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All S'faradi synagogues I've been in have each sefer Tora in a box. All Ashk'nazi ones I've been in have each sefer Tora in a cloth. When did this split occur, and why, and how?

I assume either:

  • everyone used cloths (or boxes) and at some point some group started using boxes (or cloths), either en masse due to a decree (where? when? by whom? why?) or gradually as the boxes (or cloths) became more popular (where? when? why?); or
  • old sifre Tora were sometimes in boxes and sometimes in cloths, but then the one became the Ash'knazi custom and the other became the S'faradi (why? how?).
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Just FYI Dutch and Bulgarian Sephardim used cloth like the Ashkenazim. Which makes some of the other Sephardi traditions regarding the Torah service quite interesting. –  Rabbi Michael Tzadok Apr 2 '13 at 11:30

2 Answers 2

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Your second answer seems to be closest... As far as we can tell, scrolls in the ancient world were kept wrapped in cloth and stored in wooden cases or boxes. The Gemara attests both to mitpahot [cloth wrappers] (Megillah 26a) and a tik [wooden case] (Megillah 26b) used to store sifrei Torah.

Bracha Yaniv's article on Torah scroll accessories in the Balkans begins with a lengthy discussion of the history of cloth vs. book storage for Torah scrolls, and suggests that the distinction evolved from the difference of open arks/niches where the scrolls need to be protected by a wooden case versus a closed cabinet-type ark where a cloth wrapper is enough. If that article isn't enough, she has written a whole book on the topic (in Hebrew).

This article is also a useful overview, coming to essentially the same conclusion: divergent evolution in different communities, sometime in the early Middle Ages. In both European and non-European communities a variety of additional ornaments and accessories were used to decorate and adorn the wrapped Torah scroll (see also here for a discussion of some historical examples).

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Thank you for helping make Mi Yodeya awesome. –  Isaac Moses Mar 3 '13 at 19:06

I wrote two books about this matter. Each of them is dedicated to one of the types you have mentioned. Both of them are in Hebrew. The books are:

  1. מעשה חושב: התיק לספר תורה ותולדותיו, ירושלים - רמת גן תשנ"ח

  2. מעשה רוקם; תשמישי קדושה מטקסטיל בבית הכנסת האשכנזי, הספרדי והאיטלקי, ירושלים, תשס"ט

Prof. Bracha Yaniv

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Hello and welcome to Mi Yodeya! Thank you for this information. Could you add a brief summary here of what you covered in your books? (Obviously I'm not asking you to repeat two books' worth of material in an answer, but could you share some highlights that bear directly on this question?) Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you around the site. –  Monica Cellio Apr 2 '13 at 15:51

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