehow managed to acquire one complete sefer Torah thought to be written by the 17th-century Gedulei Terumah), and definitely nothing that would be kosher for Krias HaTorah.
“That’s because this collection isn’t a museum,” Rabbi Yankelewitz explains. “It’s really an educational center, the purpose of which is to reach a better understanding of the halachos of writing sifrei Torah and the opinions of the poskim over the generations.”
The yerios he’s collected come from an enormous range of kehillos, communities, and regions: Spain, Greece, Galicia, Germany, Yemen, Morocco, Bukhara, and on and on. Each yeria has its own unique attributes, including the style of calligraphy, the quality of the klaf, and the processing methods.
While some sifrei Torah are still well-preserved 600 years later, others at 100 years old are cracked and fading. But in general, he says, anything that’s been around and survived for hundreds of years in less than optimal conditions, will continue to survive another few hundred years. The one thing that can destroy the klaf is a drastic temperature change, so the place is controlled at a constant temperature and humidity. And the scrolls are never stored near the floor, where they could get ruined in the event of flooding.
He agrees that from an academic perspective, older is better, but for halachic benefit, that’s not always the case. “It’s much more meaningful if I have something from the time of the Rema and on, as opposed to something from the time of the Gemara, because we only understand the Gemara through the interpretation of the Rishonim, so any scrolls from before that are basically meaningless to a talmid chacham today.”
For example, he says, “a Yemenite sefer Torah from 700 years ago is so radically different from the contemporary sefer Torah, and you can’t really know anything about the sofer — it would be impossible to know if the sofer really knew what he was doing. But in a Torah from 400 years ago, I can show you the differences that have evolved based on the poskim.”
Also, he admits, ancient Torah scrolls aren’t even accessible unless you have a small fortune. “I’m interested in more accessible things that are within my budget.”
Rabbi Yankelewitz says he’s just “a regular yeshivish guy from Monsey.” As a bochur, he learned in yeshivos in Stamford, Connecticut and Paterson, New Jersey, then spent two years in Brisk in Jerusalem before his wedding nine years ago.
He says his interest in sifrei Torah began as a halachah project when he was a teenager. “I’m the type that once I start something, I want to know everything about it,” he admits. “If there’s an aspect of Yiddishkeit where there’s room for research, I’ve probably done it,” he says, crediting Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch of the Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn for giving him the confidence to pursue halachic projects even as a young bochur, when he embarked on a project to collect the Avnei Choshen — the stones on the Kohein Gadol’s breastplate.
That’s how, at a young age, he became known as the “techeiles guy,” and today one of the yeshivah world’s foremost experts on wearing techeiles on the tzitzis of a tallis katan or tallis gadol. He was in third-year beis medrash in Paterson when he discussed the sugyos with Rav Yisrael Belsky ztz”l, who eventually had his own tallis katan made by Rabbi Yankelewitz, and who became a known proponent of using the techeiles dye extracted from the Murex snail, thought by many to be the mysterious “chilazon” techeiles source in ancient times. It wasn’t long before Yehoshua began giving his own lectures on the subject in the Tristate area and beyond.
“Many of my rebbeim either wore techeiles or eventually started to,” he says. He even tied techeiles on the tallis of Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg ztz”l.
He was just 17 when he began delving into the examination of old sifrei Torah.
“The person who got me started and gave me the background was a sofer in Monsey named Rabbi Shmuel Schneid,” he relates. “Today we have two major ksav styles — Ashkenazi and Sephardi — and within the Ashkenazi style, there’s the ksav Beis Yosef and the ksav Arizal. But what Rabbi Schneid showed me, which was an eye-opener, was that there used to be an older Ashkenazi ksav that predated the current one we have, and that’s the one the Rishonim were referring to.
“I started analyzing how the ksav gradually shifted from this old Ashkenazi ksav to the contemporary ksav, how one part of a letter gradually got longer, another part got shorter, and so on. And eventually, but using these and other indicators, I was able to develop a system that tells me roughly when any Ashkenazi ksav was written.”
The Sephardi ksavim, he notes, are harder to date, because they didn’t really change over the past 700 years.
The very first item Yehoshua acquired for his collection when he was still a bochur was an old Megillas Esther that he discovered in the yeshivah in Stamford. He noticed that the ksav was atypical and faxed scans of it to Mishmeres Stam, which issued a verdict that was a bit shocking: It seems that the Megillah came from a supposed safrus factory in the Belarussian town of Slonim from where the products were exported to the US. The problem was that the workers were mechallelei Shabbos, with invalidated the kashrus of the Megillah.
“The yeshivah told me I could take it. Today it’s still on my shelf.”
And where did he find his first parchment folio of a sefer Torah?
“It was one column of an old Torah, and believe it or not, I bought it for peanuts on eBay.”
Cut and Paste
In Rabbi Yankelewitz’s collection, everything comes from somewhere, although he’s not at liberty to divulge too many details, especially when it comes to some of the heart-stopping adventures he’ll only hint at — like the time he had to jump out the window and into his getaway car to the airport during negotiations with a dealer in a particular eastern country when police came banging on the door.
He does mention the well-known Breslover askan Reb Nachum Karlinsky, who is well-connected around Ukraine and beyond, and has accompanied and aided Rabbi Yankelewitz in locating caches of old folios.
One new acquisition he’s especially excited about, which he just received this past week, is a sefer Torah that he says seems to have been put together by some underground minyan under the communists.
“It was literally put together by cut and paste,” says Rabbi Yankelewitz. “They took pieces of old sifrei Torah they found, glued them together, and filled in the missing sections with ballpoint pen. I got a message about it from a Chabad shaliach in Ukraine, who contacted me about whether the scroll could be refurbished for use or should be discarded. So I sponsored someone to go to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, and the deal was that he’d bring me back the Torah, which was sent from the village to another city, and from there to Uman.”
Of course, none of those adventures or acquisitions would have been made possible without a sponsor, and while Rabbi Yankelewitz won’t divulge too many details about that either, he will say that his generous benefactor shares his love of old parchments and scrolls.
He says he actually owes his brother, a rosh kollel, for making the connection.
Every year, his brother would send the kollel donors a creative mishloach manos, and one year, Yehoshua hit on an idea: Yehoshua thought it would be special to present them with an arrangement of the Kohein Gadol’s breastplate stones, arranged in a dramatic setting created by his sister, proprietor of “The Beadery” in Lakewood. As it turned out, one donor was so touched by the gesture that he asked to meet the man behind it.
When they met, the two immediately recognized kindred spirits — even though the donor was a middle-aged gvir and Yehoshua was a young newlywed. As they talked about sifrei Torah, the donor decided to test Yankelewitz’s knowledge and showed him some pictures.
Right around that time, a number of Jewish families had been rescued from Yemen, some of whom had gone to Israel and some to America. Upon their departure, they were able to smuggle out a sefer Torah that they claimed was nearly 1,000 years old. The donor showed Yehoshua scans of the sefer Torah and asked him what he thought about the whole story.
“It didn’t take much effort,” Rabbi Yankelewitz remembers. “I was able to point out to him several details that proved beyond doubt that the sefer Torah was no more than 200 years old, maybe 300 at a very generous estimate.”
Never Too Young
Within the world of safrus and sifrei Torah, people know that Rabbi Yankelewitz is an address for anything out of the ordinary.
“There’s a big sofer in Lakewood, Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Leizerson, who knows that if something comes in that looks interesting, he should call me. And recently a well-known yungerman bought a sefer Torah at an auction, sight unseen, but he thought he’d risk it, and if it were pasul, he’d be able to fix it up. He asked to store it by me, but when I took a look, I saw that it was just a collection of random yerios that were pieced together. He was quite disappointed, but he deposited it by me to at the very least to use as an educational tool.”
Still, sometimes a little kid can notice things even a big expert might miss. Rabbi Yankelewitz tells of an old Yemenite sefer Torah that he had in his house for analysis. While it was there, a young boy in the neighborhood asked if he could come and take a look.
“The Yemenite sifrei Torah are still made out of leather as opposed to the thinner klaf, and usually have indentations marking off the esnachta pauses in the leather. This boy noticed that in this particular scroll there were tiny dots marking them — something that I (and other experts) had totally missed, meaning that it was dated even earlier than had been assumed. The truth is,” Rabbi Yankelewitz explains, “the Yemenite scrolls usually have this minimal punctuation, because they don’t have a baal korei — everyone who gets an aliyah reads himself — sometimes boys as young as six years old! — and this helps guide them.”
And like the neighbor, says the rabbi, it’s never too young to start. “My eight-year-old is probably the only kid in the world who reviews Chumash using a pre-Expulsion Spanish sefer Torah. I actually have one. This Torah made it from a community in Spain to Italy, then to Bulgaria, and eventually it wound up in Israel in a kehillah that became secular, where it was purchased by a Yemenite dealer I know who felt it was too old and fragile to fix up. It’s not kosher, but it’s one of my most special possessions.”
Down to Business
Rabbi Yankelewitz says that in his business, not much shocks him these days, but the phone call from the gabbai of a prominent Jerusalem rebbe was a bit of a surprise. The gabbai said the Rebbe wanted to consult with him, and a car was soon waiting outside his home.
It seems that one of the Rebbe’s relatives was in dire financial straits, and a few of the chassidim had an idea: The relative in question owned a sefer Torah passed down as an inheritance from one of his ancestors, also a great rebbe. The chassidim would purchase the sefer Torah from him for a huge sum and thus relieve him of his debts and even leave him with a decent profit, while the Rebbe would take possession of a treasured heirloom handed down from one of his great forebears.
When Rabbi Yankelewitz entered the Rebbe’s room, the Rebbe was waiting for him with the sefer Torah and wanted his professional opinion: Did the sefer indeed belong to the period it was attributed to, which would appear to confirm that it was an heirloom handed down from their great ancestor, or was it just an old sefer Torah?
Rabbi Yankelewitz pored over the sefer for some time, examining the letters, the klaf and other signs that he’s learned over the years. At length he answered in the negative. In his opinion, the sefer Torah had not been handed down from the tzaddik in question.
The Rebbe, surprised, asked him for an explanation of his reasoning.
“We began a long conversation,” Rabbi Yankelewitz relates. “And to be honest, I was quite amazed by the Rebbe’s mastery of the relevant sugyos, as well as his historical knowledge. But the Rebbe heard my reasoning and ultimately accepted my opinion. The sefer Torah wasn’t purchased — and a family heirloom became nonexistent.”
Rabbi Yankelewitz can’t resist sharing what happened next. He mustered up the nerve to ask the Rebbe if he’d agree to pose together for a picture, together with Rabbi Yankelewitz’s laptop in the background. He told the Rebbe, “It would really be good for my business.”
The Rebbe smiled and answered, “Yes, but not for mine…”
Yisrael Koenig contributed to this report
If you are aware of stray yerios, parts of sifrei Torah, megillos, or other texts on klaf that are in disuse or destined for genizah, you’re welcome to contact Rabbi Yehoshua Yankelewitz at firstname.lastname@example.org. You might be holding a treasure.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
Oops! We could not locate your form.