In the dimly lit basement of American Friends of Lubavitch headquarters northwest of Dupont Circle in Washington, Shel Bassel sits alone with a turkey feather in his hand and a bottle of ink and a sheet of parchment close by.
Bassel, a sofer or scribe, meticulously inscribes the book of Genesis letter by letter onto the parchment. He believes this is the 26th time that he has inscribed the Torah since he became a scribe 40 years ago.
This is the first time that anyone can remember a Torah scroll being written in Washington.
The idea to do so came from Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch and the head of the chasidic movement in Washington.
“The primary objective of my work is to bring people together within the Jewish community whenever I can,” Shemtov said.
Over the next year, Shemtov hopes to take the scroll-in-progress to iconic locations around Washington.
Bassel will inscribe verses that relate to each site. At the Supreme Court, for example, the sofer will write “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”) from Deuteronomy 16:20.
Shemtov said he plans to stop with the Torah at the National Zoo, United States Institute of Peace and the buildings housing the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Bassel said he was “taken aback” when Shemtov first approached him about the scope of the project, but he heard the rabbi out.
“I live in Jerusalem. It’s hard for me to say it would be somehow better to write it outside of the holy city of Jerusalem,” he said. “But having spoken to the rabbi, I think the historic significance could be great and I hope the immediate significance is great.”
Bassel said he thinks it is wonderful that this Torah scroll will serve as a bridge between the spiritual life of Jews and iconic locations at the heart of American democracy.
“The Torah, of course, is our founding document,” he said. “It’s our relationship to both the divine and this world. So going to specific sites that have significance for Americans and showing the significance as it appears in the Torah I think is a very good thing.”
Another characteristic of this Torah scroll is that Bassell is writing in a script known as the “script of the alter rebbe,” which is associated with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
“It is one of the only very distinct scripts that survived because of the strong sense of minhag [tradition] among Chabad,” Bassell said.
Basic training for writing a Torah scroll typically takes six months, Bassell said. But mastering one script can take several years. In the end it comes down to “practice, practice, practice.
“I write with a turkey feather, and part of the challenge is to learn how to cut the quill,” he said. “It took me three years to cut a good quill, and it’s something I’m constantly working on.”
Bassel works with mostly pre-21st century materials: parchment made from calfskin and ink made from gallnut juice and ferric sulfate. But he does use a scanner to send images of each sheet of parchment to a computer program capable of detecting mistakes in his calligraphy. He generally works alone with as little light as possible and said concentration is key.
“When I’m writing with people around me, not so easy,” he said.
Writing a Torah scroll is the last of the 613 commandments in the Torah, Shemtov explained. He hopes Bassel will have completed more than half the project done by Chanukah. That’s when Shemtov will stage his annual giant menorah lighting ceremony near the White House.