Thursday, November 07, 2019
A couple hundred bucks can get you a variety of things on Goodwill's online store: Tory Burch boots; a metal detector; a Burberry duffle; a collection of Furbies.
Oh, and a Torah.
Until Tuesday, you could bid for a scroll — sacred, if tattered — at ShopGoodwill.com. First listed at $200, bidders quickly pushed the price to $456.
You've heard of the Gutenberg Bible? Call this the Goodwill Torah.
Its story is full of mystery and unanswered questions. It involves a donor possibly shrouded in priestly robes; an iconic Southern town known for its colonial reenactment; a Ukrainian village whose Jews were nearly all killed by the Nazis; and an anonymous buyer who thought he could flip the Torah for a profit. Three days of dogged investigation have yielded a detailed accounting of the Torah's last three months, but virtually no solid clues of its age, provenance, or rightful ownership.
"There's gotta be someone out there that is missing this Torah and wants it back," said Mordechai Sidell, the Website manager for a Hasidic synagogue in New Jersey whose connection to this story will be explained in good time.
The Torah came to Goodwill late one evening this August, when a man wearing a cassock donated it to a store in, of all places, Williamsburg, Va., where colonial times are still unfolding. No one at the store even realized what it was, because the nearly four-foot tall Torah was wrapped in a nondescript comforter, bundled with other unremarkable textiles, and left in the back room overnight, said Michael Luckey, the manager of the store.
The next morning, employees discovered the scroll, clothed in a traditional mantle of dark-blue velvet embroidered with the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, flanked by two golden lions. Above the tablets is a large crown, and the words keter Torah: the crown of the Torah. Underneath is one word, the name of a town in Ukraine.
The staff knew the item was Jewish, but that was all. They stuck a $500 price tag on it and put it with the other oversized items, next to a music mixing board that may have come from a recording studio.
"It's obviously not something that you see appear at a Goodwill store," Luckey said.
Indeed, a Torah is not something you generally see outside a synagogue or school.
Told this odd story, Jesse Abelman, the curator of Hebraica and Judaica at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., said he has never before heard of a Torah showing up, origins unknown, in a secular setting in the United States.
Torahs are valuable, sacred objects that take a trained scribe about a year's work to produce. If even one of the more than 300,000 Hebrew characters in the scroll is inked to the parchment improperly, it is considered unkosher — unusable. So while a used Torah can sell for $13,000, a new Torah can cost more than $40,000, and some with historical value have been auctioned for up to a quarter of a million dollars.
Though they contain the five books of Moses, such scrolls are not used for regular study, generally only for ritual reading a few times each week. They are kept in special armoires known as an aron kodesh, or holy ark. When ferried from place to place, they are supposed to be carried angled toward the right shoulder, wrapped in a prayer shawl. Tradition dictates that if a Torah is dropped, everyone who sees it hit the floor must fast during daylight hours for 40 days.
And yet the Goodwill Torah has appeared out of nowhere, and been handled not unlike your grandmother's china or last year's overcoat.
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