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What Are Scrolls?

Joshua RollA scroll is a roll of papyrus, parchment, or paper which has been written, drawn or painted upon for the purpose of transmitting information or using as a decoration. It is distinguished from a roll (see below) by virtue of being intended for repeated use rather than continuous, but once-only use of the roll.


A scroll is usually divided up into pages, which are sometimes separate sheets of papyrus or parchment glued together at the edges, or may be marked divisions of a continuous roll of writing material. The scroll is usually unrolled so that one page is exposed at a time, for writing or reading, with the remaining pages rolled up to the left and right of the visible page. It is unrolled from side to side, and the text is written in lines from the top to the bottom of the page. Depending on the language, the letters may be written left to right, right to left, or alternating in direction (boustrophedon).

Some scrolls are simply rolled up pages; others may have wooden rollers on each end: Torah scrolls have rather elaborate rollers befitting their ceremonial function.


The greatest usage of scrolls today is in Jewish religious observance at least every week in each Bet Knesset (Synagogue) or Bet Midrash (house of learning).

The Sefer Torah scroll (Hebrew: ??? ???? ; plural: ???? ????, Sifrei Torah ; “Book(s) of Torah” or “Torah Scroll(s)” ) is only opened during actual reading, and covered with bein gavras, the flat, embroidered cover placed over the Torah between Aliyot (those called to the seven Torah readings). When stored, the Sefer Torah is always in an upright position, resting on the lower handles.

In Jewish practice the Torah scrolls are bound by a special length of usually silk ties or belts with clasps, and in Ashkenazi practice are covered or “dressed” in protective embroidered kippah (mantle), and external ornamental silver Tas (breastplate), and usually a silver Keter (crown) of beaten silver placed over the upper atzei chaim (handles). In Sephardi practice the Keter is built into the portable Aron and the Sefer Torah is never removed from it, the reading conducted with the scroll remaining in the upright position, while that of the Ashkenazi practice is laid on a recliner. These ornaments are not objects of worship, but are used only to beautify the scroll as the sacred and holy living word of God. The reading pointer, or yad, to help the reader keep track of the text without actually touching it, is also stored with the scrolls usually by means of being hung on a chain suspended from the upper handles over the Tas, or over the Aron latch. In Jewish designs the handles with their top and bottom plates are known as atzei chaim (trees of life), and are often highly decorated with silver, and etchings.

The upper handles are decorated with Rimonim (pomegranates) that include bell decorations. The scroll is stored in a cylindrical Aron (case) in the Sephardic practice, and in an often extremely elaborate Aron Kodesh (Hekhál amongst most Sefardim) in Ashkenazi designs, preferably built on the East wall, which takes the shape of a large, often walk-in niche with doors and covered with an elaborately decorated embroidered parokhet (curtain) either inside (Sephardim) or outside (Ashkenazim) the doors. The parokhet usually includes the name of the congregation and that of its donors. Scrolls are expensive and large. Every synagogue needs a Torah scroll, but few have scrolls of other Biblical books.

In Greek and Latin usage, scrolls were mostly used for texts, including scholarly texts, and were stored on open racks that accommodated the scrolls laid flat suspended by the handles, usually uncovered. In a later Early Christian era, scrolls became quite valuable as scribal skills became less common, and were often stored in protected leather cases. Some texts that were declared heretical by the Church, but were retained for study, were secured by special locks somewhat like the chastity belts in use at the time.

In general, Christian texts were kept in Codex form: that is, books with pages and covers that could be opened to any page. A scroll is a sequential access format; a codex is a random-access format, analogous to tape and disc storage devices in computers.

In medieval iconography, as in the stained glass images in cathedrals: the prophets of the “Old Testament” were shown holding scrolls; the evangelists (authors of the Gospels) of the “New Testament” were shown holding codices.

History of scroll use

Origins in Europe and West Asia

Ancient ScrollScrolls were the first form of editable record keeping texts, used in Eastern Mediterranean ancient Egyptian civilizations. Parchment scroll used by Israelites after Sinai was the first use of scrolls in the recording of literature before the codex or bound book with pages was invented by the Latins in the first century CE to differentiate their usage from that of the Judeans who were recently conquered. Nevertheless, scrolls were more highly regarded than codices until well into Roman times where they were usually written in single latitudinal column.


In Dynastic Egypt scrolls were made from papyrus. The way a scroll was read by being unrolled meant scribes were sometimes confused; for example, there are versions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead with repeated sections.


The Hebrew texts teach that Torah was copied by Moses onto a scroll c.1200 BC which was made from skin of a kosher animal and not papyrus as in Dynastic Egypt. Since that time the scrolls are copied from one to another due to their extreme survivability, with examples known to be hundreds of years old such as the 800 Year Old Sephardic Sefer Torah from Spain.[1] The meticulous process of hand-copying a scroll takes about 2,000 hours (approximately one person-year, a full-time job with a 40 hour work week being 2080 hours a year, ignoring vacations and holidays). Throughout the centuries, Jewish scribes have adhered to the following guidelines:

  • A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is added.
  • A Torah Scroll is disqualified if even a single letter is deleted.
  • The scribe must be a learned, pious Jew, who has undergone special training and certification.
  • All materials (parchment, ink, quill) must conform to strict specifications, and be prepared specifically for the purpose of writing a Torah Scroll.
  • The scribe may not write even one letter into a Torah Scroll by heart. Rather, he must have a second, kosher scroll opened before him at all times.
  • The scribe must pronounce every word out loud before copying it from the correct text.
  • Every letter must have sufficient white space surrounding it. If one letter touches another in any spot, it invalidates the entire scroll.
  • If a single letter was so marred that it cannot be read at all, or resembles another letter (whether the defect is in the writing, or is due to a hole, tear or smudge), this invalidates the entire scroll. Each letter must be sufficiently legible so that even an ordinary schoolchild could distinguish it from other, similar letters.
  • The scribe must put precise space between words, so that one word will not look like two words, or two words look like one word.
  • The scribe must not alter the design of the sections, and must conform to particular line-lengths and paragraph configurations.
  • A Torah Scroll in which any mistake has been found, cannot be used, and must be fixed within 30 days, or buried.

The Torah scroll contains 304,805 letters (or approximately 79,000 words).
Other books of the TaNaKh are also written in scroll form, as well as the mezuzah scrolls found in most orthodox, conservative and reform Jewish households. Many Jewish families also own their own Megillah scroll for use during Purim.

Despite this attention to detail, there is still a reference to alternate readings even within the text: Qere and Ketiv;

Syria and Babylon

The Jewish communities residing in these countries used same techniques to manufacture scrolls with the exception of the deer skins being used rather than the calf, lamb or goat skins elsewhere. The scrolls from these areas were known for their quality and durability, and were later imported into European and Indian communities.

Non-Jewish vellum manufacturing also took place after 3rd century BC.

Greece and Rome

Scrolls were used by the ancient Greeks. Alexander the Great brought the Library of Solomon from his conquest of Persia, where it was taken when the city was overcome by the Babylonians in 597 BC. These scrolls were used as founding texts of the Library of Alexandria. In Roman usage the scrolls were written latitudinally, usually placed on podiums with roll holders from which the rolls were unwound.

The Romans eventually found the scroll too cumbersome for lengthy works and developed the codex, which influenced the modern book.

Early Christian era

Scrolls continued to be used during the Early Church era until the early Middle Ages era. Owing to the copying practices many errors were introduced into the texts at this time.
The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, a book written to prove the validity of the New Testament, says: ” A study of 150 Greek [manuscripts] of the Gospel of Luke has revealed more than 30,000 different readings… It is safe to say that there is not one sentence in the New Testament in which the [manuscript] is wholly uniform.”

Other scholars report there are some 200,000 variants in the existing manuscripts of the New Testament, representing about 400 variant readings which cause doubt about textual meaning; 50 of these are of great significance.

European Middle Ages

Scrolls virtually disappeared in Europe during the Middle Ages, and re-emerged only rarely for use in official treaties and other international documents of great significance during and after the Baroque Era of the 17th century. These were usually written on high quality vellum, and stored in elaborate silver and gold cases inscribed with names of participants. Earlier examples were written in Latin.

In Southern Italy scrolls were in use for liturgical texts (Exultet).

Scrolls were in use for administrative purposes all over Europe (e.g. the pipe rolls), from which derive several denominations as roll.

West and Central Asia

Scrolls continued in use longer in the Islamic world, often elaborately decorated in calligraphic writing that included use of gold embossing and pigments when used for the writing of the Qur’an.

China and East Asia

Scrolls continued in use longer in East Asia cultures like China and Japan, the oldest dated printed book to survive is a sixteen foot long Chinese Buddhist copy of the Diamond Sutra, dated 868.

The Chinese invented and perfected ‘Indian Ink’ for use in writing, including scrolls. Originally designed for blacking the surfaces of raised stone-carved hieroglyphics, the ink was a mixture of soot from pine smoke and lamp oil mixed with the gelatin of donkey skin and musk. The ink invented by the Chinese philosopher, Tien-Lcheu (2697 B.C.), became common by the year 1200 B.C.
Later other formats came into use in China, firstly the sutra or scripture binding, a scroll folded concertina-style, which avoids the need to unroll to find a passage in the middle. By about 1,000 CE, sheet-based formats were introduced, although scrolls continued to have a place. Traditional painting and calligraphy in East Asia is often still performed on relatively short latitudinal paper scrolls displayed vertically as a hanging-scroll on a wall.

Modern era

Torah Scrolls are still used today in Jewish religious observance with almost insignificant changes despite the thousands of years in practice.

Some cultures use scrolls as ceremonial texts or for decoration called a hanging scroll, without any obvious division of the text into columns. In some scroll-using cultures painted illustrations were used as header decorations above the text columns, either in a continuous band or broken into scenes above either a single or double column of text.

Scrolls have experienced a revival in the 20th century, as they are now used frequently in a virtual rather than a physical sense, in computer application such as word processors, web browsers) and film closing credits. This is known as scrolling.
Paper scrolls are also used for classroom instruction, as an alternate and more expansive format than bound books or ebooks. The fundamental benefit of this is that the unrolled paper scroll enables teachers and students to view and work with whole chapters and sometimes entire texts. This use of scrolls was pioneered by Dave Middlebrook, founder of The Textmapping Project.

The scroll format has been used in the form of reels and tape, although the material used isn’t papyrus, parchment, or paper. This has, in turn, led to inventions such as microfilm, videotape, and the movies.

One of the few modern texts written on a scroll was Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, which he typed on a scroll made of taped-together sheets of paper.


Shorter pieces of parchment or paper are called rolls, which may still be many meters or feet long, were used in the medieval and Early Modern period in Europe and various West Asian cultures for manuscript administrative documents intended for various uses, including accounting, rent-rolls, legal agreements, and inventories. Unlike scrolls, these are usually written down the length of the roll latitudinally. Rolls may be wider than most scrolls, up to perhaps 60cm or two feet wide. Rolls were often stored together in a special cupboard on shelves.

A special Chinese form of short book, called the “whirlwind book,” consists of several pieces of paper bound at the top with bamboo and then rolled up.


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