hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Aug. 3rd, 2011 10:48 pm)

I write Torah scrolls for congregations, and part of my job is working closely with the congregation to make appropriate programming. Such as, for instance, an opening ritual.

A good ritual starts by speaking to who the community is, and inspires them with a vision of who they want to be. My job as the consulting scribe is to come up with Torah-related ideas that will make that connection.

The clergy and lay leaders have some idea of both ends (you hope), but since I’m not part of the community, I don’t. A meeting with the Torah committee to plan the ritual can be rather intimidating, because it’s my job to figure out, in an hour, what sorts of things they are likely to find familiar, relevant, exciting, and inspirational, and to present those in ways which will fit into the logistical and emotional parameters of ritual.

They have classes on this stuff in rabbinical school, you know. I could ace one of those classes.

Well, so. This is a community that’s celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, its jubilee year. It recently-ish (within communal memory) moved into a shiny new building, and walked the Torah scrolls from the old building to the new. The dedication is right after Simchat Torah.

Elements that got thrown into the mixing bowl, when talking with clergy and lay leaders:

* Children (or perhaps adult bat mitzvah class, convert class, etc) bringing the blank parchment sheets into the sanctuary
* 42 sheets, for the 42 journeys made by the Israelites, and the 42 lines per column. The rabbi has a dvar Torah connecting the 42 journeys to the poem Ana b’koach.
* Collecting turkey feathers from local turkeys beforehand; a quill-cutting moment
* There are pre-writing kavvanot which include Ana b’koach. A kavannah moment.
* Another pre-writing thing is vidui. Since we will just have had Yom Kippur, Ashamnu will be fresh in people’s minds. A solemn moment.
* Blank sheets, Book of Life, fresh starts (see “Jubilee”). Journeys (see “New building”).
* Having six different people write the letters of the first word, images projected onto screen
* Having those people share a minute or two each of their stories
* Talking about the symbolism of each letter, matching that up with their stories
* Having the kids sing alphabet and Torah songs
* Having cards and envelopes under each chair and getting people to write about what their Torah journey this year might be; cards to be sent to participants after the completion ceremony

Yes, that’s not a complete list of every possible element of an opening ritual. That would be cumbersome. This is a good starting list, tailored to this community. Now the clergy and Torah committee will figure out how they’d like to put all this together, and we’ll go from there.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

(Click to see bigger)

Bride and groom,

When we started this process, you said “I don’t think it could possibly work out, but I just had to give it a try.” You asked for something you thought was impossible, and it turned into something quite lovely. May your marriage have many similar shots at seemingly-impossible targets.

The text you chose for your ketubah is a modern one, reflecting your commitment to each other as equals. Yet you chose to have it translated into Aramaic, reflecting your awareness of your heritage. May your marriage be as strongly rooted.

Your text has traditional legal language sprinkled with phrases from Tanakh. The legal language is written in an ordinary book-hand, but the Torah phrases are written in Torah script – distinctive when you look for it, but subtly blending into the broader context. May your marriage have joyous discoveries of the divine amongst the everyday.

The texts adorning the edge of your ketubah are also traditional texts for ketubot. Although the border seems to be one gloriously intricate swirl of letters, if you look carefully, you will see that the two texts are in fact still distinct. May you each preserve your individuality, yet blend together into a harmonious whole.

One of the texts is Sos asis – a haftarah for the Seven Weeks of Consolation, and also traditionally recited on the Shabbat before the wedding. It starts with Isaiah 61:10: “I will greatly rejoice” and goes up to 62:10, a verse whose wordplay means it can read “Lift up a flag over the people” or “Raise a miracle over the people.” May your marriage have whichever you need of consolation and rejoicing, inspiration and miracle.

The other text is Eshet Hayil, Proverbs 31:10-31. Eshet Hayil sings the virtues of a fine wife, and in doing so it shares its vision of a well-balanced, comfortable, smoothly-functioning household. May your marriage also have this contentment.

Eshet Hayil wasn’t quite enough to fill up the space allotted to it, so I also added a line or two from the sheva berakhot, the wedding blessings – “Blessed is the one who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing…” The blessing continues: “…love and harmony and peace and companionship.” As your text contains only the beginning of the blessing, may your wedding contain only the beginning of a life of love and harmony, peace and companionship.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

My beloved student Julie has been writing a Torah in San Francisco at the Contemporary Jewish Museum for the past year, and once she’d finished writing (yay) it came time to sew it together and have a bit of an Event.

So I went out there to help with the sewing and to be part of the Event, because your student doesn’t finish her first sefer Torah every day. I mean wow, seriously.

And I learned…that sewing a Torah together is a lot more fun when there’s two of you doing it. (Here’s a description of sewing a Torah.) It’s pretty fun anyway, but it’s even better when shared.

First we took awls and punched holes down the edges.

Then we took burnishers and folded over one edge.

Then we sorted all the sheets into order.

Then we each took part of the pile

laid two sheets right sides together (this is Sewing 101)

checked that they were the CORRECT two sheets (this is Sewing 101 section 1.1.1)

cut lengths of gid

threaded needles

tied knots




knotted off the threads

cut them

smoothed the seams

and rolled the new sheet up

and continued

and the rolls grew and grew and grew!

until there was a whole Torah

just sitting there

where before there had been a pile of sheets of parchment.

Pretty magical eh?

The museum isn’t a shul. It doesn’t have Torah readings. But don’t you think it’s awfully sad to write a whole Torah and then not have it read from? Julie did, and so did the museum. So they arranged for the Torah to visit Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and on Shabbat we read from it.

Now, the funny thing is, that you write a Torah, and everyone involved is all, whoop-de-hey! amazingcakes! spiffettydoo!, but once you’re reading from it, it’s just like any other Torah. Kind of like pouring water into a lake. The water you’re pouring may be terribly special to you, but once you pour it into the lake, it’s part of the lake, and it doesn’t matter that once it was your special water. It becomes essentially anonymous, just part of the greater body.

No-one would know, to look at it, unless you told them that it was your special Torah. It acquires a life of its own, independent of you (it’s not a mixed metaphor if you start a new paragraph, right?). It’s rather beautiful, in a funny sort of way.

Julie looking slightly surprised, rather relieved, and altogether joyful to have written a Torah.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

(Joint post from me and MarGavriel)

I don’t know about you, but when someone says “Selihot,” my heart sinks, because in my experience, selihot are Hebrew Text Walls of Doom, muttered incomprehensibly and far too fast, punctuated by wails of Divine Attributes which are the only bits I actually recognise. Sound familiar?

Apparently (who knew?) when done properly, they’re actually poems with actual meaning. Not just text walls of doom. More on one verse of one of them in just a moment, but first – liturgically, what exactly are selihot?

Selihot are poems originally recited by the cantor, in his repetition of the Amidah. On weekday fasts, they form part of the berakha סלח לנו, and on Yom Kippur, part of the middle berakha, the Yom Kippur one. Before, after, and between the poems, the 13 Attributes of Divine Mercy (ה’ ה’ אל רחום וחנון) are recited, prefaced by eitherאל ארך אפים or אל מלך יושב.

In recent centuries, almost all our communities have removed the Selihot liturgy from its original context, and placed it after the whole Hazzan’s Repetition, presumably because of concerns of hefsek [thought-train derailment]. Some few communities resist the urge to destroy, and retain the original structure; if yours does, feel free to leave a note in the comments for the edification of others.

In recent years, communities have also removed the Selihot liturgy from the prayerbook and placed it instead on grubby photocopied handouts, but you can find this one (by Solomon ibn Gabirol) in Artscroll, on page 868. Here’s a sound file of the stanza.

גְּדוֹר פִּרְצִי בְּבֶן פַּרְצִי / וּמֵחֶדֶק לְקוֹט שׁוֹשָׁן Repair my breach with the descendant of Peretz [i.e., the Messiah], / and collect the lilies [Israel] from amidst the brambles.
בְּנֵה בֵּית זְבוּל וְהָשֵׁב גְּבוּל / הַכַּרְמֶל וְהַבָּשָׁן Build the Temple Dwelling, and restore the borders / of Carmel and Bashan.
וְעַיִן פְּקַח וְנָקָם קַח / מֵאֵצֶר וּמִדִּישָׁן Keep thine eye alert, and take vengeance / from Etzer and Dishan [Biblical Edomite groups, i.e. Roman-Christians].
שְׁפוֹט אִלֵּם וְאָז יְשַׁלֵּם / הַמַּבְעֶה וְהַמַּבְעִיר Bring justice to the mute one [the Jewish people], and then / may the destroyer and burner pay back –
יוֹם גָּבַר הָאוֹיֵב וַתִּבָּקַע הָעִיר The day when the enemy overpowered [us], and the City went under siege.

17 Tammuz, by the way, is the only Minor Fast to be mentioned in the Mishna (m. Taanit 4:6), where it is juxtaposed to 9 Av:

חמישה דברים אירעו את אבותינו בשבעה עשר בתמוז, וחמישה בתשעה באב. בשבעה עשר בתמוז נשתברו הלוחות, ובטל התמיד, והובקעה העיר, ושרף אפסטמוס את התורה, והעמיד צלם בהיכל… Five things befell our ancestors on 17 Tammuz, and five on 9 Av. On 17 Tammuz, (a) the Tablets were smashed, (b) the Tamid-offering ceased, (c) the City was besieged, (d) Apostomos burned the Torah-scroll, and (e) an idol was set up in the Temple…

This kind of text isn’t unknown in the Mishnah, but it’s perhaps a trifle unexpected. The Mishnah is the realm of legalese, of rulings, of law. Why here does it speak of history, of identity, of nonlegal matters?

The poem’s line שְׁפוֹט אִלֵּם וְאָז יְשַׁלֵּם / הַמַּבְעֶה וְהַמַּבְעִיר (bring justice to the mute one, and then / may the destroyer and burner pay back) is very clever language, when you look at it. In just a few words, the poet invokes huge swathes of Talmudic discourse, all developing very central Jewish ideas of justice and obligation – where people play fair, and bring disputes to the court, and things are settled properly.

But that’s just the problem. Our enemies, whether Titus or anyone else, don’t play fair. And they get away with it. And we can’t judge them in human courts. And it’s beastly unfair.

So we pray to God: שפוט אלם – “give fair judgment to the mute [‘Am Yisra'el], and only then will the מבעה ומבעיר pay up”. Bring the judgements the court would render, if we could only get these people into court.

…בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא ייכנסו לארץ, וחרב הבית בראשונה, ובשנייה, ונלכדה ביתר, ונחרשה העיר. משנכנס אב, ממעטין בשמחה. …On 9 Av, (a) it was decreed that our ancestors would not enter the Land [at the time of the Spies], and the Temple was destroyed (b) the first time, and (c) the second time, and Bethar was captured [by the Romans, from Bar Kosiva's insurgents, in the year 135], and (e) the City was plowed [to utter destruction]. Once the month of Av enters, we decrease our joy.

So these are the Three Weeks of Doom, starting now and culminating on 9 Av, in the destructions of Jewish direction, spirituality, hope, pride, identity. This is the time of year when we remind ourselves what it is like to have nothing.

Nothing save what’s inside. The voice of the poet, calling from the brambles, praying for God to bring us justice. “God – we are Jews, and we try to play by the rules – the Torah’s שלם ישלם המבעיר את הבערה and Bava Kamma’s ארבעה אבות נזיקין: השור והבור והמבעה וההבער and that sense of fairness and justice is part of what makes us Jewish. Take that away, and we are disoriented unbearably. Restore that. Please.”

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.



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