Navigate to Community section

Tiny Torahs

How miniature versions of the Five Books of Moses became a fixture of children’s Simchat Torah celebrations

Jenna Weissman Joselit
September 28, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

Topl Tutaritu was the proudest boy in his synagogue, maybe even the proudest boy in all the land. No one else’s flag came close to matching the liveliness of the big yellow one he sported for Simchat Torah, which featured an image of open-mouthed lions on one side and drawings of Moses and Aaron on the other. No one else’s came close to matching the expertly whittled piece of wood to which the youngster had attached his flag, the ruddiness of the apple that perched proudly at the stick’s end, or the luminosity of the candle that flickered within. The flags of his friends, Topl thought to himself as he surveyed the competition, “weren’t even close! They had no business even being in the same room with mine.”

It didn’t take long before Topl got his comeuppance when a mean-spirited boy named Nahum burns his prized possession. “If a rock had fallen from the sky and struck me on the head, if a tiger had pounced on me—I would have been no more shocked than I was as I watched my pretty flag going up in smoke,” Topl exclaimed. “A cry tore out of my heart: ‘Oh, my flag … my flag … my flag …’ Tears poured from my eyes. The whole world grew dark.”

After a good cry, Topl picked himself up and dusted himself off, resolving to end his tale of woe on a happy and hopeful note: Next year’s Simchat Torah flag would be even bigger and better.

There’s no need to shed any tears of your own for the hapless Topl Tutaritu. The protagonist of a Sholem Aleichem short story, circa 1900, called in English “The Simchas Torah Flag,” (“Di fon” in Yiddish), he didn’t really exist. But the object that caused him both pleasure and grief was real enough.

Largely an Eastern European phenomenon, at least since the 18th century, Simchat Torah flags like the one proudly carried by Topl grew markedly in popularity over the years. Jewish communal regulations, eyewitness accounts, the pages of printers’ sample books and postcards made in Vilna and Warsaw and later still, in the Holy Land, attest to the increasingly prominent place they held for Jewish children in the Old Country and in the yishuv, too.

Though fragile and flammable, a surprisingly large number of Simchat Torah flags has survived over the years. Now prized by Judaica collectors, they figured recently in a lively exhibition, “The Flags of Simchat Torah,” which was mounted by the Eretz Israel Museum of Tel Aviv: a testament, writes the exhibition curator, Nitza Behroozi Baroz, to their “significant place in the Jewish visual world.”

In the United States, Jewish children could obtain a free holiday flag from their Hebrew school, which purchased them in bulk from the Hebrew Publishing Co., or from Barton’s Bonbonniere, whose colorful outposts could be found in major cities in the Northeast. Simchat Torah flags were also available at Shillito’s, the Cincinnati department store. Printed on “fine paper,” the 8 1/2-inch by 10-inch flag was “brilliantly illustrated” with the phrase “Be Glad and Rejoice on Simchat Torah,” rendered in Hebrew on one side, and with the banners of the ancient Israelite tribes on the other.

Barton’s, alas, is no longer with us, nor is Shillito’s. As for the flags, they’re still to be had, but are not nearly as popular as they had once been. The specter of insurance liability now hovers over Simchat Torah, awakening concern lest the flags poke out an eye, and prompting their gradual disappearance from the sanctuary.

Miniaturized Torahs have taken their place. In lieu of brandishing a flag, the pint size among us can now be found bearing pint-size Torah scrolls as they march gaily around the sanctuary on Simchat Torah. Measuring 5 inches by 7 inches tall, these “plasticized and metallicized” objects, as Danny Levine, the fourth-generation proprietor of J. Levine Books & Judaica, characterizes them, are mass produced in Taiwan or India and have been stocked by his long-running family business “for ages.”

J. Levine and religious-articles shops like it, once thick on the ground on the Lower East Side, were not the only venues for those American Jews in search of a holiday treat. As early as 1893, Bloomingdale’s—yes, Bloomingdale’s!—carried a “peculiarly appropriate New Year’s gift”: a “miniature Sefer Torah or Scroll of the Law,” whose authenticity was vouchsafed as follows: “It contains the Five Books of Moses taken from the original. Though miniature in form, it is correct in every respect, each Torah is covered with a satin cloak, similar to those used in the synagogue, and packed in a neat box.”

The department store’s “holiday speciality” didn’t come cheap. Priced at $1 (the equivalent of $27 today), it caught the attention of the American Hebrew, which both advertised and commented on this “exact photographic representation of an original [Torah].” “It is well worth having for its own value as well as a curiosity,” the weekly noted encouragingly.

Those less inclined, or in no position, to shell out a hefty sum of money for a novelty item had another option: They could trust to their children’s religious school teachers to see to the making of a child-friendly Torah scroll. The only thing instructors had to do was to follow the directions carefully laid out in texts such as Rose Golub’s teacher’s guide to Hillel’s Happy Holidays.

A Jewish children’s book written by Mamie S. Gamoran and published by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1939, its chirpy prose sang the praises of the Jewish calendar; Golub’s teacher’s guide, in turn, provided the know-how. Instructions for concocting a homemade sefer Torah for use on Simchat Torah, that “jolliest” of Jewish festivals, entailed Scotch tape, thumbtacks, ribbons, construction paper, bits of wood and “any piece of material found around the house.” There was nothing to it.

Miniature Torahs were no modern-day invention or the creative effusions of Hebrew school teachers: They have a history, one that stretches back several centuries. Small scale scrolls, utilized by travelling merchants and rabbinical emissaries from the Holy Land, or, on occasion, intended as a very special bar mitzvah gift, were of a piece with what Harvard University professor David Stern calls the Jewish “predilection for micrography.” External factors, among them a European craze for “tiny volumes” prized for their “minuteness,” he writes, enhanced their appeal. Examples of bona fide miniature Torahs from the 18th and 19th centuries can be found in the collections of the Rosenbach Library and Museum in Philadelphia and Temple Emanu-El in New York.

What is unmistakably new are the means of production as well as distribution. Where miniaturized Torah scrolls were once rare, painstakingly crafted—calligraphed by hand on parchment—and cherished by traditional Jews, their modern day descendants are mass produced, their texts photocopied on paper; kosher, they’re not.

Contemporary Orthodox Jews tend to stay clear of these mini Torahs lest they be confused with the real deal or run the risk of being treated too cavalierly and improperly, trampling on the Torah’s symbolic power. Reform Jews, in contrast, buy them in droves. “Among the more progressive, liberal communities,” Danny Levine reports, the “mini Torah is a product that sells itself.”

Its good fortune is bound up with consecration, a ceremony introduced in the 1920s by Rabbi Samuel Wohl of Cincinnati, Ohio, in an attempt to “make the last day of Succoth effective in the life of the community.” Toward that end, youngsters aged 5 and 6 who were just about to enter religious school participated in a “beautiful religious spectacle” in which they were showered with blessings, as their parents and grandparents, filling the sanctuary “to the last seat,” tearily looked on. This “new ritual in the synagogue,” observed Rabbi Louis I. Newman a few years later in the pages of the American Israelite, “is winning favor everywhere.”

At first, each of the “tiny tots” in pairs of two walked down the aisle carrying a floral bouquet. A lovely sight to behold, this practice didn’t always sit well with some of the boys, one of whom told his grandfather that bearing a bunch of flowers was “too much like being a girl.” By the late 1940s and early ’50s, he and his buddies had nothing to worry about. Flowers had given way to tiny Torah scrolls, fueling a steady demand that continues unabated today.

Where flowers wilt, the Torah, hopefully, does not. Even so, many a mini Torah ended up forgotten and discarded in a drawer somewhere (“How did that get there?”). Some also managed to find their way into the holdings of the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, where their presence is duly noted in a database and safeguarded for possible use in a future exhibition.

These days, mini Torahs come in yet another new iteration: soft sculpture. “It’s warm, it’s fuzzy, and cuddly. No, it’s not a new puppy, it’s your child’s My Soft Torah,” enthuses a Judaica website that features “plush Torahs” ranging in size from 17 inches to a “jumbo”-sized one, which stands 24 inches tall.

Available in “assorted colors,” some come embroidered with traditional images of the Ten Commandments, a Torah crown, and two lions. A happy face accompanied by a smattering of Hebrew letters adorns more fanciful, lighthearted versions. Though one parent complained that the soft Torah she had purchased for her baby was too large to hang from the mobile atop the crib, most seemed pleased with their purchase. “Not only did [my son] dance and parade with it,” said one satisfied consumer. “He sleeps with it, too.”

Miniaturization is a mixed blessing. When a sacred object is cut down in size and transformed into a commodity as well as a plaything, something of its sanctity gets lost. Then again, what it loses in aura might well be offset by gains in accessibility.

What do you think Topl would say?

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.