Ethical Parchment Making

A single standard size Torah scroll is written on the skins of 62 cows. And not full grown cows - fetuses. Why fetuses? How fetuses?

A background note: The skin of kosher animals that is used for the writing of a sefer Torah and any of the other sacred writings (mezuzah and tefillin) in Jewish customs must come from a kosher animal. However, the animal need not die through a kosher slaughter. There are 100’s of laws that outline what makes a slaughtering process kosher. We call these the laws of shchitah.

Why fetuses? One can think about it like this: Veal is meat that comes from a newborn calf who is penned up from birth so as to prevent the growth of muscle tissue thereby preserving the suppleness of the meat. Similarly, the skin of a fetus is much more soft and supple, i.e. easier to write on, than that of a full-grown cow. This answers “Why”. Now let’s talk about “How?”

Althought fish skin is ritually pure, we don’t write on it because of the filth, which does not come away during processing. The skin of an embryo counts as skin for this purpose, and we may write sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezzuzot on it. This is the best kind of skin. After that, bird skin followed by the skin of wild animals, the skin of domesticated beasts and animals which died naturally. (translated from Keset HaSofer by Jen Taylor Freedman).

Almost 100% of the parchment used in the writing of Jewish sacred texts is manufactured in Israel.  Most of these factories are family-owned, cottage industry.  The parchment making family with whom I have been working for 10 years, owners of seven factories in Israel and a scribing supply store, explains it like this. Parchment manufactures have contracts with packinghouses, mostly in Argentina and the US.  These are the sort of slaughterhouses that do not let outsiders visit.  The kind of places like we heard about and “saw” in Food Inc.  These are packinghouses whereanimals live in horrific conditions, often standing shoulder high in their own feces, crowded and fed substandard diets with fillers, sugar candies and other unfit substances for growing cows. 

The contract is for the acquisition of fetus skins.  About 2% of the cows brought to slaughter each day are pregnant and the skin of those fetuses meets the market demand for scribes.  So, the parchment makers have contracts with the packing houses who put aside these skins for them until about 500 skins are salvaged in a month’s time.  These frozen skins are then shipped in giant freezer containers to the factories in Israel where they will be processed into parchment for the purpose of writing sacred texts. 

The making of parchment is according to very strict religious law and the highest standard ofcraftsmanship.  These parchments are the raw material for one of the most sanctified customs of the Jewish people – the writing of sacred texts for use in public and private spaces.

The problem?  How can we ignore the par between the way these animals are raised and the sacred texts we are writing on their skins?  Torah scrolls – the most sanctified text and object of the Jewish people, mezzuzot – the prayer amulet hung on the doorpost of a Jewish home which contains the core prayer of the Jewish people and tefillin – the prayer phylacteries worn on the forearm and forehead during weekday morning prayers lose their sanctity, in my opinion,  when they are sourced from such animals living in such conditions. 


Rabbi and scribe, Linda Motzkin is doing it another way.  Linda lives in upstate NY.  She shares a pulpit with her husband Rabbi Jonathan Rubinstein.  Jonathan’s other “job” is Slice of Heaven Breads, a not-for-profit bakery he owns and operates. Linda’s other part time job is her Community Torah Project, a project through which she is, preparing parchment, ink and quills and writing a sefer Torah for her congregation with the partnership of the thousands of people she has interested in this project.   Together, Jonathan and Linda are Bread and  

It is Linda’s parchment making that inspires me.  Linda gets her skins from local deer hunters.  (I remind the reader that skins must come from a kosher animal but not necessarily one who died in a kosher slaughter – historically skins have come from sheep, goats, deer and cow).  Deer skins are wonderful because they are supple at any age and very smooth and enjoyable to write on.   Scribes are reaching for this same effect with the cow skins and find it in the fetus skins.

How can we let people know about the par between the lives of the animals and the sacred writing we do on their skins?  

How can we call these works sacred objects, if we live with this par?  What will it take to change the industry? How can we engage the arts in expressing the need for change?  How can we get people personally and emotionally invested in change? 

These are the questions that drive my interest in a future work on this topic.  I have begun by turning to the texts of the ancient Rabbis and by examining the current situation.  I am co-authoring an expose to be published in major Jewish papers in America and Israel.  I have begun to establish connections with independent ritual slaughterers and small farmers in Israel and abroad who can supply the skins.  And I have garnered the interest and support of young, Jewish social activists in America.  The goal– training a cadre of parchment makers and developing acommunity sustained, cottage industry of our own.