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Torah-Writing Robot Speeds Past Human Scribes

Jewish Museum Berlin displays device that flawlessly produces Torah scrolls

Isabel Fattal
July 11, 2014
Robot installation at the Jewish Museum Berlin writes Torah scrolls. ( © robotlab)
Robot installation at the Jewish Museum Berlin writes Torah scrolls. ( © robotlab)

Life would be so much easier if we had robots to take care of our most arduous, time-consuming tasks, right? A new installation at the Jewish Museum Berlin takes that notion one step further, questioning whether a robot’s usefulness can extend beyond basic errands to one of the most sacred Jewish traditions: the act of writing a Torah scroll.

The Torah-writing robot, presented for the first time this week at the Berlin museum, uses the human writing tools of pen and ink without requiring the bathroom or lunch breaks a human scribe might. The result is an incredible increase in speed: according to the Associated Press, the robot can complete a 260-foot long Torah scroll—which contains 304,805 Hebrew letters—in about three months. A human scribe, known as a sofer, needs about one year to complete a full Torah scroll.

However, the work produced by the robot is not fit for use in a synagogue. Berlin Rabbi Reuven Yaacobov explained the qualifications of a “kosher” Torah: “In order for the Torah to be holy, it has to be written with a goose feather on parchment, the process has to be filled with meaning and I’m saying prayers while I’m writing it.”

The distinctions between the mechanical scribe and its human counterpart are explored in the Jewish Museum’s exhibit, called “The Creation of the World,” which focuses on the importance of text to the Jewish tradition and features an assortment of Hebrew manuscripts. Juxtaposing innovation with tradition, Yaacobov himself sits in a nearby room of the exhibit, writing a traditional Torah scroll by hand with a quill pen.

The creators of the Torah-writing robot, German artist group robotlab, see this duality as an essential part of their work; a description of the installation on the Jewish Museum’s website states that, “While the Sofer guarantees the sanctity of the Scripture, the installation highlights its industrial reproducibility.”

The robot will be on display at the Jewish Museum in Berlin through January 2015. The Creation of the World exhibit will be on display until August 3.

Isabel Fattal, a former intern at Tablet Magazine, attends Wesleyan University.

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