Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

17 Shevat 5766 - February 15, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Protecting Sifrei Torah from Theft

by T. Katz

A blessed combination of stupidity and ineptitude led to the recovery of the sefer Torah stolen from Beis Knesses Ohel Dovid in Jaffa.

"A Civilian Guard volunteer contacted me," recounts Yiftach Police Commander R' Moshe Gafni. "He told me that a young man was roaming around beit knesset Itzkovitz in Bnei Brak trying to sell a sefer Torah he had received `from his uncle in America.' " [Note: "Itzkovitz" in Bnei Brak is the "minyan factory" of the town, and one of the largest such establishments in the world.]

R' Meir Yaakov Brandt, founder of the ID Tur identification system for sifrei Torah, received a similar phone call. "A Bnei Brak avreich calls me and tells me that while he was on the bus somebody offered to sell him a sefer Torah."

R' Brandt immediately realized the call was connected to the sefer Torah that had been stolen the previous night and he immediately started to use his police connections.

A detective from the Yiftach Station established contact with the seller, explaining that before the purchase he wanted to have his rov check the sefer firsthand. R' Gafni and his detectives went out into the field and quickly discovered the seller was an incompetent criminal who had not done his homework.

"He didn't know his left hand from his right hand," says Gafni. "We asked him where the sefer was from, how old it was, whether it was ksav Ha'Ari or Beis Yosef, what the difference is between an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic sefer Torah. Nothing. Total ignorance."

The seller asked for $8,000. Following brief negotiations he went down to $6,000, a real bargain considering the going price for similar sifrei Torah is at least $17,000.

"My uncle from America sent me several sifrei Torah," the bumbling salesman revealed. "I can sell you them, too."

Eventually the would-be seller was persuaded to admit the thefts and return all the sifrei Torah. But in many other cases, without such happy endings, the thieves come thoroughly prepared. Sophisticated criminals will not offer a sefer Torah for sale in a casual manner. You won't find them standing on the sidewalk, stopping passersby with a line like, "Gotta light?"

A Profile of a Professional Sefer Torah Thief

Competent sefer Torah thieves will arrange a meeting with the rov or gabbai of a beis knesses and conduct a conversation brimming with respect for the sefer Torah.

"Of course the sefer Torah belongs to us. It was passed on from father to son"—a yarn spun in the middle of a cold Russian night—"and survived the Holocaust miraculously."

A tear appears in the corner of his eye.

"Where have we been? In Riga. Our family lived there for generations."

Suddenly his Russian accent thickens as he begins to reminisce about the minyanim his uncle Grisha, the ganza tzaddik, used to organize in the basement.

"This sefer Torah was kept in the shul on Novolovskaya Street."

Is there such a street in Riga? Could be . . .

"We brought the sefer Torah with us when we made aliya."

At this point our bold salesman indulges in a lengthy monologue about long years of yearning for Zion.

"In our worst nightmares we never imagined having to part with this sefer Torah. But David, our six-year-old nephew, is about to undergo a kidney transplant operation that costs a fortune. We sat down together, the whole family, and decided we simply have no alternative. This is not an easy thing for us to do. Not at all . . . "

The rov or the gabbai now faces a great temptation. They have just been offered a fine sefer Torah at a ridiculously low price. The sellers appear to be yirei'im veshleimim and the low price can be explained by a pressing need for cash — and anyway, why suspect a Jew of wrongdoing?

Unfortunately the shocking reality of Torah theft should create an atmosphere of wariness whenever a sefer Torah is bought or sold. The ease with which a sefer Torah can be stolen calls out to immoral Jews.

"What's the problem?" asks R' Shmuel Grantstein, director of Mishmeres Stam. "Imagine a large shul with 12 sifrei Torah in the Aron Kodesh. One morning, in the light of day, someone comes in wearing a tallis. He steps confidently toward the Aron Kodesh and quickly takes out a sefer Torah. He kisses it and then starts heading toward a side room. But once out of sight he turns toward the front door, slips outside, walks briskly toward a waiting car, and drives away."

In another illustrative case a man who appears to be chareidi in every way comes to the gabbai. He explains that the owner of the sefer Torah sent him "to take it for repairs." The gabbai, not suspecting anything is amiss, hands him the sefer Torah without the slightest inkling that will be the last time he holds the sefer Torah in his arms.

Others come at night or during hours when the beis knesses is desolate, and break into the aron kodesh. You would not believe how many aronos kodesh are easy to break into. There are even cases in which the whole safe is carted off with the sefer Torah inside.

A neophyte thief goes to Bnei Brak and makes a bungling first attempt to sell. More seasoned thieves don't take the risk of getting caught in chareidi areas. They alter all of the external signs of the sefer Torah—the me'il and the atzei chaim—and fly the parchments abroad.

Although already out of the country, they still avoid the major kehillos, which may be more alert to the problem. Instead they will go to South America, to smaller towns in Europe and even to Reform and Conservative congregations.

In more complex instances, the thieves do the equivalent of stripping down a stolen car for parts. Then they plant parchments in various other sifrei Torah, making complicated switches that are hard to trace.

Ten years ago a STAM institute received a peculiar phone call. The caller said he had done teshuvoh and in his former life he had stolen a sefer Torah and wanted to return it to the beis knesses. The problem was that though the reformed thief remembered the heist had been carried out in Rechovot he couldn't recall from which shul.

The STAM institute looked into the matter. Following a conversation with the gabbai, an unpleasant, Kafkaesque affair ensued. The staff at the institute waited for a second phone call that never came. In the meantime the beis knesses in Rechovot began to grow impatient. Eventually the gabboim began to suspect the STAM institute.

"One day, out of the blue, somebody arrived with a police escort and a search warrant," recounted one of the workers at the institute. The gabboim suspected the institute had received the sefer Torah and intended to sell it. Of course they found nothing at the institute.

Why didn't the sefer Torah get returned? Perhaps the thief was afraid or perhaps he changed his mind at the last moment.

Sadly, many botei knesses unknowingly have stolen sifrei Torah in their possession. And these are not just a few, isolated cases. A large number of sifrei Torah are stolen. Many of the thefts are not reported to the police and may not even be brought to the attention of the tzibbur.

The Vanished Sefer Torah

Stealing sifrei Torah has almost become a routine phenomenon and an extensive branch of criminal activity. Take, for example, the ring of burglars that specialized in stealing sifrei Torah. They made the rounds of the botei knesses in Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neighborhood, making off with five sifrei Torah from one beis knesses alone and a similar number from other botei knesses. Based on solid reports, some claimed these were special-order thefts. The police believe they wanted to send the sifrei Torah abroad. The gabboim asked the police to try to prevent the expensive sifrei Torah from being smuggled via the Gaza Strip to Egypt and from there to distant shores. They also asked security officials at airports and seaports to be alert to the possibility of smuggling sifrei Torah whole or just the parchments.

In another incident, Shai District Police located two antique sifrei Torah that were stolen from the community of Yitav in the Jordan Valley. Following thorough searches, the highly valuable sifrei Torah were found rolled up in carpets lying in a yard.

As absurd as it may sound, several months can sometimes pass before anyone notices that a theft has taken place. Large botei knesses do not always keep track of all the sifrei Torah in the Aron Kodesh.

"I'm ashamed to talk about it," says the gabbai of a well-known beis knesses in South Jerusalem. "One day the donor arrived and asked to see the sefer Torah he had donated. We opened the Aron Kodesh and it wasn't there. Gone! Only then did we realize we hadn't read from it for months. Based on our recollections, the other gabbai and I realized we hadn't seen it for over six months. We looked at one another not knowing what to say. We had no explanation or even words of consolation to offer."

The donor stood facing the Aron Kodesh, refusing to believe his eyes. He was devastated. He kept wringing his hands and began to cry. "I donated it as an illui neshomoh for my father. How can such a thing happen? I devoted ten years of my life to that sefer Torah."

There's more to it than the monetary costs. True, a fine sefer Torah can cost $30,000 or more and sometimes the money is raised bit by bit over the course of several years. But the deep-seated emotional attachment to this cherished mitzvah makes the heartache even worse. The grief over the loss of a sefer Torah is proportional to the joy of bringing a new sefer Torah into the beis knesses.

"Years ago," recounts Rabbi Meir Yaakov Brandt of ID Tur, "I saw such a heartbreak with my own eyes. A sefer Torah donated as an illui neshomoh for a son who fell during one of the IDF actions in Lebanon was stolen from a beis knesses in Tzfas. The father sobbed hysterically and cried out from the depths of his heart, `I've lost my son for the second time.' When I witnessed this great tragedy, I decided something had to be done. People cannot simply accept the theft of sifrei Torah and come to terms with it. Something has to be done to stop the thieves, to eradicate the buyers' market for stolen sifrei Torah and above all, to make locating the thieves easy."

Identifying Your Sefer Torah

Rabbi Brandt started ID Tur, a company that developed a software program to identify sifrei Torah. The sefer Torah can be identified unequivocally, without the slightest margin of error. First of all every sofer has a unique writing style with specific characteristics. Moreover every yeri'oh (segment of parchment) has over 10,000 elements that together form an ID number of sorts for that yeri'oh.

How? Very simple. A sefer Torah is written by hand and all writing, even by the same sofer, has significant differences. Here the nun is longer, there the gimmel is stretched out. Never are two yeri'os the same. (Try it yourself. Write a sentence five times on five different lines of the same sheet of paper using the same pen. You'll see the differences yourself.)

A sefer Torah, mezuzoh or set of tefillin that has been scanned once gets stored in the database indefinitely. From that time onward, if any tashmish kedushoh or even a single yeri'oh from that sefer Torah is brought to a Mishmeres Stam station anywhere in the world the computer will cross-check the data and identify it immediately. Even in the event of a sophisticated heist in which yeri'os from different sifrei Torah were combined to cover up the crime, the system will recognize them right away.

The Mishmeres Stam computer system has details on over 12,000 sifrei Torah stored on file. In addition to Mishmeres Stam, there are also other institutes involved in identifying sifrei Torah.

The Israel Police Department of Criminal Investigation and representatives from the US FBI examined the software and tried to confound it through highly improbably situations. In one instance they photographed a mezuzoh and covered up some letters using a special fluid. The computer matched it with the original mezuzoh.

In a more sophisticated system test, the investigators photographed two mezuzas and combined them by joining the left half of one klaf with the right half of another, and vice-versa. The computer succeeded in precisely identifying which parts of the mezuzoh belonged where.

Since the system was first set up, numerous sifrei Torah have been restored to their rightful owners.

When four yeri'os were brought in to be checked at a Mishmeres Stam station in the US, the system alerted the staff that they belonged to a certain beis knesses here in Eretz Yisroel. Two years earlier, the sefer Torah had been scanned at ID Tur.

In Eretz Yisroel the owner of the sefer Torah was notified right away about the four yeri'os. Alarmed, he quickly had the sefer Torah checked. "You're wrong," he informed them. "Not a single letter is missing. You've made a mistake."

Following an in-depth exchange, the owner of the sefer Torah and the Mishmeres Stam staff contacted the sofer, who revealed the reason for the confusion. He admitted that as the deadline drew near he had not completed the sefer Torah. The notices of the hachnosas sefer Torah had already been printed, but the sofer had not finished the job. Desperate, he turned to a colleague who loaned him four yeri'os. After the hachnosas sefer Torah, the sofer finished writing, went to the beis knesses and replaced the borrowed yeri'os with the ones he had written. (Note: From a halachic standpoint, there is no deficiency in the sefer Torah, even if the yeri'os are borrowed.)

In some cases, the system notifies the owners before they have even detected the theft. When three sifrei Torah were checked in Boro Park, the computer determined that they belonged to a shul in Coventry. "I called the man who the sifrei Torah belonged to," recounts Rabbi Brandt. "He said it was a fabrication and slammed down the phone. Following repeated persuasion, the man rushed to the Aron Kodesh, where he found that the doors had been left wide open and the sifrei Torah were missing.

"I asked Maran HaRav Eliashiv, shlita, and HaRav Shmuel Halevi Wosner, shlita, what I should do," Rabbi Brant recalls. "Both of them ruled that I should go straight to the police. HaRav Wosner gave me a handwritten ruling." The criminals were caught after a short time.

The computer locates not only thefts but cases of problems and various forgeries as well. The computer recognized tefillin brought in for checking as the same tefillin brought in for checking on earlier occasions. Then a word was missing in the middle of the parshos, rendering the tefillin irremediably posul since they have to be written in order. (Sifrei Torah, on the other hand, can be repaired and words added.)

A photo image of the tefillin, stored on compact discs, was printed. The location of the missing words was plain to see. Apparently the sofer was unable to stand up to the nisoyon. He "fixed" the tefillin by erasing and rewriting, and then sold them. As shocking as it may sound, merchants have been known to recover tefillin and mezuzas from the sheimos and reintroduce them into the market.

The computer is hard to confuse and impossible to fool. The computer found that one mezuzoh that arrived from Jerusalem might be a photo image of a real mezuzoh. A close examination clearly showed small differences between the mezuzas. Was it photographed or authentic? Could the computer have made a mistake?

"I asked the seller to obtain another mezuzoh written by the same sofer," recounts Rabbi Brandt. "The computer claimed the mezuzas were identical, but we could see slight differences with our own eyes. The debate raged and in the end we decided to go to the sofer."

Rabbi Grantstein and Rabbi Brandt notified the Department of Criminal Identification and went to the sofer. The sofer's workroom left them dumbstruck. The man sat in inappropriate attire watching television, busy "writing." He blushed a deep red at the sight of the chareidim before him. "We're from Mishmeres Stam," they said. "We know your mezuzas are printed. You can either cooperate with us or cooperate with the police."

After a moment's thought the man proceeded to unravel a sophisticated forgery setup. He had reproduced 95 percent of the mezuzas he sold through silk-screening and wrote the other 5 percent by hand. The 5 percent accounted for the slight differences between the two mezuzas checked.

His profits were not bad at all. Do some quick arithmetic. His rate of production was 2,000 mezuzas per month. Each mezuzoh was sold for $10. The return rate was definitely enough to satiate his hungry bank account.

After his confession the man handed over all of his equipment and promised not to repeat his nefarious deeds. In addition, all the mezuzas he had produced were tracked down.

Don't Delay for a Single Day

Here is where the vexing questions arise. How could it be that Jews invest enormous sums in writing a sefer Torah, paying more and more money for various hiddurim, yet neglect to pay the meager sum for scanning and identification?

This is a real failure. According to ID Tur, the annual service fee for identification is a mere $47. The computers operate 24 hours a day and sifrei Torah are brought in for checking at all hours of the day around the world. The cost is certainly not the reason. So what is it? Perhaps a lack of awareness or negligence. The result: an unidentified sefer Torah is vulnerable to mishap and an easy target for theft — pirtzoh koreit laganov.

"One day people came running to me from the shul in Ramat Elchonon," recalls Rabbi Brandt. "With tears in their eyes, they told me that the sefer Torah had vanished and asked me to help. What could I do? The sefer Torah had not undergone identification. Now you might as well start searching for it in suitcases headed for foreign destinations and among Judaica dealers. It could very well be that Jews are kissing it with cherdas kodesh in some little kehilloh off in America . . . "

Brandt claims that identification has proven its worth. At botei knesses where an ID Tur sticker is displayed, thefts have decreased dramatically — perhaps because would- be thieves conclude that even if they pull off the theft there will be no market for it.

"Want facts from the field?" asks Brandt. "At a shul in Jerusalem the Aron Kodesh was marked with an ID Tur sticker. Although the Aron Kodesh was not reinforced, the thieves didn't touch it. Instead they stole an Aron Kodesh safe from another shul and carted it away with the sifrei Torah inside."

Nevertheless, identification is not a wonder drug.

"There are several companies involved in sefer Torah identification," says a computer specialist who works in this field. "For some reason there is no connection between the databases at the various companies. Thus if a sefer Torah is brought in for checking at a certain institute, it will be found kosher and nobody will be aware it was identified and marked at another institute. In my opinion a single, centralized database should be set up, like the vehicle database at the Transportation Ministry."

What Gabboim Should Do

Until such a database is set up rabbonim and gabboim, along with other purchasers of sifrei Torah, are responsible for confirming the identity of a sefer Torah.

First of all, you have to ask the right questions. "When a person comes to me to sell a sefer Torah," says one dealer, "I ask him for a signed letter from the gabbai who sold it to him. And that's just the beginning. In later stages, I conduct a real investigation of the sefer in question—without the seller's knowledge."

There's also another side, a limud zchus, to the disturbing stories about thefts of sifrei Torah. "Remember the famous incident with the Judaica thieves a few years ago?" Rabbi Gafni asks us, referring to the band of thieves involved in a series of burglaries in which tashmishei kedushoh and Judaica articles were taken, both in Eretz Yisroel and abroad. The total value of the stolen property was estimated in the millions of dollars. The thieves stole articles from the Montefiore family's private collection in Kent, England.

When the band of thieves was caught and sent to Abu Kabir Prison they were received with a severe thrashing from other criminals, recounts Police Commander R' Gafni. "How could you?" the other prisoners shouted in rage. "To steal from a beit knesset? How can Jews bring themselves to open the Aron Kodesh and steal divrei kedushoh?"

Lost a Pair of Tefillin?

The police lost-and-found department is another place to turn to for lost tefillin. But don't set your hopes on finding them there. Police Commander R' Moshe Gafni explains that the police hold on to a pair of tefillin for about six months. After that, the tefillin are handed out in the various police units. Someone can spend thousands of dollars on a pair of good tefillin for a bar mitzvah boy — only to have a policeman in Yehud wind up laying them.

The case of tefillin and mezuzas is also a limud zchus for Am Yisroel. "Policemen ask me for tefillin," says Commander Gafni. "They are willing to pay considerable sums for a pair, even those who do not keep Torah and mitzvas."

Rabbi Brandt, a diamond dealer by profession, shares a similar account. "My [secular] colleagues at the Diamond Exchange ask me to buy them mezuzas. `Don't skimp,' they tell me. `Bring me the best mezuzoh money can buy.'"

On Sefer Torah Insurance

Having a sefer Torah scanned into the computer brings a substantial reduction in insurance costs. "The insurance companies were charging a hefty 2.5 percent annually to insure a sefer Torah against theft," says Rabbi Brandt. "After the identification program was developed, we sat down with Lloyd's of London and proved to them that the program reduces risk substantially. Following a massive inquiry, they were persuaded and they lowered the cost of insurance to 1 percent annually."

Other insurance companies followed suit. Insurance for sifrei Torah includes all possible risks, from theft to water damage and any other form of damage.

Computer Checking

The computer has become essential for checking sifrei Torah. A Jew who purchases or orders a new sefer Torah or buys a used one wants to insure that it contains exactly 304,805 letters, without a single letter missing or added. Rabbi Shmuel Grantstein of Mishmeres Stam quotes the Rashbo who says when a sofer completes the writing of a sefer Torah it cannot be totally free of errors.

Technological advancements have allowed the development of a special program to check a sefer Torah for certain mistakes. "Today you won't find Jews who purchase a sefer Torah, even those who buy from a dealer with a reputation for yiras Shomayim and virtue, without having it computer checked to make sure everything's OK," says Rabbi Grantstein. Computer checking is readily available and inexpensive.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.