I wanted to do you a post about why there aren’t any vowels or musical notation-marks in a sefer Torah, but when I came to study the subject, I realised it’s a good deal more complicated than can fit into one post. It seemed to require a brief history of vowel-marks, which in turn required a brief history of the alef-bet, which in turn required a brief history of writing in general.

So we’re going to start with a brief history of writing, and then we’ll do the alef-bet, and then we’ll do vowel-marks, and then we’ll be sorted.

Let’s get into it by way of Yosef. This week’s parsha and last week’s, Vayigash and Miketz, tell us about Yosef, employed in a high administrative position tracking and controlling food supplies for an enormous region through fourteen years of plenty and famine.

This kind of activity is how writing was invented, we think. People wanted to keep track of how many things they had (or were owed), so they used tallies, with one-to-one correspondence between the number of marks and the number of things; tally marks have been in use since the Stone Age, a matter of some forty thousand years.

Writing seems to have evolved independently in various areas. We’re ultimately interested in the alef-bet, so we’re going to take that route, but it’s worth remembering that this isn’t the only history of writing out there.

Between 8000 and 4000 BCE people used a token-based kind of abstraction for record-keeping: pebbles or clay tokens representing quantities. One pebble in a jar means one goat in the field; two pebbles in a different jar represents two baskets of grain, and you’d better remember which is which. During these four millennia, the level of abstraction expanded somewhat, such that instead of sixty-three pebbles in a jar meaning sixty-three I-think-it-was-goats-or-is-that-the-grain-jar-damn, you had one sixty-goat token and three one-goat tokens in your jar, and maybe some grain-tokens too, if you had any grain.

Keeping your goat record in a jar leaves you a bit open to your accountant hooking some of your goats, though, so people developed the habit of sealing their tokens in clay containers. Very nice and secure, right?

But a bit tiresome when you want to check up on how many goats you’ve got, that being the whole point of this record-keeping business anyway. Rather than keep on breaking open and resealing the clay containers, around 3500 BCE people started marking the containers while the clay was still wet, using a stylus to carve representations of the contents’ type and quantity.

The next step was to realise that once you have those marks in the clay, the tokens inside the jars are obsolete. The marks are now fully representing real-life objects, without the intermediary stage of tokens; they are no longer mnemonic but pictographic.

Once you’re writing things like “60 goats,” you might also want to convey “Belonging to me” or “When I counted them in the springtime”. Marks come to convey not just objects but ideas and situations.

The next step in the history of writing is using marks to represent sounds. You’ve read the Just So Stories, I take it? If not, go read the one under the link, and then come back.

Say a culture has a symbol :) okay? It starts out representing someone with a smiley face, so when you see it, you think of someone smiling. How do you speak it? :) also stands for the sound which comes out of your mouth when you say “smileyface.” Eventually, we might abbreviate :) to be the sound “sm”.

This is how alphabetic writing systems are born. More about that next week.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

I’ve been neglecting you a bit, I’m afraid. This is because I’ve been posting regular posts for my current Torah client at their special blog, and I haven’t had energy to do two lots of posts or to set up proper cross-posting. Check out last week’s post A single mistake invalidates the entire sefer Torah (with spiffy new photographs) and then continue reading below:

A few weeks ago I wrote this in the Torah:
Ad yashovet hamayimעד ישבת המים, the nonsensical phrase until the feminine singular water sat [thanks Heloise for pointing that out]. The passage in question is וישלח את הערב ויצא יצוא ושוב עד יבשת המים מעל הארץ, He sent forth the raven, and it went out repeatedly and returned, until the waters had dried up from the earth.

יבשת vs ישבת, you see. Both versions make sense, but one of them is wrong, and so it has to be fixed.

Tools for fixing, left to right: electric eraser, scalpel, burnishing tool, rose thorn, eraser.

As discussed last week, you first remove the ink. Some like to use electric erasers for this; with the right grade of abrasive tip, the electric eraser makes short work of the ink. At present I’m in a phase of preferring a scalpel; what you lose on speed, you gain in finesse.
Eventually it’s all gone. At this point, you use the eraser to clear any bits of ink that didn’t brush off. Then you burnish the surface so that it’s good to write on. You use the rose thorn to re-score the line (it’s hard and about the right thickness to match the existing lines, plus extensive biblical/poetic symbolism of roses).
Rewrite properly. They stand out a bit while they’re still wet…
…but once they’ve dried you can’t really tell the difference.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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 hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Mar. 18th, 2011 04:06 pm)

This Purim, I was commissioned to write a megillah for the Abramson Center for Jewish Life, and not just create a megillah, but also a case for it to live in. The Center’s rabbi asked if I could make a design that drew on the Center’s existing artwork, and that’s what you see above.

The Abramson Center has stained-glass windows by the artist Mordechai Rosenstein. I used elements from the Book of Numbers window, pictured here.

Why Numbers? Well, the book of Esther is quite interested in numbers, have you ever noticed? Listen up when you hear it this year – you’ll see. Also, in Numbers, the Israelites complain about המן, which is part of the Purim narrative also.

More seriously, the Shabbat before Purim is known as Shabbat Zachor, because it is on this Shabbat that we remember what Amalek did to the Israelites in the wilderness. The Amalek story is also brought up in the Book of Numbers, in Balaam’s oracle: Amalek was the first among the nations, but its end is utter destruction – and the future of Amalek is (albeit obscurely) what the Purim story is about.

So it is appropriate that the Megillah case draws its colouring and background elements, these energetic stripes of oranges, green, and purple, with white accents, from the Book of Numbers window.

The letters are inspired by another Mordechai Rosenstein piece at the Abramson Center, pictured here, where they spell out והדרת פני זקן – honour the elderly.

What are the letters on the Megillah case spelling out?

The Numbers window depicts an amphora, and on Purim an amphora means one thing – wine. The rabbinic dictum is that one should drink עד דלא ידע – until he can no longer distinguish between “Blessed be Mordechai” and “Cursed be Haman.”

The Megillah case takes the words ברוך מרדכי and ארור המן, and adds the pairing “Blessed be Esther” and “Cursed be Zeresh” from the piyut Shoshanat Yaakov – and then mixes all the letters up, all over the case, until it’s all jumbled and scrambled and עד דלא ידע indeed.

The word translated “honour,” above, has the Hebrew root הדר, which we know in another context, הידר מצוה – hidur mitzvah, beautifying or honouring a mitzvah. This Megillah and its case were donated in memory of Eugene Winston, by Ira, Flaura, Andrew, and Zachary Winston, and they will have the satisfaction every year of knowing that the Center’s Megillah reading is beautified in Eugene’s honour. We wish them joy.


Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

What happens when you let the nose on your dalet get out of control: it turns into an elephant.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Ever wonder what makes heavy Torahs so heavy?

Size is part of it, of course. Before Good Electric Lighting and Universal Spectacles (in the eyecare sense, not in the entertainment sense), having bigger letters helped the reader. Line height these days is regularly 8mm, only two-thirds the size of the letters on older, bigger Torahs.

But another thing is coating. Torahs used commonly to be coated with a substance called log, a plaster-based white stuff that made the parchment pretty and white and heavy. See this next pic, klaf viewed from the back – clicky to see bigger – on the left, splotchily applied log; on the right, brush-marks.

That’s basically a thin layer of stone, right there on the parchment, and the thing about stone is that it’s darn heavy.

I work with so many synagogues that have these enormous heavy Torahs that no-one can lift. They never get used because there’s no-one in the congregation who can do hagbah with them – they barely even get taken out on Simchat Torah, poor things. But these Torahs used to be used, once upon a time. What happened?

I already suggested that we can have smaller Torahs these days because we have better synagogue lighting and more people have specs. I also think that we need smaller Torahs these days because we don’t have people who can lift them any more. Where are the blacksmiths, the butchers, the carpenters? the carters, the porters, the men who worked with their muscles for a living and on Shabbat they lifted the Torah? They’ve all gone, replaced by power tools.

Without getting overly nostalgic for times when women routinely died in childbirth (except in today’s USA where they still do, lucky us!) and their children died in infancy and their husbands died young in industrial accidents, I do get a little sad for these big old Torahs, standing solid and beautiful in the backs of arons all over the country, their lovely big legible script unseen and unread, as we read our tiny light Torahs with our halogen lights and our contact lenses and bear them aloft with our feeble withered arms.

beautiful big letters

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

ink popping off torah

Places where ink has popped off and only the shadows are left. Clicky to see bigger.

The shadows don’t count, by the by, so if your letters look like this, they are pasul and need fixing.

These kinds of pesulim are funny. They really do just pop off. Pop! and they’re gone. Sometimes if it’s very bad you can look at the floor of the aron and see all these little flakes of popped-off letters.

I’d write more, speculating about how and why and so on, but I’ve been on my feet all day checking through nine sifrei Torah to see what they need by way of repairs, and I’m about wiped out.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

This is one of my favourite letter-halakhot, from the rules of how to make straight nun:
animated nun

אות נו”ן פשוטה תואר צורתה כמו זיי”ן וג’ תגין על ראשה אך שהיא ארוכה כשיעור שתהא ראויה להעשות נו”ן כפופה אם תכפפנה Its form is like a zayin, with three tagin on its head, but it is long, such that one could make bent nun out of it if it were bent round…

And from the rules of straight khaf, clarifying the point:

שאין חילוק בין פשוטה לכפופה רק שזה פשוטה וזה כפופה… …there is no difference between the straight and bent form save that one is straight and one is bent…

Many people have difficulty visualising (and remembering) this. I hope that the animation displayed here will help.

My favourite favourite letter halakaha, though, has to do with tagin.

Tagin on right head of tzaddiTzaddi with taginThe very best sorts of people do mitzvot as soon as the opportunity presents itself, correct? And we read Hebrew from right to left, so surely we should put tagin on the right-hand head of letters such as tzaddi, which have more than one head? Like the image at left, in fact.

We don’t, though. We put them on the left-hand head, like the image at right. Why’s that?

Because if you put them on the right-hand head, they’d fall off. (Keset haSofer, 5:2, letter tet.)

Tzaddi and taggin

And this is why we make the right-hand heads curvy and upward-tilted.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Little Letters in Eicha, part 1

Little Ayin in Eicha
לעות אדם בריבו אדני לא ראה To subvert a man in his cause, the LORD approveth not.

Tzvi Ron in Sefer Katan u-Gadol again (trans. G. Wasserman): “The small ‘ayin in the word לעות (verse 3:36) is explained as a reference to the numerical value of the letter, namely seventy. This verse says that God did not agree with the perversion of justice, and the number 70 is associated with this if we relate it to the seventy judges of the Sanhedrin, or the seventy years of Babylonian exile which God’s justice decreed for the Jewish people.”

Now call me a sceptic, but this sounds a bit forced to me. Surely there’s more to it than that? But if so, we’ve forgotten what it ever was (or Tzvi Ron didn’t find it yet, anyway). By way of compensation, someone more recent (like, in the last 1000 years) came up with this one. Numerical symbolism is a tool in the interpretative toolbox.

Little Tet in Eicha
טבעו בארץ שעריה אבד ושבר בריחיה מלכה ושריה בגוים אין תורה גם נביאיה לא מצאו חזון מיקוק Her gates are sunk into the ground; he hath destroyed and broken her bars: her king and her princes are among the Gentiles: the law is no more; her prophets also find no vision from the LORD.

The numerical symbolism here is a date – Tet is 9, and “In Midrash Haseroth Vi-yetheroth, it says the allusion is to the destruction of the Temple, which took place on the date 9 (i.e., ט) Av; this explanation appears also in the Minhath Shai and in the book Yesod Ohel Mo‘ed.” Okay, very nice, but it gets much better.

A whole big collection of mouseover interpretations follows. Choose your mouseover, really.

Other commentators have explained the small teth as being a reference to some particular smallness in the sinking of the gates. Thus, in Mesoreth Ha-berith Ha-gadol, it says: “The reference here means that they did not sink very deeply, but only a small sinking.”

In the book Em La-miqra ve-la-Masoreth, it says that the small teth is an allusion to the word טוב, good: “It hints that their sinking was not to their disadvantage, but for their own good – it was so that the enemy’s hands would not have control over them.” In the same book, it lists a number of allusions associated with the word טוב – the goodness which was decreased at the time of the Destruction, the good Torah which the Jews had abandoned, and more.

In Sefer Elyashiv, it says that the reference is to טוב רואי, the one good in appearance, i.e., the handsome King David, in whose merit the gates were not destroyed, but merely sank into the ground. In the book Yesod Ohel Mo‘ed, the same connection to טוב רואי is mentioned, except that here, it is explained as referring to the fact that the gates, which now sank, had originally been made by King David.

So – a small letter tet, with all kinds of allusions about the destruction of the temple floating around it. In the next post, we’ll see how this isn’t just a mouseover tet, it’s actually a hyperlink tet, connected to a tet in Kohelet.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

I’ve not posted much on the Big and Little Letters in Torah, have I? And now I’m posting on the Little Letters in Eicha – well, I’m between Torahs at the moment, and indulging in a spate of megillot, Eicha amongst them, which has something to do with it.

Little Lamed in Eicha
(Sofer Boyfriend wrote this one.)
לוא אליכם כל עברי דרך הביטו וראו אם יש מכאוב כמכאבי אשר עולל לי אשר הוגה יקוק ביום חרון אפו Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.

There’s a whole tradition of interpreting the Big and Small letters. A few of them are in the Gemara, where the context is Explaining Something Everyone Knows more than Telling You How To Do This New Thing; the rest of them have been around for something like a thousand years but mostly we didn’t write down explanations, so they’ve suffered the usual fates of verbal explanations — ambition, distraction, uglification and derision — as you might imagine.

Anyway. Sometimes a Little Letter is interpreted as suggesting a particular Littleness. You may be familar with one from Torah, explained thus: “The conceits of the Cabalistic writers are most curious; for instance, they suppose that Abraham wept but little for Sarah, because a remarkably small letter — “Caph” — is used in the Hebrew word which describes Abraham’s tears, thus evincing that his grief was also small.” (That’s a footnote in a book from 1862 about anagrams; don’t take it too strongly to heart. I just liked the style.)

What would be the Littleness here? I’m going to quote from a book by one Tzvi Ron, ספר קטן וגדול, Gush Etzion, 2006, translated by G. Wasserman:

R. Shelomo Alqabes explains that the allusion is to the smallness of the Jews’ prayer to be spared from punishment: “Their prayer was not offered בעין טובה [generously], for there is no goodness for the wicked.” In Sefer Elyashiv, it explains the smallness as being the smallness of learning a lesson, for the gentile nations did not learn a lesson from seeing that God had punished the Jewish people for their sins.

Tzvi Ron also says “According to Midrash R. ‘Aqiva, it is a hint to words which begin with lamed, for the Jewish people had once been לראש, and now were לזנב.”

You might reasonably point out that lots of words begin with lamed and this concept cannot be uniformly applied, yes. So you might reasonably conclude either that there’s more to it than that but we’ve lost the tradition, or that you should go read the Midrash R. ‘Aqiva and see if it addresses that point.

What I want to take away from this particular point is the idea that a Little Letter is not just a mouseover interpretation, it’s a sort of ambiguation — like a Wikipedia disambiguation, but the other way over — the suggestion that there are vague links here to other instances of that letter. This point to be developed in part 2, coming soon.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Occasionally I dip my pen, by accident, into my tea instead of into my ink.

When that happens, I wipe the tea off my pen, and dip the pen into the ink as per original plan.

But sometimes apparently I don’t get all the tea off my pen. A tiny drop of it lurks in the barrel, and when I’m not expecting it, it trickles down and lands in my writing.


Tea and ink, not mixing

Tea and ink, not mixing

The three little dots are the gleams from my desk lamps, and the other gleam is the light from the window.

Blue sky and clouds.

Blue sky and clouds.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.