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 the Jewish tradition must be sourced from a kosher animal - most commonly, sheep, goat and cow and for some, deer. The animal need not be killed through a sh'chitah / kosher slaughter . 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).
Today a single standard size Torah scroll is written on the skins of 62 fetal cows. 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 supple, i.e. easier to write on, than that of a full-grown cow. Almost 100% of the parchment used in the writing of Jewish sacred texts is manufactured in Israel from these skins. Most of these factories are family-owned, cottage industry. The Haredi (ultra-orthodox) parchment making family with whom I have been working for over 10 years, owners of parchment making facilities and a scribing supply store in Jerusalem, explains that Israeli parchment manufactures, like them, have contracts with packinghouses, mostly in Argentina and the US. I will add that 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 where animals are beefed up 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 preparing for slaughter.
The contracts are for the acquisition of fetus skins. About 2% of the cows brought to slaughter each day are pregnant and the skins of those fetuses meet 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.
How it is possible to 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 diminish in sanctity, in my opinion, when they are sourced from such animals living in such conditions.
For the past three years I have been working with a shochet / ritual slaughterer in southern Hevron hills of Israel and the West Bank who works with backyard and small farm, pasture-raised animals. He travels the country performing sh'chitot / ritual slaughter for these families and small farmers. We first met when I heard about the organic, pasture raised kosher meats he had available for sale. After hearing of my interest in changing this industry from the ground up and my need to find a source for skins, Jonathan agreed to bring me skins from these humanely raised animals - sheep, goats and cow - that I could in turn bring to the parchment making facilities for processing. It is my intention that these ethically sourced parchments will mark the beginning of a revolution in the Jewish world uniting communities' ethics and values with their practice of Jewish tradition in a way that has been overlooked for the past many 100s of years. Through my unexpected and expanding partnership with farmers, shochetim / slaughterers, parchment makers and Torah scribes, individuals and Jewish communities can now commission a Torah scroll to be written on the skins of these ethically sourced parchments.
What you see above is a photo documentation following the path of parchment making from the pasture to the store front and finally to the סופר סת״מ / scribe. Award winning photojournalist, Heidi Levine (these are all her photos), and I traversed the country in an effort to understand this ancient practice from the inside out. The trail covers a complex geography from a highly contested West Bank settlement to an insular Haredi yishuv / small community, to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem, to the west Jerusalem home of my contemporary minded, Orthodox scribing teacher and mentor of 18 years. Interviews accompany these images and will be added at a later date.
This work is story about the animals and the skins but it is also a story of the people and the tools and the sanctity behind the work they do.