I didn't cross-post, because the formatting went all whack, and I didn't feel like reformatting the whole thing for DW/LJ. You'll just have to click over, my loves. It's well worth it, I think.
I didn't cross-post, because the formatting went all whack, and I didn't feel like reformatting the whole thing for DW/LJ. You'll just have to click over, my loves. It's well worth it, I think.
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.
The original stone tablets were written by the finger of God, etzba Elohim.
Nowadays we write their less cumbersome representations, the Torah-scrolls, with quills, but what most people today don’t know is that ideally you don’t use a quill to write sifrei kodesh.
You’re supposed to use the index finger of your dominant hand — why the index finger? because Jewish tradition holds that there is a vein in the index finger leading directly to the heart; this is why in the wedding ceremony we put the ring on the index finger — you grow the nail, and then you shape it into a nib and write with that.
As well as representing the etzba Elohim, this also brings the scribe closer to the mitzvah. The Torah-scroll represents the marriage contract between God and the Jewish people; now, Jewish law states that one may contract a marriage by emissary, but it is obvious to all that it is better to attend one’s own wedding in person, since there is something rather glaringly inappropriate about contracting this closest of bonds by means of an intermediate agent. Similarly, writing a Torah-scroll with a quill, an intermediate agent, is permitted, but it is much better, if one can, to perform the act in person.
Most scribes today aren’t particular about this method of beautifying the mitzvah, and indeed it is hard to observe.
One reason quills are a decent technological substitute for fingernails is because they have very similar mechanical properties, both being made largely from keratin, rendering them tough but flexible, easily shaped but holding that shape. We’ve seen before in these pages that quills need frequent sharpening if they are to write well, and the same is true of fingernails. We’re used to cutting our fingernails, because they grow faster than we wear them down, but if you use your fingernail to write on parchment, it will wear down faster than your body can replace it, and you will run out of pen.
Since the invention of acrylic nail-tips, which are attached to the shortened nail, some scribes have been experimenting with using these prosthetic fingernails as writing tools. Interestingly, it’s following this line of thought that plastic nibs have recently been developed. Like nail-tips, these nibs are attached to one’s regular writing instrument and are designed to be longer-lasting than the original.
I’ve said before that plastic nibs definitely have their place, but they just aren’t capable of the subtlety of the keratin-based originals. Acrylic nibs are ingenious, but they really aren’t ideal. It follows that the careful scribe is forced to observe prolonged rest periods in which the fingernail must re-grow. One may, if pressed for time, use the other fingers of the hand, but this often results in reduced writing quality, given the lesser dexerity of the fourth and fifth fingers, so the truly careful scribe will plan his work such that he does not need to do this. This generally means he writes Torah one day a week and does some other job the rest of the time while his nail is re-growing.
This is why it takes such a long time to write a sefer Torah. If fingernails didn’t wear down with use, it would be possible to write a sefer Torah in an hour or so.
For consider this. We know that Moshe Rabbeinu died on Shabbat afternoon (R. Yosé in Seder ‘Olam Rabba 11), and we also know that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote thirteen Torah-scrolls on the last day of his life (R. Yannai in Devarim Rabba Vayyelekh §9).
Now, writing on Shabbat is a Biblically-forbidden activity, which Moshe Rabbeinu would not have done. But writing with one’s non-dominant hand is only prohibited on a Rabbinical level, at a much later date, which means that in Moshe Rabbeinu’s time it would have been permitted. So, we know that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote thirteen Torah-scrolls with his non-dominant hand in one day. (Clearly, had he been using his dominant hand, he would have been able to write far more Torah-scrolls, perhaps as many as forty.)
We also know that Moshe Rabbeinu had an unusually fast rate of keratin production, because his face had horns, which are, like fingernails, made from keratin. Normal people don’t produce keratin fast enough that they have horns; the best most of us can manage is hair and nails. But Moshe Rabbeinu was special. That’s why his Torah-writing wasn’t hampered by his fingernails wearing down, and how it is that he was able to produce thirteen sifrei Torah on one Shabbat.
Interestingly, the cantillation phrase traditionally used for the words etzba Elohim is a very rare one (occurs only once in Torah) called karnei Moshe – “the horns of Moses” – and this is why.
Wasn’t that educational?
Mirrored from hasoferet.com.
Estellina daughter of Menachem!
*Jen waves at Estellina across the centuries*
If you've got a very good imagination, you might be able to picture how happy I was when this Sotheby's catalogue arrived in my email (thanks, Lipman and PR). You don't need any imagination at all to understand why, though.
The other deeply pleasing dimension of this particular scroll is that there are no known complete decorated Esther scrolls predating this one. There are fragments, but no complete ones.
Here's a section from the catalogue text (page 272):
The present scroll is extraordinary on several accounts, first and foremost in its pride of place as the earliest complete decorated megillah. As attested to by the dated colophon at the conclusion of the text, the scroll was completed on Tuesday, 3 Adar, 5324 [= 15 February, 1564] in the city of Venice. The colophon however reveals an even more remarkable feature the individual who wrote this scroll was a woman, Estellina daughter of the Katzin Menahem, son of the Rosh Katzin Jekutiel. Estellina was clearly a member of a wealthy and eminent family indicated not only by the titles accorded to her father and grandfather (both Katzin and Rosh Katzin denote distinguished official positions within the Jewish community) but also by the presence of a coat of arms painted onto the scroll directly after her colophon. Prominently displayed in an elaborate gold frame festooned with flowing ribbons and occupying an entire column, the coat of arms consists of a gold crown above another image that is difficult to decipher, as the paint has been abraded.
As well as being "[t]he earliest complete decorated Esther Scroll," the cataloge describes it as "[t]he only known Esther Scroll to have been written by a woman in the pre-modern era."
I'm writing to Sotheby's to ask if I might be allowed to see it in person, even though there's no chance of my buying it ($600,000 to $800,000, says the catalogue. Hollow laughter). Given that I'm among the first of her successors, and all that.
I wonder who taught Estellina halakha. I wonder if her mother was cross with her for writing a Megillah instead of doing ladylike things such as embroidery. I wonder if she read from it.
I'm so glad to have met her!
Sometimes - depending how much it's bleached - you can still see the pattern of the cow's skin, faintly in the parchment. I think it's rather a lovely effect.
Since a Torah is a couple hundred columns, and since you don't generally get more than half a dozen columns or so per cow, you need rather a lot of cows to make one Torah.
A Megillah, on the other hand, is quite short. And a giraffe is quite long. And has splendid patterns in its skin.
One day someone will hook me up with a giraffe skin and I will get to write a Megillah on it.
I have plenty of more mundane visions for this year, but it doesn't hurt to have a few outrageous dreams, I think. Best of luck with yours. Shanah tovah.
I mentioned last week that the practice of starting each column with the word HaMelekh - The King - is perhaps a nod heavenwards, as it were, given the allegorical representation of God as King.
Another custom you sometimes see is the enlarging of certain letters such that the four-letter Name of God stands out, thus:
ותאמר אסתר אם על המלך טוב יבוא המלך והמן היום אל המשתה אשר עשיתי לו
This is the only place you get it in consecutive words (chapter 5). I've never looked for it happening in different places - non-consecutive words, or line heads, or column heads - I don't have access to that many manuscripts. Anyone want to pitch in with info?
I strongly suspect that what came first was some scribe noticing "Hey, cool..." and subsequently us getting all serious about it. Compare some of the liturgical poems wherein the name of the poet is spelled out by the first letters of the verses - that's either arrogant beyond belief, or it's playful (or something else that I don't know about but Gabriel does and if that's so I'd be obliged if he'd say so in the comments), and I don't know about you but I'd rather assume it was playful.
Making letters big is different from tweaking the column heads - big and small letters carry more significance, generally, than column heads. So tweaking the text so that the column heads are all HaMelekh - or HaMalka - is fine so long as you don't mangle the columns, but making letters big and small is more dicey - easy enough, but significant enough that one shouldn't do it unless one has a tradition of doing it. So spelling out yud-hey-vav-hey in enlarged letters is one thing, but doing, say, חמה ויתאפק המן for someone called Hava would be Pretty Darn Dodgy. There's fun, and then there's taking it too far, you know? Spelling one's name in a poem is less dodgy than spelling it out in a sacred scroll. Anyway, point being, we have fun with letters and words and layout, within the bounds of good taste, and I bet the fun came first and the Serious Interpretations after, with the yud-hey-vav-hey and the HaMelekh both.
Talking of fun. Another large letter in the Megillah. You see the similarity here? A happy accident.
So R' Katz at CSAIR mentioned that he'd been thinking about a HaMalka (The Queen) megillah and fiddling about with it and only getting partway...
...and I, being a Total Nerd with Mad Leet Computer Tikkun Skillz, decided to give it a shot. And I did it. HaMalka megillah, looking pretty sweet.
Of course, the thing about HaMelekh is that King is allegorical for God, and since there isn't any God in the Megillah, the HaMelekh is a compensatory move. HaMalka obviously takes away from that, so if you are doing HaMalka you have to read it as riffing on the HaMelekh/God theme, rather than as a Stomping Feminist theme.
I suspect most people would assume it was a Stomping Feminist thing ("You changed HaMelekh? Don't you realise that HaMelekh refers to God?! Sheesh, you indulge your ridiculous ignorant feminism and just make yourself look stupid..."). One would get tired of explaining that no, one is very well aware of HaMelekh, and HaMalka retains the concept of sovereignty with its hints of God but adds a feminine aspect, as to say "My relationship with God is informed by my being female, and I can engage with ritual on that basis, and it is kosher and it is joyous."
You see I think people might not understand that. It makes me wonder whether alternating Melekh and Malka on the column heads would be a better move, but on the whole I think the feminine riff is worth it.
So these are dear little wooden boxes, shiny green/blue/purple on the outside with classy cream accents if I do say it myself. Gloss black on the inside. Each box contains 10 teabags - of course you don't have to use them for teabags, but they're quite cute that way. Black-Tea-And-Mint, Blueberry, and Blackcurrant-Ginseng-And-Vanilla, if you were wondering. Green, blue, and purple, see.
Each box has a window in the lid. Behind the window I wrote the flavour of the tea inside, but you can take that out and replace it with something else if you feel like it, as per picture, or just have the window look right through to the contents of the box.
Charity auction is for the set of three.
Since we're between Purim and Pesach, the charities I'm choosing are Save Darfur, City Harvest, National Coalition for the Homeless, and Free the Slaves. Auction ends Friday March 20th. Winner donates auction amount to one of these (or equivalent, I am quite reasonable) and forwards me the receipt; when I get the receipt from your donation, I send you your boxes.
I've got a few others I'll probably put up in the same way sometime before Pesach, depending how this one goes.
Because parading your wife in public as a sex object isn't funny.
Because getting mad when your wife doesn't want to comply isn't funny.
Because governmental fearmongering with wild speculations about women isn't funny.
Because turfing out your wife in a fit of pique isn't funny.
Because government legitimising intimidation in domestic relationships isn't funny.
Because abduction isn't funny.
Because fetishising virgins isn't funny.
Because rape isn't funny.
Because imprisonment in a harem isn't funny.
Because your husband being allowed to kill you isn't funny.
Don't tell me I'm wrong in reacting to the text in a way that disturbs you.
Don't tell me I'm reading it wrong.
Don't tell me what the Midrash says.
Don't tell me to lighten up.
Don't tell me it's all just a joke.
Don't tell me it's parody.
Don't tell me that if I read it like you read it I wouldn't get upset.
Comments will be screened. Comments failing to understand the above will not be passed.
ETA: For instance, "Did you not notice that none of these things you complain of are supposed to be good or wise?" is telling me I'm reading it wrong. FAIL. Yes, I did notice. Pipe down and think.
I'm putting in some pictures of my writing in the years between. This is almost certainly only of interest to calligraphy geeks, so I'm putting it under a cut. ( Except one which is a bit of an experiment and I wouldn't mind feedback, here: )
(Oh look, there's a mistake right in the thumbnail. I *would* do that, wouldn't I. Oh well.)
It's a lot more nineteenth-century than my usual. It's quite pretty, but I think not the easiest ever to read?
This part is about the writing. R' Yosef said
ancient megillahs written by women have been found in Yemen. I would like to know more about this! Anyone got any leads? I am reasonably sure that R' Yosef is much too busy to reply to any query I could send him, and anyway I am not nearly important enough to bother someone like him.
Anyway, he used the Yemen women by way of illustration that women may write megillot.
However, he admitted wryly, it is an open question "whether anyone would buy it."
I've sold eight. Add in the other soferot working today and you must get up to, ooh, coming on for a couple of dozen. News of this bit of creeping feminism obviously hasn't crept very far.
But that's okay, halakhic-egal Judaism has had female rabbis for twenty-some years, but it only just got a Torah scribe (not that it's commissioned any Torahs yet, only the Reform and Recon do that, isn't that silly). Scribes aren't exactly at the forefront of things.
Anyway, I'd be jolly interested to hear about women and megillot, in Yemen or anywhere else really. Ideally actual sources, and not just "X said that Y said that Z said."
On to part 3, not that they're all that sequential really.
Women are allowed to chant the Scroll of Esther on behalf of men if no competent men are available, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel's Sephardi community, ruled in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of his Ashkenazi counterparts.From Vos Iz Neias, or Haaretz, and loads of people emailing me.
Let's start with how this isn't a landmark decision.
The above is roughly akin to saying "Prisoners should not be detained unlawfully, Democrats ruled today, in a landmark decision liable to outrage many of their Republican counterparts." It's not exactly an innovation. A lot of people have been doing it that way for quite some time, left-wing Orthodox Ashkenazim as well as the liberal movements, so it doesn't really count as "landmark." It also wasn't a "decision," in that he's been saying and teaching that way for some time, in line with quite a lot of rabbinic Judaism over the past couple of millennia. And he didn't "rule," it just came up in a class on the laws of Megillah reading. So, less of the sensationalism.
What is interesting is that suddenly people felt the need to make a big deal out of it. For some reason, the idea that women might read for men has become interesting enough to make headlines. Why should this be?
It's possible that it's part of "Who Owns Judaism?" - it made the news because the ultra-Orthodox said it. Basically all Jewish movements, from centre-right Orthodoxy and leftwards, look to the ultra-Orthodox for authenticity. So it doesn't matter that other flavours of Jew have had women reading Megillah for simply ages; it's only news when the ultra-Orthodox talk about it. Perhaps that's what's going on; if so, it's a great pity.
A tangent: It's a pity for what it shows about how other Jewish movements think about Judaism, perpetually looking over their shoulders measuring themselves against the ultra-Orthodox. Other kinds of Jews don't want to be ultra-Orthodox for a great many reasons, but there is the unfortunate tendency to assume, deep down, that it is basically laziness - that if we were just a bit more prepared to deal with discomfort, we too could be like that. This results in an unspoken but evident assumption that only ultra-Orthodox Judaism is the "real" Judaism, that only the ultra-Orthodox do it "properly," and the necessary corollary that if we're in another movement, there's no point committing to it with our whole heart, if it's just inauthentic toy Judaism.
Moderate Americans don't secretly feel that only hard-line Republicans are the "real Americans," do they? (I really hope they don't, anyway). With notable exceptions, Americans seem to manage the idea that first and foremost you're an American, and you can have political affiliations, and that different political groups are more or less equally valid. Democrats don't go around more or less identifying as Republicans who can't be bothered to do it properly, but an awful lot of liberal Jewish movements have an undertone of being lapsed Orthodox. Either this is a great shame and the liberal movements need a lot more self-confidence, or it is evidence that ultra-Orthodoxy is the only true Judaism. Speaking for the liberal movements (what hutzpah) it's our choice. End tangent.
It's also possible that women-reading-Megillah made the news this particular year because the concept of women participating in things has risen in the public consciousness enough that it's now something people are ready to think about.
Over the past - I don't know, decade? couple of decades? - women's participation in this sort of thing has been increasing. It's now easier for Orthodox women to learn how to read Megillah, and it's a good deal more acceptable these days for women to have women's Megillah readings, for instance. As long as women participating was strictly a non-Orthodox thing, the Orthodox world could comfortably ignore it, writing off the non-Orthodox practices as not really Judaism, but perhaps once it's made its way into the left wing of the Orthodox world it's harder for the right wing to ignore? In other words, perhaps this is creeping feminism crossing a threshold?
So the idea that women might participate in ritual a little more, in the form of a comment about women reading megillah, may have crept into the Sephardi real-world setup. Having crept into the ultra-Sephardi world doesn't mean it's crept into the ultra-Ashkenazi world - doesn't mean it hasn't at all, just evidently less so - which means that the looking-over-their-shoulders-at-the-
In any case, such events are pieces of evidence that even ultra-Orthodoxy is influenced by ideas percolating in the rest of the world, which itself is evidence that exchange of ideas goes both ways, into ultra-Orthodoxy as well as out of it. That is, there is not one true Judaism and a host of lesser Judaisms, but many symbiotic Judaisms.
R' Yosef, being Sephardi, might possibly agree.
But possibly not.
On to part 2
Scrolls for ritual readings don't have vowels or cantillation marks, so readers often use a book called a tikkun to prepare readings. A tikkun has the unadorned text on one side and the text with vowels and cantillation on the other side. However, the text is usually pretty small, much smaller than the letters in a scroll, and the vowels and cantillation smaller still, so preparing from a book may be a good deal harder than reading from the actual scroll.
I have a partially-sighted friend who wants to learn to read Megillah, so I made a large-print tikkun. I figure she's not the only such person in the world, so I'm putting it online for all. Here it is. Enjoy. Leave a comment if you find it useful.
Printing and binding 164 pages is annoying, so I have also made it available on lulu.com, for $11.10 (cost of production).
Here are some resources for learning to chant Megillah:
Virtual Cantor - downloadable recordings of each chapter, and CD available
JOFA's Esther resources (mostly not free)
Mechon Mamre's Esther tikkun. When you mouseover words, the vowels and cantillation appear. The text resizes well.
Thanks to Gabriel Wasserman for proofreading.
For fortunes, I used Yiddish proverbs - they have the perfect blend of wry humour, cynicism, and Jewishness. Selections from Pirkei Avot (early rabbinic homiletics) could also work, but I found them a bit too goody-goody for this purpose. One could also use verses from Proverbs and suchlike, but I felt a bit odd about putting biblical verses into cookies. Choose fortunes, print them out, and fold the fortunes into little squares.
Then use this recipe and these associated tips to make fortune cookies. When you get to the bit about shaping them, depart from those instructions, and instead, when you get the cookie off the baking tray and flip it over, put a folded fortune in the middle and pinch the edges up to make three corners.
I sewed a paper plate and cup, and plastic cutlery, to a tablemat, and pinned it to a waistcoat. That is, I went as the Shulhan Arukh (the major law code whose title means Set Table).
I went to CSAIR in the evening - that's the local Conservative shul. I'd thought about going into the city, to Hadar's reading, but CSAIR's my community at the moment, and that won out, overall. There was a lot of noise, so it probably wasn't a very kosher reading for someone sitting at the back, but I was being one of the checkers, which means standing right next to the reader anyway, so I heard the whole thing. Some jolly good readers, two of whom are tiny wee things - one of them looks as though she's about ten years old, but she's presumably older than that; she was very good. Pizza bagels afterwards, yay.
Morning, got up at stupid o'clock to read at CSAIR's early reading. Only hardcore people get up for stupid o'clock readings, so this one was much more kosher. Also some jolly good readers. I like leyning, but I also like listening to leyning done well; it's like when people read foreign poetry, it just sounds nice. One doesn't hear it very often - too often people who can read well also read self-importantly. Competent but modest readers are rare gems. So anyway, there was one reader like that at the early reading, which was very much a treat.
Then zooming to the subway and downtown to Drisha's reading, since they're my community too. Also with one reader in particular who combines competence with modesty, exceedingly pleasant to listen to. And a couple of first-time readers, who are generally entirely precious, and all in all a very nice reading.
And I got to use my regel, yay, and we read from the megillah I wrote four years ago, and I read the bit about Esther writing. Esther's the only named woman in the Bible who writes, and when I wrote my first Torah I added Esther to my Hebrew name, feeling some sort of resonance with that. So it was particularly pleasing to read ve-tikhtov Esther.
Yummy food afterwards, and passing out fortune hamentaschen (i.e. fortune cookies, but with Yiddish proverbs and rabbinic aphorisms inside, and folded into the triangular Purim-cookie shape instead of the Chinese fortune-cookie shape), which were a smash hit, hurrah. Worth the fiddliness of making them for the fun of sharing them.
At the beginning of the story, the king sends for Queen Vashti to show her off to his mates. And she says she's not coming, whereupon everyone gets into a gigantic tizzy lest it get about that Vashti got away with saying no to her husband, and they dethrone her and all sorts of nasty things, and generally overreact.
Which you can read as being tremendously misogynist, if you like. Or you can be a bit more subtle and read it as satire - the megillah poking fun at people who overreact when their wives don't do as they say.
The midrash, somewhat later, goes to great lengths to explain exactly why Vashti deserved everything she got. It says she was a slut, she was rude to the king and humiliated him in front of his friends, she made Jewish girls work on Shabbat with no clothes, etc.
So if you read the story in light of the midrash, people's reaction to Vashti saying no is totally proportionate.
Why is the midrash so invested in doing this? Does it take the first reading above and have problems with the idea that the biblical characters are overreacting? Does it take the second reading and just not get the idea of satire, or not accept that the Bible can do satire if it wants? Or what? I'm intrigued.
ETA: livredor points out that what the midrash is doing is emphasising a doctrine of just reward and punishment, which is something the midrash rather likes doing - in part because the midrash is often directed at communities in exile who are rather miserable and need to be able to pin their hopes on something - so what it's doing makes sense in its own context. Good.
She also points out that in midrashic parables, a king often represents God. Accordingly, stories where kings do unjust and rotten things are sort of disturbing. So if the king appears rotten and unjust, the midrash-influenced reader is going to feel like it's God being rotten and unjust, and the midrash is going to want to address that, by providing extra background which makes the king/God appear perfectly reasonable. This also makes sense.
Modelling clay, painted silver and varnished. Not bad for a first try, I think! I'm particularly pleased with how it's pointing, and with the grotesque toenails.
Please don't use real tefillin.
If you were going as a Torah reader, you wouldn't use a real Torah. Torahs are holy objects. Tefillin are also holy objects.
Please, if you're dressing up as someone wearing tefillin, make some fake tefillin with some cardboard, black paint, and ribbon.