You’re merrily checking through a sefer Torah, one in which the scribe tends to underestimate his lines, and has to stretch at the ends to compensate (lines 1, 2, 6, 7). And you see a chunk (lines 3, 4, 5) of squishied-up writing. Why?

vezot torat hamincha edited

This usually happens when you accidentally leave words out. Calligraphers have various ways of dealing with missing lines; here’s a particularly sweet example from the St John’s Bible, where the missing words are written in the margin and flown into place by a little bird:

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Torah scribes don’t have such luxury. No writing words in the margin for us.

We do, technically, have the option of writing the missing words above the line, but a) that’s Not Done these days b) if there are a lot of words, that’s not going to work.

So what options remain? Either start the sheet over, or erase words from the surrounding text, and make enough space that we can squish the extra words in.

Note that the second item in line 3 is an obligatory space. The space has to be in the middle of a line. I expect he started erasing after the space because repositioning the space would have been even more tiresome than not.

Also, note that the second item in line 6 is a Divine Name. These can’t be erased. So the scribe erased the two-and-a-bit lines of 3, 4, and 5 to write in the proper text, unless he realised his error before he got to the divine name.

So what was his mistake?

From the shadows, I can sort of see where some letters used to be:

vezot torat hamincha 3

But whatever did he write first? I’m stumped by those apparent two kufs. Maybe we’ve got two rounds of erasing to contend with? Certainly that “et” is on a double erasure – maybe it’s actually on a triple erasure?

Real scribal archaeologists have UV lights and all sorts of toys for reading the underneath writing on palimpsests. If this was actually important we could use some of those toys, but it isn’t really – just fun. So – any thoughts?

Mirrored from

טז) לא יעשה חציו גויל וחציו קלפים, אבל עושה חציו גויל וחציו צבאים, אף על פי שאינו מן המובחר. He shouldn’t do half of it on gevil [=a thicker type of cow parchment, more like leather] and half on klaf [a thinner type of parchment made by splitting a cow skin laterally]. But he may do half on gevil and half on deer [deer also comes out thickish with a similar texture to gevil], even though that isn’t the nicest way of doing it.
יז) אין דובקין בדבק, ולא כותבין על גבי המטלית, ולא תופרין במקום הכתב, אמר ר’ שמעון בן אלעזר משום ר’ מאיר שדובקין בדבק, וכותבין על גבי המטלית, אבל אין תופרין במקום הכתב מבפנים, ותופרין במקום הכתב מבחוץ. One does not stick it together with glue, and one doesn’t write on patches, nor sew in the bit with the writing. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Meir that we do stick it together with glue, and write on patches; but we don’t sew it in the bit with the writing on the front side, and we do sew in the bit with the writing on the back side. [You can do this if you are working with unsplit hides; they’re thick enough that you can stitch through only part of the thickness of the material. I think this is what it's talking about. ]
יח) צריך שיהא משייר מלמעלן ומלמטן, כדי שלא יקרע, ומאחר ליה על מחייה, מלמטה למעלה ומלמעלה למטה, הלכה למשה מסיני. One must leave a bit [unsewn] above and below, so that it shouldn’t tear. And one has to go back over the sewing – from bottom to top, and from top to bottom – this is halakha from Moses at Sinai. [I think it’s saying that you make a backstitch at each end, but I’m not sure. The various other things I’ve read haven’t discussed this one. Remember a few days ago I said this text isn’t authoritative?]
יט) ספר שנקרע טולה עליו מטלית מבחוץ. A sefer which tore – you put a patch on the back.
כ) כל האותיות הכפולים באלפא ביתא, כותב את הראשונים בתחילת התיבה, ובאמצע התיבה, ואת האחרונים בסוף, ואם שינה פסול. The letters of the alphabet for which two forms exist – you put the former at the beginning of the word, and in the middle of the word, and the latter at the end of the word, and if you deviate from this, it is invalid. [Note to self: look at this in the context of the development of final letterforms, sometime or other.]

Mirrored from

יב) ובקלפים לא נתנו שיעור, אלא כל מה שהוא רוצה, מוסיף, ובלבד שלא יפחות משלשה דפין. There is no defined measurement for the klafim; whatever one wants, he may add, provided he does not go under three columns.
יג) יריעה שבלת, לא יטול שנים ויחזיר שנים, אלא נוטל שלשה ומחזיר שלשה, ומה שהוא מחזיר, כמדת כתב הראשון. A worn-out sheet – one does not remove two [columns] and return two, but one may remove three and return three, measuring the same as the original.
יד) שיעור הדף כדי שיהא רואהו, ובקטן לא יפחות מטפח, ר’ יוסי בר’ יהודה אומר לא יפחות משלש אצבעות. A column should be sized so that he can see it, and at the smallest it should not be less than a tefach [wide; see above about them being six tefachim high]. Rabbi Yosi in the name of Rabbi Yehudah says, he shouldn’t make it smaller than three finger-widths.
טו) ולא יעשה חצי ארכו יתר על רחבו, ולא רחבו יתר על ארכו, אבל ממצעו הוא, ועושה אותו מן המובחר. He should not make half its length [=column height] greater than its width, and its width should not be greater than its length, but he should do it between, to do it as nicely as possible [That is, width < length < 2*width.]

Mirrored from

Okay! This bit is what got me started on this in the first place.

יא) אבל בשיטין נתנו טעם, כמסעות ארבעים ושנים, וכרבבות של ישראל ששים, וכזקנים של ישראל שבעים ושנים, וכתוכחות של משנה תורה תשעים ושמנה, הכל לפי הכתב.

כמסעות, שנאמר ויכתוב משה את מוצאיהם;

כרבבות ישראל, שנאמר כתב לך את הדברים האלה כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת ישראל, מה ישראל בששים ריבוא אף שיטיה של תורה בששים;

וכזקנים שבעים ושנים, שנאמר אספה לי שבעים איש, וישארו שני אנשים במחנה, והמה בכתובים, שבעים ושנים;

וכתוכחות תשעים ושמנה, שנאמר אם לא תשמר לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת.

But for the lines, we have a reason: like the journey-stations, forty-two; and like the myriads of Israel, sixty; and like the elders of Israel, seventy-two; and like the Admonitions in Deuteronomy, ninety-eight; all according to one’s writing.

The journey-stations, as it says, Moses wrote their journeys (Numbers 33:2).

The myriads of Israel, as it says, Write thou these words, for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel (Exodus 34:27); just as Israel are in sixty myriads, so too the lines of the Torah are sixty.

And the seventy-two elders, as it says, Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel (Numbers 11:16) and There remained two men in the camp and They were numbered among the elders (ibid. 11:26), which makes seventy-two.

And the ninety-eight admonitions, as it says, If you do not observe and obey all the words of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 28:58)

If you have a ninety-eight line Torah in your shul, I would like to see a photograph. Please.

Mirrored from

ח) מניחין בסוף הדף כדי הקיפו, ואינו צריך לעשות כן בתחילתו, ולתורה מיכאן ומיכאן; לפיכך גוללין את הספר לתחילתו, ואת התורה לאמצעיתה. One leaves at the end of the [last] column enough to wrap around it. It is not necessary to do this at its beginning. For Torah, on both sides; accordingly, one rolls the book from its beginning, and the Torah from its middle.
ט) ואין פוחתין את התורה ביריעה מארכה של תורה, ששה טפחים. One doesn’t reduce the Torah, in a sheet from the length of the Torah, more than six tefachim. [Yes, this is truly painful translation. Sorry. It means a sheet of Torah ought to be six hand-breadths high.]
י) ואין פוחתין ביריעה פחות משלשה דפין, ולא מוסיפין על שמנה. One doesn’t make a sheet with fewer than three columns, or more than eight.

As I said last time, for pity’s sake, don’t go trying to use this to write the Torah.

Mirrored from

I was looking up the bit about the number of lines per column (thanks, MarGavriel), and I figured I might as well review (and translate, because that’s how I learn best) the whole chapter.

Various people describe Masechet Soferim as a rulebook for writing the Torah. It really isn’t. It’s a minor talmudic tractate containing a mish-mash of interesting things, many of which are connected to writing Torah scrolls, but it isn’t a rulebook. It doesn’t even mention a whole lot of things we hold to be rather important; you also have to remember that it is a Lesser Source; many of its statements are contradicted by more authoritative talmudical tractates. So for pity’s sake, don’t go trying to use this to write the Torah. Learn the Keset haSofer instead.

Text pulled from If you appreciated this, buy a subscription. Translation by me without looking up any commentaries or parallel texts, so don’t expect perfection.

א) מניחין בין שם לשם כדי שיהא ניכרין, ובאותיות כדי שלא יהא מעורבבין. אם עירב את האותיות, או שהפסיק באמצע השם, אל יקרא בו. One leaves between word and word enough that we can recognise it, and between letter and letter enough that they aren’t joined together. If one joined the letters, or made a gap in the middle of a word, it is not to be read from.
ב) מניחין בין שיטה לשיטה כמלא שיטה, ובין תיבה לתיבה כמלא אות, ובין אות לאות כמלא שיער, ובין דף לדף כמלא גודל, עשה סוף הדף לתחילתו פסל. עירב את האותיות, או שהפסיק באמצע השם, אל יקרא בו. One leaves between line and line the amount of a line; and between word and word as much as a letter; and between letter and letter as much as a hair; and between column and column as much as a thumb’s-width; if one made the trailing edge of a column [i.e. the left-hand edge] up against the leading edge [of the next] it is pasul. If one joined the letters, or made a gap in the middle of a word, it is not to be read from.
ג) מניחין בין לדף לדף. שם בן ארבע אותיות, לא יכתוב שתים בסוף הדף, ושתים בין דף לדף, אבל לא משם קטן, ואם היה שם קטן בפני עצמו של שלש אותיות אסור. Leaving between column and column: a word of four letters should not be written two at the edge of the column and two in the space between – but not from a little word, and if there is a little word on its own of three letters, it is assur.
ד) מניחין בין דף לדף, בתורה שתי אצבעות ריוח, ובנביאים ובחומשים ריוח גודל אחד. One leaves between column and column – in Torah, two finger-widths’ space, and in prophetic books and single books of the Torah, one thumb-width.
ה) מניחין מלמטן בתורה ריוח טפח, ומלמעלן שלשה חלקים בטפח, ובנביאים ובחומשין שלש אצבעות מלמטן, ושתים מלמעלן; כאן וכאן אם רצה להוסיף יוסיף, ובלבד שלא יהא הרוחות מרובין מן הכתב. One leaves beneath – in Torah, a tefach-space, and above, three parts of a tefach; in prophetic books and single books of the Torah, three finger-widths beneath and two above. In both, one may make them bigger if he wishes, provided that the blank space is not bigger than the writing.
ו) מניחין בין ספר לספר, בתורה ריוח ארבע שיטין, ובנביא של שנים עשר שלש שיטין. One leaves between book and book – in Torah, four lines; and in the Twelve Minor Prophets, three lines.
ז) גמר כל הספרים, ושייר בו דף אחד, עושה אותו יריעה אחת קטנה, ואינו נמנע. If one finished all the books, and one column remained, he makes of it a little sheet, and that is okay.

All right. There’s twenty of these. I’ll give you the rest later.

Mirrored from

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( May. 17th, 2011 04:18 pm)

See how the scribe here has adjusted his lines to fit around the hole in his klaf?

Hole in klaf

Rabbi Dan describes this perfectly: “a loving reminder that we live in a very, very wealthy time when we can have perfect klafim in our synagogues, and admiring the sofer who adapted to the needs of the moment.”

Mirrored from

How many lines to a column?

It varies. Torah scrolls tend not to have fewer than 42 lines per column. Some Megillot will have eleven lines per column, so as to have the Sons of Haman occupy a column to themselves but still have only one on each line.

The Keset ha-Sofer:

It is the custom to have no fewer than 48 lines, representing the journeys of Israel, and some say no fewer than 42, because of what God did in the Sinai wilderness at Kadesh. Also, we don’t have more than 60 lines, representing the 60 myriads of Israel who received the Torah. This is because the beginnings of sanctity start at 48 or 42 (the wanderings in the wilderness) and continue to 60 (the giving of the Torah). If one makes it different it isn’t invalid.

Good thing too, that last bit – I saw a 70-liner this afternoon.

See? 70-line Torah Column of Doom at left; compare to 42-line Regular Column at right. I would need to stand on a chair to read from that big one.

70-line-columnrandom column

Mirrored from

The New York Public Library is having an exhibition this winter, about Three Faiths And Manuscripts, or some such. Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and their various adventures with calligraphy.

I’d link you to the relevant Library page, but the exhibition is not on the website yet, not even under “Upcoming.”

Anyway, part of the exhibition is going to be films of various calligraphers doing their various calligraphic things, and one of the calligraphers is me.

The Library is this gigantic building on 42nd St. I got out of the train at Times Square and walked across town, because I don’t do that very often and it’s sort of picturesque, in a startling kind of way. It was chucking it down with a) rain b) tourists; I contemplated taking pictures of both, but I was running a little late, so I got you that image from Wikimedia instead, and you’ll have to fill in the rain and the tourists from your imagination.

We were working in a large panelled room with large panelled doors and a large marble doorway and a lot of fancy-pants lights, some part of the museum’s setup and some part of the photographer’s kit. He was the best sort of photographer, the kind that just films and lets you get on with writing. The annoying kind keep going “Can you do that again? -Can you dip the pen again? Now can you kind of hold it like that?”. I don’t take that sort of direction while I’m writing any more; either you let me write, or I do something fake, but you don’t get to tell me how you think me doing writing should look, because that messes up the writing, and I decided some time ago that my priority is always my work and never the camera – but I didn’t have to explain that to this chap, which was a treat and a half.

The Library were most emphatic that if they had to have a lady scribe, she had to be doing something politically acceptable, so that orthodox visitors wouldn’t freak out. Personally I think that once you have a Reform scribe in your video (which they do) you’ve got no reason to exclude a female scribe, but that just goes to show that the concern is not so much Orthodox Legal Sensibilities as Icky Girl Cooties. Then again, they could have chosen to exclude me completely, so I guess I’m mostly grateful.

Anyway, that meant I didn’t do anything Torah-related for their film, nor even the mezuzot I’m presently working on, no, I wrote some of the Megillah of Kohelet.

I’m sort of writing Kohelet and thinking maybe I’ll finish it in time to read on Succot – at the present rate that doesn’t seem very likely, but we’ll see – anyway, as it turned out, I was writing this bit that day. Good for being filmed, because of the distinctive pattern.

It’s the bit – you probably remember it, it’s the only thing anyone remembers from Ecclesiastes – “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build…” It’s poetry, obviously, and the rhythm of the words is reflected in the rhythm of the layout.

Side of computer included in image for size comparison and general pleasingness of contrasting media.

I did not take any pictures of me writing, on account of, I was busy writing. But afterwards, I took a picture of the view out of the window. And I took some photos of the tourists who kept trying to come in, for amusement’s sake, but they didn’t come out so well.

Days like that are rather funny to blog. I go to whatever location it is, and set up, and do my thing as I would at home, and someone hovers around with a camera, and then they go home and cut and paste and eventually they turn it into something that is splendid video but looks most unlike how I was feeling. I guess maybe an egg feels like that when it gets made into a cake. So too with blogging – I think you’re sort of expecting to hear about the cake, and I’m more inclined to write about it from the perspective of the egg.

Thus it is that I can write a whole post about “Today I went to the NYPL to be filmed doing writing” and have no pictures of Teh Soferet Writing.
It was cool to go to the fancy-pants library, and see the pretty pretty architectural details, and swan nonchalently through doors labelled “Staff Only,” but I’m most excited about this photo of the view from the window.

Never mind, eh? When the exhibition opens, I’m sure they’ll have something online, and I’ll tell you about it then. In the meantime – this is what it’s like being an egg.

Mirrored from

Fitting text into shapes, the bane of ketubah artists everywhere.

First thing with funny shapes is to check them out with the officiant. Some officiants are DEAD AGAINST funny shapes – anything that doesn’t have four sides and right-angled corners. Others are okay with it so long as the lines are horizontal and any added words would look obviously wrong.

Today we’re fitting text into an eight-pointed star, and the question I most need to answer is “What size nib? what line height?” (This is one question, today.)

Playing around with my word processor (re-read Part 3 if you’ve forgotten), I can see that if I was using my beloved B nib, with its 9mm lines, this text would occupy 30 lines of 18cm each (for pity’s sake don’t forget the lines for the witnesses, and it’s a good idea to add a line or so’s worth of space just for security). That’s 486cm2.

Now I want to work out the area my funny-shaped text actually needs to occupy. If all mathematical formulae fail, you can do it out on squared paper and count the squares, just like we did for GCSE. Make sure you don’t screw up the units. You do remember your high school maths, don’t you?

I like using metric because I hate working in idiotic fractions of inches. Eight-pointed star based on a 4.5-inch square…translate into metric, figure the area… I can’t use the bottom point of the star, because the witnesses have to fit in at the bottom one underneath the other…looks like my area here is 154cm2.

Find the length scaling factor. GCSE maths again – when areas are scaled a:A, lengths are scaled √a:√A. My areas are scaled 154:486. 154/486=0.3168, so I can also say my areas are scaled 0.3168:1. So my lengths are scaled √0.3168:√1, that is 0.56:1.

So, to get the line height – if I was using my B nib, I would be using a 9mm line height. The length scaling factor is 0.56, and 0.56*9mm = 5mm, near as dammit. So I need to be using a 5mm line height, and a nib to match.

In my case, that means a quill something less than a millimetre wide, and in your case, well, you’ll figure out what you need to be doing.

I lightly write each line in pencil first, so as to get an idea of how to space the words on the line. Not all the lines, just each line as I get to it, until the last five or ten lines – then I pencil in the whole lot, to make sure that they’ll fit nicely. Sometimes doing this on tracing paper is better, so that you don’t do too much pencil-erasing on the Actual Ketubah. Depends how forgiving your surface is.

Erase the messy pencil lines, draw in a bit of a border, et voilà. Perfect.

So there you go. Now you know how to fit a ketubah text into any shape you like. Enjoy. Send me pictures.

Mirrored from

A post that can be of no possible interest save to the very very few.


On klaf, 8mm lines of 62 yuds (average) are done at 134mm wide, because that’s what works.

Therefore, a column of 47 yuds needs to be 102mm wide, one of 66 yuds needs to be 143mm wide, one of 75 yuds needs to be 162mm wide, and one of 90 yuds needs to be 195mm wide.

It is not particularly ideal to have columns of such very varied width, but it is not per se problematic.

Mirrored from


In an ideal situation, then, you have your .doc file, with the names and everything neatly filled in.

Next to the portable drafting board, the most awesome tool in the ketubah artist’s kit is – VARIABLE MARGINS!

Yes. You open your .doc file in Word*, and you mess with the margins. It’s great.

I’ve learned – it doesn’t take much fiddling about to learn with what fonts this trick applies to you – that with the aforementioned Broad nib, my usual ketubah script and Times New Roman’s Hebrew letters are spaced about the same. That is, if Word wraps Times New Roman text in a particular way, my writing is going to want to wrap at about the same point.

The other thing I’ve learned is that with a B nib, when I write the first line up to “alafim,” the line occupies 18cm. So in Word, I tweak the margin so that the first line wraps at “alafim,” and then all the other lines are wrapped for me! nice and neat! and I know that if I make all my lines 18cm wide, I won’t have any nasty surprises when things won’t fit.

Especially if you don’t fully-justify the text, you just right-justify it, so you can see which are the Short lines and which are the Long lines. Then you know which ones to stretch and which ones to squish so it’ll all look beautifully planned.

Then you say to Word, display line numbers please! and it shows you that there are 30-some lines (depending on precise text). So you know how many lines to write, as well.

* or proprietary or open-source equivalent, yes, blah, shut up, Word is the Kleenex of word-processors, generically ready to soak up tears and bogies whilst being challenged by cheap alternatives that will make your nose red. Um, what?

Mirrored from

Ketubah texts come in three varieties.

The most common variety up until just a few years ago was a tenth-generation photocopy from the Rabbi’s Manual, the text so blurry you could barely distinguish the letters, and GIANT DOTTED LINES whose giant dots rendered semi-invisible the names, scribbled in pencil by a rushed rabbi. It didn’t really matter that the names were semi-invisible, because it is a criterion for graduating rabbinical school that you have to have illegible Hebrew script,* so you always had to phone and check anyway.

Today, most rabbis have access to computers which can handle Hebrew, so you can email them a .doc of the standard text (sometimes they even already have one, such is the progress we have made!), and they will fill in the names and send it back to you. This is super.

The third category is really a subset of the second – rabbis who fax you back a bit of shul notepaper with the names scribbled on it because they can’t type in Hebrew. A fun variation is the set of rabbis who can’t type in Hebrew but think they can type in Hebrew, so you get names like יןסף and you have to edit judicially.

Editing judicially is a double-edged sword, of course, because on the one hand you know perfectly well that no-one spells Yosef with a terminal nun in the middle, but on the other hand you can’t just go around correcting rabbis, that destroys the illusion that they’re infallible and is a Threat to the World Order causing volcanoes and suchlike. So you phone them and double-check.

I realise at this point that you might have been expecting “three varieties” to mean something like “Orthodox, Conservative and Reform,” but this is an art series, so I was speaking as an artist – and as an artist, that’s what you need to know.

* This is also important when you are writing out the names of the sick to be prayed for. It isn’t a proper prayer for the sick if the prayer leader can read all the names. It is especially important to have terrible writing if you are transliterating English names of non-Jews.

Mirrored from