hatam_soferet: (esther)
( May. 21st, 2013 09:32 pm)
Sotheby’s has gigantic Judaica auctions every so often, and they often put the items on public display right before the auction. If you time your visit right, it’s almost as good as a museum (except that unlike a museum, it’s only open for three days, and then it’s over). Last time I was there, I saw these tops for Torah rollers.

(You get how these work, yes? They go on top of things like broom handles, to which are attached the Torah.)


Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Regard, if you will, this photograph of a Torah scroll.

All images copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission.

That’s a Metro card under there. A Metro card is the same size as a credit card. This is a real handwritten originally-kosher sefer Torah, and it’s smaller than a credit card. It’s three inches high.

Here’s another picture:

Speechless? I was. When I took it out of the drawer and opened it I was expecting one of those silly paper scrolls they give to kids, and there was this…Just wow.

I’m guessing the scribe was accustomed to writing very small tefillin, in which the script is about this size, and decided to do a Torah scroll. For a commission? For artistry? Don’t know. The rollers are ivory, and it has a cover crocheted from gold thread. (You may remember this video, of a very tiny scroll with beautiful accessories. The scroll there is five inches high.)

Here’s a close-up of one of the text sections.

What do we know about it? It’s old–the ink is faded, the parchment yellowing. It handles like an eighteenth-century scroll I worked on this summer, although it might not be quite that old. You can tell it’s probably not later than the mid-nineteenth century because the columns start neither בי”ה שמ”ו nor all-vavs, and there is fashion in these things, and probably if you were going to put in the effort to make something like this you’d do it in style, so to speak. It’s written in an Arizal script, which places it in eastern-ish Europe in a Chasidic-influenced community.

The parchment is thinner than printer paper, and in this photograph you can see the altered texture, greyish colour, and squashed-up lettering that denotes an erasure. Take a few moments to marvel, if you will.

Handling this scroll was something special. Don’t mind telling you I was speechless for about five minutes after realising what it was.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Sometimes you see letters which look broken, pasul:

But don’t freak out. Tilt it up, see what you can see.

Candlewax tends to gleam. Candlewax you can generally crack off with a scalpel, or X-acto knife, or a plastic spoon if you’ve really got nothing else handy.

Then you can take a blurry picture. A well-focused picture would be better; you’ll just have to pretend that this picture is after the whole Barukh Mordekhai/Arur Haman bit.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Feb. 11th, 2013 06:15 pm)

(Repeat of an old post, seasonally relevant)

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.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jan. 10th, 2013 07:56 pm)

It’s megillah-writing season. So here are some fun pictures from a megillah. A photocopy of a megillah, actually, whose provenance I do not know (other than the obvious “Ashkenaz, Beit Yosef script”).

Students, look and be impressed at the scribe’s creativity, but also take the time to look critically. Notice how you can make a splendid effect without being 100% accurate, symmetrical, etc.? You can do that too.

Also this season, bear in mind that wine carriers make very excellent megillah cases. Some of them don’t even look like wine carriers, they’re just pretty. Some of them have handles. Some are sold blank so you can do your own decoration. And liquor stores will often give you the presentation tubes for very fancy liquors if you ask nicely.

This post is for the upcoming mailing to the Sofrot Google Group. If you are a soferet, or have aspirations in that direction, you can join using the contact information which will be added to this post once Madame la administrator tells me which contact deets to put here.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

This is interesting. Gives you an insight into how the scribe was forming his letters.

Interestingly formed yud

From the same sefer. Internet cookies to people who can figure out what happened here:

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)


( May. 2nd, 2012 11:20 am)

Something you do not need to see when you open tefillin: BUGS.

The vacated exoskeletons of bugs, I grant you (note the hole in the centre one where the bug burst its way out), but still, ick. At least a dozen of them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the klafim were ok, once I’d brushed the crumbled bugs out of the folds (ick).

I’m swapping out the batim, though. Ick.

Fortunately this was a donated set so I have no idea whose head was wearing all those bugs. Not something I would want to know.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

This week’s parasha describes the worship-tent that God commands the Israelites to construct in the wilderness.

Around the tent, they are to construct a courtyard, of panels held between columns.

Perhaps you’ve seen a Torah scroll being unrolled around a sanctuary at Simchat Torah. You’ve seen how it’s long enough to go around the whole room, the panels of Torah surrounding the congregation like the panels surrounding the worship-tent.

It’s here in our parasha that we find the phrase ווי העמדים. Vavei ha’amudim, the hooks of the columns.

We haven’t made a worship-tent for millennia, but this particular little phrase lives on today in our Torah scrolls in an unexpected way. Scrolls have columns–of writing. And they have hooks–letter vav.

Most new scrolls today, CBH’s being no exception, are written such that almost every column starts with the letter vav.

It wasn’t always so. As late as the 1830s we find scribes’ rulebooks faithfully repeating that it is more or less forbidden to arrange the columns thus. In order to contrive a vav at the top of the column, scribes would perform tremendous feats of stretching and squishing, at the cost of uniform script and column width. Since a Torah is supposed to be a beautiful scroll and not a cutesy word game, scribes were vigorously discouraged from doing it.

By now, it has become an entrenched custom, such that I occasionally get panicked phonecalls from people who have noticed that their scrolls don’t have every column starting with vav, and I have to reassure them that it is perfectly all right.

How did it start? There seems to have been a rather early (gaonic?) custom of arranging for six particular words to appear at the tops of columns, for added significance. As it happened, these six words began with the letters ביה שמו. Over time, some scribes started to arrange their scrolls so that every column began with one of those six letters (53% of the words in Torah begin with one of those letters, so it’s not so difficult to arrange). And at some point, the idea of doing this just with vav (17% of the Torah’s words begin with vav) seeded and took root, becoming widespread sometime in the past 300 years.*

When did it start? Not clear. The Maharam of Rothenberg (thirteenth-century Ashkenaz), fulminating against it, said that there was no evidence the gaonim ever thought of doing it.** Rather, he said, the idea originated with one Leontin of Milhausen, who was showing off his skills.

Not everyone was against the custom. Various kabbalistic authors wove marvellous romances around the letter vav and its numerical representation, six, and the mystical and messianic relationships therein. The Hida has an interesting comment:*** he asks howcome vavei haamudim has become a widespread custom even though respected authorities say it is forbidden? Paraphrasing him a little, the answer is that Jewish communities are blessed with insight from God, so if communities are drawn to a thing, that thing must have some deep significance, and its existence is somehow divinely sanctioned.

The word vav literally means a hook, and the letter vav is also how we say “and” in Hebrew. Hooks hold physical constructs together, and vavs hold linguistic constructs together. What do the vavei haamudim hold together?

Some say the sheets of Torah–yeriot; curtains, veils—are held up by the hooks between heaven and earth. The columns of Torah form the metaphorical worship-tent in which Israel dwell, watched over by God above.

We might also suggest that the vavs of the columns are a reminder that times change. From being a minority position disapproved of by generations of Torah greats, vavei haamudim Torahs have become the default, with layers of meaning woven into them. Every generational vav, every individual “and”, contributes to incremental change; the old still hooked into the new, all held together, but the despised becoming beloved.****

* Yonatan Koletch (p392 footnote 200) quotes R. D. Yitzchaki: the concept of vavei haamudim scrolls “was introduced only during the past several hundred years by R. Ezra of Pisa”, but this seems to be an oversimplification.
** Quoted in the Hagahot Maimoniot, hilkhot sefer Torah, 7:7, but remember this is polemic and we don’t know how much evidence he was looking at.
*** Birkei Yosef, YD 273.
**** Add your own hobby-horse here. Social justice, feminism, disabled rights, race equality…

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.

This is why we call him George. Who signs Torahs?

This is why we call him George. Who signs Torahs?

You’re not supposed to write your name on the back of a sefer Torah, just in case you were wondering.
Blue ink.

Blue ink.

What *is* this? And what is it doing scribbled on the back of a sefer torah?
Say what?

Say what?

By the way, if anyone can decipher these, I’d be delighted to hear about it. I really do wonder what they’re doing there.
I hate not being able to read people's writing!

I hate not being able to read people's writing!

At least they used pencil on the front…
Same again...

Same again...

Got rid of all these with erasers and knifework. But took pictures, for posterity. Hullo, posterity!

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)
( Jul. 6th, 2011 03:59 pm)

I love RG.

RG has been coming to Apprentice with a Sofer on Tuesday nights.

She doesn’t count herself as valid to work on a sefer Torah (because she holds that men and women have different halakhic capabilities) so every time we do a new thing, she asks me “Can I do this? Can I do that?”

I love this. It’s so un-awkward. It makes it so easy to emphasise “Some people can’t do everything. It’s okay to be one of those people. There’s plenty you can do anyway. And no-one’s judging you.”

Cheers, RG!

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


When re-inking letters, do not forget and plonk your stupid elbow down on them.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

You could be taking my class at Yeshivat Hadar!

Or one of the half-dozen other Tuesday night classes which will also be happening. Here’s what mine is going to look like:

Apprentice with a Sofer

Learn basic Torah repair and maintenance skills which will enable you to keep your community’s Torah scrolls in good working order. We will learn halakha from the sefer Keset haSofer, and practical skills by working with real Torah materials and a real Torah scroll. Skills will include proper use of tape, sandpaper, alcohol and erasers; replacing broken seams; how to identify and tackle pasul letters; and the use of the internet for seeking advice.

In order to work on the Torah scroll you must be traditionally shomer Shabbat and punctilious about the mitzvah of tefillin. Alternatives will be provided for those who are not currently at this level.

When: Tuesday nights, June 21-August 2, 2011 (Note: the beit midrash will not meet on July 19 due to 17 Tammuz)
Time: 7:15pm – 8:45pm; (Arvit will take place at 8:45pm)
Cost: Free
Where: Mechon Hadar, 190 Amsterdam Avenue (at 69th St.)

First class this week! With desserts and a talk from R’ Ethan Tucker, Toward a Sustainable Egalitarian Judaism.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( May. 24th, 2011 06:04 pm)

Although scrolls of the Pentateuch have been common among almost all groups of Jews throughout the millennia, scrolls of the rest of the Tanakh have been much more rare.

One colorful individual in the story of Tanakh scrolls was a character in the Old Yishuv of Jerusalem, in the 19th century.

He insisted on returning to the original forms of Scripture — parchment scrolls of all the books — as preparation for the messianic era, when the biblical prophets would be resurrected, and would want to find everything as they expected, from their own day.

Here’s a Wikipedia article about him: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shemuel_Shelomo_Boyarski.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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 hasoferet.com.

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 hasoferet.com.

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 hasoferet.com.

Here’s a video featuring a very tiny totally kosher Torah scroll.

The video’s more concerned with the accoutrements, a little aron kodesh and the usual silver ornaments for a Torah scroll, than with the scroll itself. They’re made by Bezalel School-trained artist Shuki Freiman, and they are breathtakingly beautiful, utterly and completely. Seeing them is a treat. I’m just a bit sad that they don’t talk about the scroll; they just say that it’s less then five inches tall and written by a sofer in Bnei Brak. No close-ups.

Shabbat shalom! Hope you bought your sushi this week. I bought mine. California rolls, yay.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.