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Stupid colored parchment backgrounds on digital Torah text

May 24, 2010

Why do some computer developers put colored backgrounds behind the text of Torah, other Bible texts and even prayers in the siddur? It’s almost ironic, given the efforts of Torah scribes in the past.

I recently purchased the $3.99 Tanach for all application (iPad and iPhone) written by Yanaf Kalsky. It has some very useful features, such as bookmarks, and offers users a selectable view with Hebrew vowels and trope marks.

But the default view is with a tan, textured background Kalsky calls Parchment. In the settings, you can select a variety of themes: white & black, beige, parchment,gray, black & white (some say this more legible but I’ve never bought that argument), and black & gold.

What is up with the colored backgrounds? It can’t help the reading of the text. It must be some emotional thing. But it’s amusing, since there have been efforts by some schools of scribes to make the Torah parchment whiter, not beiger.

Because we’re so used to paper, we may forget that the Torah scroll is written on specially-treated leather. It’s an animal skin that can show natural variations in colors. Sofers, scribes, write the letters of Torah on the “inside” of the skin, the flesh side not the hair side.

Some scrolls have a white-wash, or gesso, applied to the hair side that mitigates some of these color variations, especially when the scroll is lifted during the Torah service. At that time, the congregation can see through the skin. The white-wash makes the ground of the skin appear more white.

An excellent 2006 article by librarian Daniel Stuhlman talks about conservation of Torah parchment. It includes an amusing anecdote on this subject by Rabbi Tzvi Chaim Pincus of Tiferes Stam, a presenter at an Orthodox Union conference for gabbai’im.

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.

Several of Congregation Beth Israel Judea’s scrolls are what I would call “natural,” without the extra coating. But several have this coat of whitener and are our most readable scrolls. But the coating makes them very heavy.

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