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An ancient Torah scroll brought to life – conversation with Prof. Gregory Heyworth


What may be the world’s oldest intact Ashkenazi Torah scroll just made a visit to Congregation Or Shalom in Orange.

In June, the synagogue was transformed into a high-tech imaging-science lab, where a group of experts hired by a Jerusalem-based educational institution tested the 13th-century scroll for age and hidden content.

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Gregory Heyworth describes the multi-spectral imaging process that uncovered the Torah scroll’s hidden content.

Team leader Gregory Heyworth is a Connecticut native who grew up in Lakeville (Litchfield County) and graduated from Daniel Hand High School in Madison. He earned degrees at Columbia, Cambridge, and Princeton, all in comparative literature and English with a specialty in the medieval period. A professor of English at the University of Mississippi since 2001, Heyworth comes to Milford every summer with his family to visit his mother and Congregation Or Shalom member, Rosette Liberman.

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Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus shows Congregation Or Shalom teens the Torah scroll.

“Initially, our synagogue was simply regarded as a convenient site for the examination of a rare Torah scroll. But it was Professor Heyworth’s generosity of spirit and basic menschlichkeit that allowed us to turn an academic event into an unforgettable educational opportunity,” says the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus. “What entered my mind as I gazed upon that amazing Torah was that a chain consisting of two such Torahs would have linked me with the rabbis of the Talmud; a chain of three would have linked me with the age of Mordechai and Esther; and a chain of just four would have brought me across the generations to the era of Moses! Suddenly, it became very easy to picture myself standing with our ancestors, a band of slaves, as they received the first Torah from God!”

Heyworth spoke with the Ledger about how he uses modern technology to literally shed light on centuries-old secrets.

Q: How did you become involved with this particular Torah scroll?

A: As the director of the Lazarus Project, a non-profit organization that uses spectral imaging to recover damaged cultural heritage objects, I am occasionally approached by scholars and institutions that have damaged objects – usually manuscripts – that they’d like to have made legible. On this occasion, I happened to be in Connecticut visiting my mother with my transportable spectral imaging system in tow, on my way to projects in Paris, Dresden, and Tblisi, when I was contacted by my colleague and fellow Lazarus team member, Roger Easton. Roger, who is a professor of imaging science at Rochester Institute of Technology and one of the pioneers of spectral imaging, had imaged a medieval Florentine Hebrew prayer book for David Wachtel and the Jewish Theological Seminary some years back. David, head of Judaica acquisition for Sotheby’s, who is now handling the scroll, had contacted Roger, who in turn contacted me, knowing that I had the system nearby.

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A noted sofer (scribe), Yitzhak Winer, representing the owners of the scroll  (who have chosen to  remain anonymous), examines the scroll.

After speaking to David and the Israeli sofer [scribe], Yitzchak Winer, who discovered the scroll, I thought that we could add value to the whole project by involving the Jewish community in an event in which modern technology meets ancient text: science in the service of religion. Or Shalom is my mother’s shul and I have known Rabbi Alvin Wainhaus for years. In fact, my children will be bar mitzvahed there in a couple of years. We spoke, or rather I spoke, and he exclaimed – “effusive” is a word that falls short of his temperament. Within a few days, we had agreed on a program. David, Yitzchak, and I would image as much as we could in one day, taking time out to give talks about the scroll and spectral imaging in a morning and evening session. After the talks, the congregation was invited to don special UV-goggles and watch the scroll as it gave up its secrets to the various wavelengths of light.

Q: What is the multi-spectral imaging process you used?

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Multispectral imaging was used to reveal the hidden content of what could be the world’s oldest Ashkenazic Torah scroll.

A: Multispectral imaging is an esoteric technique that involves photographing a manuscript whose writing has been overwritten, scratched out, or made illegible by fading, water, or fire damage. We use special LED light panels in 12 wavelengths of light, from the invisible – UV and infra-red – to the visible, that illuminate the object in a sequence of exposures, each of which reveals a different and often unseen feature of the text. We then process these images using ENVI, an imaging software traditionally used by geospatial scientists for satellite images. We heighten the contrast and bring out the hidden text even further with statistical algorithms that find patterns in noise. What we are left with, we hope, is an image or several versions of an image that recovers the invisible or scratched-out text.

I began using multispectral imaging in 2010, when, with the help of Roger Easton and a grant from the federal government, I built a prototype of our current transportable system to use on a unique 14th century Middle French romance that had been badly damaged in the infamous firebombing of Dresden during World War II. I invited a few students from the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College at the University of Mississippi to help me. Afterward, when Roger Easton and I realized that the educational experience was just as valuable as the research project, I decided to develop a project-based curriculum around the system that I call “textual science,” a new discipline that joins the traditional history of the book with imaging science. I have been teaching that course at the Honors College every year. And every year, students accompany me all over the world to work on objects from Greek pottery to modern art, manuscripts to maps. It’s a bit like Indiana Jones, but without the snakes.

Q: What were you looking for through the Or Shalom examination?

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Under regular light, it is impossible to tell what words on the ancient Torah scroll have been written over.

A: This is perhaps the oldest Ashkenazic Torah in existence, and therefore the oldest witness to a scribal tradition that is not well known today. Many people assume that when a Torah has been changed – something scratched out or written over – it is rejected as imperfect and proscribed to the Genizah. Actually, that tradition, as this scroll proves, was not absolute until about 500 years ago. This Torah is unique and fascinating for a variety of reasons. First, it has scratch-outs and write-overs. Little crowns were added to the tops of certain letters for Kabbalistic reasons that are not fully understood. This scroll gives us clues to those meanings as well.

Q: Have you used the technology on other Jewish texts?

A: I haven’t, but my fellow team members, Roger Easton and Ken Boydston, the head of Megavision who makes most of our equipment, have. In fact, it was Ken, with a similar system, who imaged the Dead Sea Scrolls two years ago in Jerusalem at the Israel Antiquities Authority. Right now, we are trying to raise money to image a unique, early medieval manuscript of secular Jewish literature in Munich. With luck, someone will help us fund it soon.

Q: Did you find what you were looking for? Will you continue to examine this scroll?

A: One of the first things we discovered was a curious and deliberate pattern of write-overs of certain letters, particularly peh. Here is an example from the Book of Exodus (see on page 11). One image is what the page looks like under regular light. You can’t tell what has been written over. The second image is the same page in infrared at 940 nanometers. The write-overs stand out because they are written in a different kind of ink. The original scribe wrote the Torah in iron gall ink; the corrector or correctors wrote in carbon ink. Iron gall ink gradually fades as wavelengths get longer, becoming invisible by about 1,000 nanometers. Carbon ink remains black well into the mid-infrared range of 3,000 to 5,000 nanometers. What’s really interesting, though, is that carbon ink is a much older and largely disused type of ink in the later Middle Ages. Why are they using it AFTER the period in which the Torah was written? The answer, we think, is that scribes knew that the oldest Bibles had, in ancient times, been written in carbon ink, just like the Dead Sea Scrolls. In their attempt to “perfect” this Torah, later correctors intentionally chose an anachronistic ink to give the Torah added authenticity.

The next thing that you will see on this page is the erasure and odd write-over in a different, smaller hand, which creates gaps in the line. If you look closely at image #3 fluorescent band with a special filter, you may be able to notice that the under-text is the same as the over-text, just larger. Another mystery!

But this one has, I think, a clever answer. This passage is the famous “Song of the Sea” in Exodus. Traditionally, scribes recognized certain passages in the Bible as verse and distinguished them from prose with a particular layout. Prose was block text written in a single column known as “brick over brick.” Verse was written in three columns with spaces in a pattern called “brick over space, space over brick.” The Song of the Sea, as you will notice, ends and reverts back to the prose pattern in the original. But here, the erasures and write-overs continue the ‘brick over space, space over brick’ verse pattern for another two lines even though they are technically prose. Why? The answer is that the these two lines end and then begin with the word hayam – “sea” – which you can clearly read at the opposite ends of the last line in question. The scribe erased and rewrote so he could put “the children of Israel,” which is the center clause, in between the sea on either side. He is building a word-picture!

Q: Where will the Torah scroll go now?

A: It’s going back to Israel to await its fate. Whether it will be auctioned off or donated remains to be seen.

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