NEWS Biella Celebrates the Return of Ancient Sefer Torah

biellaBy Ada Treves

“An extraordinary Shabbat that will remain in the history of the Jewish Community of Biella, certainly, but also in the Italian Jewish history.” With these words Dario Disegni, president of the Italian Jewish Cultural Heritage Foundation has answered to Rabbi Elia Richetti, that at the end of the ceremony that saw the oldest kosher Sefer Torah in the world return to the synagogue where it belongs, commented “It was a truly extraordinary Shabbat, I am really sorry for those who were not here with us”.

The sofer Amedeo Spagnoletto was clearly proud telling the story of what he calls “our Sefer Torah.” “I had seen, when I went the first time to make an evaluation of the condition of various Sifrè Torah that there was one particularly old, but I had assumed at first glance that it was from the beginning of the fourteenth or from the fifteenth century, which already made it very precious. Other Sifrè Torah from Biella have great value and a long history but this one, together with the date, had the characteristics that made it suitable for recovery, and it is composed by parchments that are all from the same period, a very rare event because often some of the parchments which make a Sefer Torah get deteriorated with use and are replaced. During the long time I spent on its restoration I became more and more convinced that it was something exceptional, which had to be carefully assessed, so I insisted on doing an audit of the dating of the Sefer Torah with carbon-14.” And he was right: the response of the Geochronology Laboratory at the University of Illinois, which arrived March 1, places the Sefer Torah of Biella in a time gap between 1223 and 1271, with a median date of 1252.

Few years ago, in Bologna, another Sefer Torah was discovered by Professor Mauro Perani in the Royal University Library and that Sefer is known as the oldest Sefer Torah in the world. The Bologna Sefer Torah was dated, using carbon-14, between 1155 and 1225, a time gap partially comparable to that of Biella, which could also be the oldest. But the fundamental difference, as explained by Rabbi Spagnoletto, is that the Sefer Torah of Biella is the oldest in Jewish hands, and above all it is the oldest kosher Sefer Torah, suitable to the use it was made for. “One thing that I consider very important, beyond its historical and also objective value is the symbolic importance: a small section of one of the smallest Italian Jewish community possesses what can undoubtedly be considered as one of the oldest Jewish cultural heritage. Thanks this exceptional discovery we are faced with the fact that what is really important is not numbers: each of us is fundamental and even the smallest fragment of the Italian Jewish minority has a history of which we can really be proud of.”

And the emotion was really strong in Biella, since Friday night, when for the first time in about thirty years in the small synagogue had a minyan composed by the family of rav Richetti – the rabbi of the community, – that of rav Alberto Somekh, from Turin community, the sofer Amedeo Spagnoletto who restored the old Sefer Torah and the representatives of almost all the historical families from the Jewish Community of Biella, arriving from all over the world for the occasion spent Shabbat together.

The ancient synagogue, whose restorations were completed in 2012, has seen a large crowd pressing to its small door, and could not accommodate all those who wanted to share with the community the great joy of the return of its precious sefer. Alberto Calò, who had the honor to bring it inside the synagogue during the ceremony of the Haknasat Sefer Torah, and who came from Israel for this occasion is the grandson of that Gustavo Calò that has been the last rabbi of the community, and who has been remember in its synagogue along with Rabbi Weiss Levi, born in Biella, who died recently. But the Sefer Torah is not the only precious document in Biella: Dr. Graziana Bolengo, the Director of the local State Archives has called for the launch of a program of study and recovery of all the historical Jewish documents preserved in the city.

It is not the only project born during these extraordinary days in Biella: in addition to the will to meet soon for another joyous occasion the community will hold next Autumn an international conference devoted to the study of the many ancient Sifre Torah present in Italy, organized together with the Jewish Cultural Heritage Foundation.