Tunisian authorities foiled attempts by a group of suspected traffickers to smuggle a 15th-century Torah scroll to Europe Monday.
The arrested suspects are said to belong to a ring of international smugglers working with unidentified European buyers, according to Ynet News.
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Confirming the arrest, Tunisian National Guard spokesman Kahalifa al-Shibani said the suspects were arrested following a tip-off that the centuries-old Torah scroll was in the process of being sold off to European buyers as part of an antiquities-trafficking operation.
Al-Shibani described the 37-meter-long, 47-centimeter wide scroll, which was presented at the press conference, as “a unique historical item for the world.”
The scroll is written on a Bovinae skin and appears to contain all parts of the Torah, although some Hebrew language experts have contended that the scroll had been written prior to the arrangement of the different books of Torah in their current order.
The scroll, which is written in Hebrew, is one of the few remaining relics belonging to the ancient Tunisian Jewish community.
“Experts at the National Heritage Institute have confirmed that the Torah scroll is an extremely rare, historical, and invaluable item that is from the 15th century,” al-Shibani said.
Books of Torah
Also referred to as “Sefer Torah,” the Books of Torah are a collection of handwritten copies of the Torah (the holiest book in Judaism), commonly used in the ritual of Torah reading during Jewish prayers.
Most of the time, the scrolls are kept in the holiest spot within a synagogue, which is popularly referred to as the “Torah Ark.”
The Torah Ark is usually an ornate cabinet covered with curtains and engrained in the wall facing Jerusalem – the direction Jews face when praying.
Today, most of the scrolls of the Torah have been printed and bound in books for non-ritual purposes. These books are commonly referred to as “Chumash,” or the “five-part,” for the five books of Moses.
The Torah reading ritual is usually observed on Monday and Thursday mornings as well as on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
Since the Punic era in 200 B.C., a small community of Jews have been residing in Djerba Island, off the coast of Tunisia.
While the majority of Tunisian Jews have relocated to Israel, the safe haven for Jews, a recent population census showed that at least 700 Jews are currently living in Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, while a thousand others live on Djerba Island.