It’s Monday, and Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Washington is empty except for Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld. Sitting in his office with a makeshift pen (a pencil attached to the end of a fountain pen) in hand, he’s hunched over, carefully writing column 122 of the Torah.
“If there’s any excess ink it can make a drop on the parchment,” he says, gently wiping the sides of the stylus on a sheet of paper. The chair mat beneath him is speckled with ink. “That’s a big pain in the neck, to clean the parchment.”
Herzfeld, 44, said that to become a sofer, or Torah scribe, has long been a goal of his. In the Talmud, one of the commandments is to write a Torah scroll. “But I have no artistic talent and I’ve never done anything like this before,” he says.
About eight months ago, he connected with Rabbi Eliezer Adam, the master scribe at the Museum of the Bible in Washington. He saw a way to make his goal a reality, and Adam agreed to help.
Adam started slowly, showing him to draw the letters in the early mornings before services. Herzfeld then took on the Book of Esther, scribing two versions before Adam said he was ready to write his own Torah. And so in September, Herzfeld bought parchment and began. He’s almost halfway through the Torah, in chapter eight of the Book of Leviticus.
Mastering the art of the scribe is the latest endeavor for a rabbi who seems to take on something new every season. He had a packed 2018. In the spring, Herzfeld led a push to condemn D.C. Councilmember Trayon White (D-Ward 8) for anti-Semitic remarks. He then started a kosher certification agency, D.C. Kosher, specializing in low-overhead supervision of vegetarian establishments. Less than two days after the mass murder at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, he was in Pittsburgh with a delegation of out-of-town rabbis. At his 350-member family Orthodox synagogue, he leads services, teaches and preaches.
“I just felt that this was a commandment from the Torah, this was a mitzvah,” he says of becoming a sofer. “So I felt an obligation to do it. And it’s been a very moving, spiritual experience for me.”
Herzfeld prefers to write early in the morning or late at night, with quiet and nobody else around. But he says he’s also making the process one his entire congregation can be a part of. Members often ask if they can write a letter, and he’s trying to include all of the children in the religious school.
It’s an arduous process, with each letter carefully penned and little room for error. Herzfeld says it’s not a matter of if but when he’ll make a mistake and have to clean his parchment. At one point, he says, he smudged a number of words.
“I was so mad and I was so disappointed and sad, and I looked down and the words I’d smudged were, ‘And Moses broke the tablets.’ So that was special,” Herzfeld says.
He doesn’t have a timeline for completing the Torah, but when it’s all finished, some congregants have already promised to craft a cover, and members will come together to stitch all the pieces of parchment together into a scroll. Then, he says, he’d like to have the congregation take turns reading from it, beginning to end.
He dismisses any question that all of his side projects affect his ability to serve his congregation on a day-to-day basis. In fact, he says, his scribing makes him better as a rabbi.
“Before my wife and I had children, I thought I was very busy. But then, after we had children in our lives, I’m like, ‘What was I doing with all that time before?’ And I’d just cut out things in my day that weren’t essential,” Herzfeld says. “Hopefully I cut out the things that aren’t essential. But the more I do this, the better I am at my real job, the more energy I have to do the things that a rabbi is supposed to do. This inspires me and it helps me connect to Hashem so much, and it’s a form of study for me.”
Herzfeld has no plans to become a master sofer and teach the art to others. For now, he wants to write this Torah and lead Ohev Sholom, where he has been rabbi since 2004. After that, he might write mezuzot for synagogue families to attach to their doorposts, but he says there will be a cost.
“The cost of a mezuzah will be sitting here and talking about the Torah,” Herzfeld says, adjusting his chair to relieve the pain in his left shoulder from hunching over the desk. “I can’t do this for