Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
February 2006

Preservation of Parchment

On February 4, 2006 the Orthodox Union had a conference for Gabbai'im that I attended via a web cast. Rabbi Tzvi Chaim Pincus of Tiferes Stam made a presentation called "Recognizing a Pasul Sefer Torah." [1] I would like to expand some of his thoughts as connected to the physical preservation of Torah scrolls. Rabbi Pincus related a story of a ceremony made by a synagogue completing and dedicating a new sefer torah. As the scroll was lifted and turned for everyone to see one woman yelled, "That Torah is not new; look at all that brown dirt on the back. All the other sefire Torah we own are white." After the rabbi assured her the Torah was indeed new and written especially for the shul, the sofer (scribe) started to explain why this Torah had brown markings and was not white. The brown markings were part of the natural coloring of the hide.

There are several environmental enemies of all organic materials including the parchment of the Torah scrolls and the paper of books. Some of these enemies were not known 40, 50 or more years ago. The first papers used for the printing of books were made from rags. When a shortage of rags developed in the late 18th century, papermakers were forced to search for other sources of vegetable fibers. The first successful substitute for linen and cotton fibers appeared in the 1860's when wood pulp was used in commercial production of papers for book and newspaper publication. The wood pulp paper was much less expensive than rag fiber papers. By the 1880's this kind of paper became very wide spread. The term, "pulp fiction" originated from the source of the paper used to make these inexpensive books. One big problem with this paper was that it yellowed very rapidly. It was not until the 1940's that acid used in the paper's production was discovered as the source of the fragility of the paper.

Internal acid was the main problem for paper made from wood pulp. Today we have the option of acid-free or acid neutralized papers. Environmental acid (i.e. air pollution) is the source of problems for the preservation of sifrei Torah. In early part of the 20th century coal was a major source of fuel for heating homes and businesses. The burning of coal released sulfur dioxide(SO2) into the atmosphere which combined with water vapor to produce sulfurous acid H2SO3 and then becomes sulfuric acid H2SO4. This acid attacks all kinds of organic materials. The damage starts as bleaching and later breaks down the fiber structure. A fine dust on the surface is the indication of this damage in progress. Since the acid is very weak the materials take a long time to show damage.

Preparing Parchment

The source for the skin is from kosher animals slaughtered for meat. After skinning the animal, the skin is soaked in water and lime is used to help removed the hair. The skin can be made into either leather or parchment. Leather is a flexible sheet material. Its structure, of interwoven, three-dimensional network of fibers makes it an excellent material for clothes, shoes, and book covers because of its strength and flexibility. In general, the younger the animal at time of slaughter the thinner the hide, the smaller surface area, the smoother and finer the grain structure, and the less likelihood of damage due to disease, injury, or insects.

When leather is used in clothing, the problems of acid deterioration are on no consequence because the material wears out or is outgrown before the acid damage is evident. When used as a book binding material its softness and strength add beauty and elegance to a book, while its chemical nature gives it the ability to adhere well to paper, and other materials used for the cover boards. As a book binding material it needs care [2] to maintain its beauty, softness, and strength. A Torah scroll may be written on leather, but the resulting scroll will be very heavy and few people will be able to lift it.

Parchment is prepared by soaking the hide in a lime solution and then scraping to remove the hair. The skin is dried under tension on a wooden frame without using any metal to hold the skin. The metal would discolor the parchment. While drying more lime is applied to remove moisture and grease. The surface is smoothed with a tool and may to sanded or rubbed with pumice for additional smoothness. Even after this treatment the hair side is still distinguishable because it is rougher and has more color than the flesh side. Torah scrolls are written on the flesh side.

In previous times the hair side of the parchment was white washed. That is why the woman thought the new Torah was not white enough. This white wash is the source of two problems. First it adds weight and bulk to the scroll; second it flakes off. The white wash falls off as a white powder more readily than the ink of the letters. Since the while wash is lime based and is alkaline, the parchment is "protected" from the acid in the air for several years. But the acid causes the wash to become a powder. This powder comes off on the letters and can at first glance cause the reader to think the Torah is pasul (unfit for reading.) That problem is solved with a gentle blowing or a soft brush. While theoretically the Torah can be chemically cleaned and the whiteness restored, this processing is rarely done. Sometimes a clear coating of shellac is used to prevent further deterioration of the letters. I am not sure if this is good long term solution or just a temporary stop gap measure.

The Torah scrolls being written today are much smaller in physical size and weight than the scrolls many people remember from years ago. This is because most are written on parchment made from calf skin. Since calves are smaller than full grown cows, the amount of parchment for one piece is smaller. The size of the parchment is about 16-19 inches compared to older scrolls of about 24 inches. Parchment made from calves is thinner and lighter weight than parchment from older animals.

The term vellum is sometimes uses synonymously with parchment, but there is a technical difference. Vellum is generally a finer product produced from the skin of calves. Parchment may be from sheep, goat, or cow skin. Both parchment and vellum are produced in the same way. The finest vellum is produced from fetal [3] calves because it has the fewest flaws and is also most expensive to produce. Based on this definition, modern Torah scrolls are written on vellum.

The other enemies of Torah scrolls are heat and humidity. Many Torah scrolls in warm climates show signs of deterioration after as few as ten years, while scrolls in northern climates are usable for more than 150 years.[4] All organics have moisture in them. The water expands and contracts with changes in the temperature. This causes letters to flake off. Rabbi Pincus mentioned two additional sources of unwanted moisture-- saliva from the Torah reader or the one called to the Torah. Liquid water may cause the letters to be smudged or act as a source or medium for the growth of bacteria or mold. We must be very careful to never allow the parchment to get wet. Someone kissing the sefer Torah must take care to never get saliva on the Torah letters. The reader must be careful not to expel saliva. Since mold can grow on any surface, [5] heat and humidity must be controlled to prevent mold growth. In warm climates special precautions must be taken. Not only is the mold harmful to the scroll it is the source of allergic reactions or symptoms in people.

While parchment is more resistant to tearing than paper, it is much more sensitive to the environment than paper. In designing an aron hakodesh (cabinet for the scrolls) care must be taken to ensure ideal storage conditions. The best conditions are temperatures between 4 and 20 C. (40 and 68 F.), with a relative humidity of 50 to 65%. It is best to keep the temperature as constant as possible. Under no circumstances should parchment be allowed to freeze, become wet, or allowed to dry out. That means in very dry climates and in winter moisture must be added to the air. In cold climates the scrolls should be in heated rooms. Rabbi Pincus described a synagogue with an aron hakedesh (Closet to hold the scrolls) that had the sun shining on it. The sun on the aron was impressive and beautiful, but it baked the parchment causing premature aging. Frequently the aron hakedesh is on an outside wall that creates temperatures more extreme than the rest of the room. Care must be taken for climate control purposes. In extreme climate conditions a heating-air conditioning vent may need to be added.

Another interesting case of Torah conservation occurs when the actual scroll is no longer fit for use in the synagogue, but a library or museum wants to keep it and display it for historical reasons. Even after the scroll can no longer be read during services, it is part of the historical legacy of the community. Since the parchment still has kedusha (holiness) attached to it, one needs to figure out how to preserve it. I know libraries have these scrolls and so do some synagogues and museums. Since very few trained conservators are Jewish, one would hope that non-Jewish curators would know that the parchment from Torah scrolls, mezuzot, and tephillan need special reverence. This kind of conservation project would take a team consisting of a sofer (trained scribe), librarian, and a person trained in the technical aspects of preservation. I leave this for further study.

As always, I welcome comments and ideas for future columns.


1. Recognizing a Torah scroll that is not fit for use in the synagogue.

2. Leather requires treatments to be preserved. This treatment includes potassium lactate mixed with distilled water and mold inhibiter and/or oils such as lanolin. See Cleaning and preserving bindings and related materials, by Carolyn Horton. American Library Association, 1969, for more information.

3. Uterine or fetal vellum was produced as early as the 13th century. Vellum was sometimes used for a limp covering for books in the 16th and 17th centuries and in later years as a covering for stiff book boards. Today those vellum bindings, unless they received expert care, are curled and in otherwise poor condition.

4. I have never seen any documentation on the ages of Torah scrolls. Only in very recent years have synagogues registered their scrolls. My synagogue did this only within the past 9 months. Since the scrolls themselves have no colophons with dates or information on the scribes, internal dating is not possible.

5. After floods and water from fire fighting, extra care must be taken to avoid mold damage. That is the subject of another paper. I have heard of mold damage on Torah scroll as far north as a synagogue in Milwaukee. I don't know the details of how the mold grew or how they solved the problem.

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 © 2006 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised February 9, 2006