It may be the 613th mitzvah in the Torah, but it became priority No. 1 for Dr. Seymour Lutwak, who fulfilled the commandment to write a personal sefer Torah in a most unusual way—by inscribing every single one of its 304,805 letters on his own, a 20-year-long effort.
Dr. Lutwak became interested in calligraphy during his last year in college, his intrigue deepening when his medical school roommate had a similar interest. He started learning various fonts, and he and his soon-to-be wife, Raizie, took a Hebrew calligraphy course together while they were dating. The Monsey-area cardiologist put his skills to good use—calligraphing Raizie’s ketubah, the envelopes for their wedding invitations, and even his internship applications. His passion for calligraphy developed further in1992 when he saw an advertisement for a class that was just about to start in safrus.
“There were six students the first week, but by the third week I was the only one left,” Dr. Lutwak told The Jewish Link. “I ended up with private lessons for one year with Rav Dovid Cohen.”
In addition to teaching Dr. Lutwak the technical skills of the k’sav used in sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzahs, Rabbi Cohen also taught him the associated halachot in the Mishnah Berurah. His first project was a Megillat Esther, a relatively easy project since Hashem’s name doesn’t appear anywhere in the sefer, making corrections a relatively simple process. The Lutwaks gifted that Megillah to their son Moshe for his bar mitzvah, and on their next trip to Israel, a cousin took them to Meah Shearim to buy klaf for the next project, a mezuzah.
“It was the kind of place that you need someone to take you to because you would never find it on your own,” explained Dr. Lutwak. “I don’t exactly have the appearance of a typical Jerusalemite sofer, but nevertheless they treated me and Raizie with the utmost respect every time we came back to buy more klaf.”
Dr. Lutwak’s mention of his plans to write tefillin were met with some skepticism, given the more stringent halachot involved.
“They told me I wasn’t ready for tefillin yet and suggested that maybe writing a Torah was a better idea,” recalled Dr. Lutwak, noting that while a Torah is a larger commitment, having the ability to correct errors made it a more approachable project.
The concept of writing a Torah surfaced once again in 2000 when the Lutwaks returned to Israel in a show of support during the intifada. Stopping into a Rechavia art studio, they spoke with the artist about the letters in his pieces and Dr. Lutwak mentioned that he would love to write a Torah when he retired.
“He said, ‘Why wait?’ We calculated together that if I were to average three lines per day it would take about 15 years to complete.”
It took Dr. Lutwak six months to convince himself to take the plunge, and he settled on a 14-inch size, something he deemed “large enough to read but small enough to be able to do hagba even after retirement.” He wrote the first letters of his Torah on his 50th birthday, confident that by the time he hung up his white coat and stethoscope for good at age 65, it would be completed.
He did his best to write a few lines every night, but the inevitable slowdowns occurred. In one instance, he noticed a tiny bit of ink connecting the upper and lower parts of the letter hey in Hashem’s name, a minor problem on a regular word that became infinitely more complex in this case. Rabbi Benzion Wosner took the section of klaf to Israel to a Sefardi expert, who managed to slice off a thin sliver of klaf containing the entire name, leaving Dr. Lutwak space to write the shem Hashem a second time in the remaining space.
“I still have that shem Hashem,” admitted Dr. Lutwak. “I have it wrapped in cellophane and it sits on my desktop to ensure my humility.”
And it was approximately a year ago when Dr. Lutwak lifted the green oaktag that he kept over the klaf for protection to show a visiting friend how the Torah was progressing only to realize that something had spilled on the oaktag and that the green color had leaked onto the klaf. Unfortunately there was no way to salvage the entire section, which had taken 23 hours to complete.
Having been exceptionally careful writing every letter, Dr. Lutwak didn’t expect that a computer check of his Torah would turn up many issues, and he was devastated when the initial scan yielded 588 comments, spanning 10 pages. Once all the corrections were made, he sewed each of the sections together, attaching them to cherry wood atzei chaim made by a friend. A custom-made mantel depicting a quill, an inkwell and a colorful Jerusalem vista was ordered, and the Lutwaks searched all over Israel for silver pomegranates to place atop their Torah instead of the traditional crown. Ironically, they returned home empty-handed, only to locate a pair at a local store in Monsey.
Dozens of friends and family members turned out in Suffern last Sunday for the dedication of the Lutwak family Torah at Congregation Bais Torah. Dreary skies and intermittent rain failed to dampen the joy as Dr. Lutwak’s labor of love was finally completed. Speaking at the dedication, Rabbi Yisroel Gottlieb noted that Torah study is cyclical, and that when we read the final letter of V’Zos Habracha, a lamed, we immediately begin anew with the beis of Bereishis.
“When you read the Torah from the end back to the beginning, it spells out the word lev—heart—to tell you a cardiologist should be writing a sefer Torah,” observed Rabbi Gottlieb.
Being able to attend the hachnasat sefer Torah left Mordy Appleton, Dr. Lutwak’s father-in-law, filled with pride.
“It is such a tremendous accomplishment for a layperson to complete this over 20 years,” said Appleton, a Fort Lee resident. “This is a man who said, ‘I am going to write my own Torah’—the last of the taryag mitzvot—and he did his bucket list. I don’t think that most people would have the perseverance and the diligence to do something like this.”