When e-shopping for Torahs, beware of biblical lemons

When Rabbi Larry Friedman opened the package, he was dismayed to discover that the object he had purchased on the Internet was broken.

It wasn’t a digital camera or a GPS unit (although he’s bought those, too). It was a Torah.

It was the second lemon Torah from the Internet for Friedman, the rabbi at Foothill Jewish Community, near Stockton in California’s Gold Country.

“All these guys are in Israel. And what you wind up doing is shipping a Torah back to Israel. I bought them through PayPal. And by the time you deal with [the seller], PayPal and your credit card company, it’s a nightmare,” Friedman said with a sigh.

“Plus, shipping runs $300 or $400 to send it back to Israel. And that’s my nickel.”

Since Amador County is not exactly a hotbed of Judaica, Friedman’s quest to acquire the first Torah for his 20-family congregation was pretty much limited to Internet shopping or hopping in his car and going on a Jewish “Antiques Roadshow.” As a volunteer rabbi who works full-time as a speech therapist, he wisely chose the former.

In that he’s hardly unique. Typing the word “Torah” into the online auction site eBay.com returned 223 items, ranging from chintzy jewelry to medieval scrolls. Closer to home, Burlingame’s Rabbi Irvin Ungar has a beautiful 1702 version of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah on his Historicana.com Web site that would look perfect in any ark — for $12,000.

With a new Torah running anywhere from $20,000 to three times that, many new or small congregations have turned to the Internet, where a used scroll can be found for roughly the price of a 1992 Toyota Tercel.

Kavana, a cooperative Jewish community in Seattle, did just that on eBay. Kavana Member Stacy Lawson knew that the group’s rabbi, Rachel Nussbaum, had bought her Kiddush cups on the site — as did Friedman — so Lawson went online and saw that eBay also offers Torah scrolls.

She and Nussbaum decided on one scroll, and the bidding war began.

“It was 4 a.m. and I was bidding against ‘4frumboys,'” said Lawson, referring to the nicknames eBay users concoct. “I thought, ‘If they’re bidding on it, it gives me a little more interest.'”

Unfortunately for the Seattle congregation, they suffered the same setback as Friedman — the U.S. Postal Service accidentally broke the etzei haim, the wooden sticks the Torah scroll is wound on. Back it went.

Each of the first two Torahs that Friedman bought set him back roughly $1,600, which was refunded, minus the significant shipping costs.

His first foray into e-Torah shopping was even less satisfying than the second. In that case, the scroll, which had been advertised as “kosher” (unblemished) and from the pen of a single scribe, turned out to be a blemished patchwork of several parchments.

His third choice, while not exactly “just right,” turned out to be “good enough.”

“The one I have now I’m not thrilled with,” he said, adding that any disappointment rests on his own head.

“My brain did not register that [the advertisement] said the Torah was 18 inches. I didn’t realize that an 18-inch Torah means about 14 inches worth of writing — and when you have 60-year-old eyes, that’s tough to read,” he said with a laugh.

What’s more, a scribe’s error resulted in several lines of text being written in near-microscopic size to fit onto the page. “There’s a place where a couple of lines are all squished together, and that makes it tough to read. Imagine trying to read three-point type,” he said.

The seller has informed him that there’s a perfectly good, full-sized Torah waiting for him if he trades in his $2,500 compact version — and an extra $1,500. But, having spent $5,600 on three separate Torahs, excluding shipping, he’s got Torah fatigue.

Yet things could be worse. When an 800-year-old Iraqi Torah was stolen from Burlingame’s Peninsula Temple Sholom in 2005, one of the first things police told the congregation was to keep an eye on Internet vending sites. Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned up there or anywhere else.

Torah theft is not uncommon — indeed, there was a rash of it on the East Coast in the early 1990s. Given the time, money and effort it takes to land one, Friedman has no trouble understanding why. “I wish God was still giving them out,” he said with a laugh.

JTA staff writer Sue Fishkoff contributed to this report.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.