Page by page, line by line, letter by letter, Richard Epstein has spent the past eight years meticulously handwriting the words of God. Using a turkey feather quill and kosher animal skin parchment as his pen and paper, he masterfully created a Torah scroll for the Chabad Shul of Potomac. Running his own private practice in general psychiatry by day, Epstein, 74, devoted his nights and weekends to crafting his holy work. On Sunday, Epstein will complete his sanctified journey by penning the final of the scroll’s more than 300,000 letters at a dedication ceremony at the Chabad center.
“In Deuteronomy 31:19, God says, ‘Write for yourself this song.’ That means, every Jew should write a Torah scroll,” says Epstein. “It is a great honor and responsibility to inscribe the Torah.
“The first Torah scribe in the world was Moses himself,” he continues. “Every time I sat down to write, I became engrossed in the work. I feel a strong sense of awe, as I am so moved by the beauty of the Hebrew letters. I am doing God’s work. It is one of the most amazing tasks I’ve ever done in my life.”
Living until the dawn of the 21st century a primarily secular life, the Brooklyn-born psychiatrist always felt a strong connection with the Torah, he says. He discovered Potomac’s Chabad center 15 years ago and began studying the Torah with Rabbi Mendel Bluming. Throughout his studies, he immersed himself in the medieval commentary of Rashi and realized that he wanted to become a scribe.
“Rashi’s teachings opened up a new world and meaning of the Torah for me,” says Epstein. “After studying with Bluming, I wanted to contribute. I realized our synagogue needed a new Torah, and I knew writing the Torah would bring me closer to God.”
Discussing his personal admiration for Epstein, Bluming says he was inspired by his longtime study partner’s decision to take on the time-consuming task of writing a Torah.
“Dr. Epstein was one of the first people I met when I came to Potomac in 2000, and we began to study together regularly,” says Bluming. “I was struck by his earnestness and genuine thirst for Torah knowledge and observance. His connection to learning the Torah inspired him, ultimately leading to inscribing his own Torah scroll.”
Embarking on the new adventure, Epstein first had to perfect his knowledge of Hebrew scripture. He became an apprentice to a sofer [scribe] and studied the intricate laws detailing the stylizing of the Hebrew letters and the specific spellings of certain words. After practicing the art of writing the unique script of religious literature, Epstein began his side career as a scribe by working on a Megillah, since God’s name is not included in the text. (According to Jewish law, the name of God is so holy, that mistakes made in its formulation can render an entire text – or sections of text – invalid for ritual use.)
Epstein then moved on to writing about a dozen parchment scrolls for placement in mezuzahs to prepare for writing God’s name in print. Finally, he was ready to tackle the much larger project of writing a complete Torah scroll.
“I became so absorbed in my work,” says Epstein. “Before I start writing, I say a prayer and give money to tzedakah [charity]. Then, I would say each word and each letter out loud as I wrote. After each line, I would read the line both forward and backward to ensure there were no mistakes. At this point, it would take me between 12 and 15 minutes to complete one, single line.”
With 42 lines per page, Epstein uses a numbered celluloid strip to keep his place. In addition, he often writes the name of God in the text beforehand. If a scribe makes a mistake on God’s name, the parchment is buried in the ground, because according to Jewish law, God’s name cannot be thrown away. In today’s hi-tech society, several computers checked the work for accuracy. In addition, the Torah was proofread four times by hand to guarantee perfection.
Epstein’s act of inscribing the Torah quickly became a communitywide event at the Chabad Shul of Potomac. Throughout the past eight years, Epstein displayed each completed page of the Torah to the synagogue. He wanted the public to feel immersed in the process. In addition, Epstein has allowed some members of the community to fill in some letters of the Torah and to dedicate Torah portions.
“I feel as if I am an ambassador to helping people fulfil the mitzvah of writing the Torah,” says Epstein. “As I hold the quill with members as they inscribe their letter, I watch people connect to the Torah on a new level. This is our community’s Torah. I am just a regular congregant with a day job. I hope that will inspire others to fulfill mitzvot.”
Once Epstein finally fills in the last letter, the synagogue will parade its brand new scroll down the streets. Joining the procession, neighboring synagogues Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah and Young Israel Ezras Israel of Potomac will bring out their own Torahs. After the parade, the synagogue will provide refreshments and a presentation on the scribal arts.
“This has been a truly transformative eight year journey for our community,” says Bluming. “The extent of community excitement and involvement from day one is incredible. I never imagined how much of an impact this would have on us. Dr. Epstein has inspired many in our community to re-examine their bucket lists and expand their horizons. This is something that I want my children and the children of our community to witness and remember forever.”
In celebration of the completion of the long journey, Epstein will read from his new scroll at morning prayer services on Monday. As a scribe, he plans to continue writing mezuzah scrolls and playing an active role in the Jewish community.
“Every mitzvah is a challenge and an opportunity,” says Epstein. “God provides the Jewish people the 613 mitzvot to enhance their lives. I feel as if the Torah wrote me rather than I wrote it. I’m deeply grateful that God provided me this opportunity to bring his divine light into the world with this mitzvah.”
Sunday’s Torah Completion and Celebration will takes place at 2-4 p.m. at the Chabad center, 11621 Seven Locks Rd.