hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Oct. 27th, 2009 04:32 pm)
And here's today's (part 1, part 6).

Fibre-tips and plastics

The thing with fibre-tips is that they don't contain the special kosher ink.

Now, this isn't necessarily the end of the world, because there are two schools of thought re ink. One says that kosher ink has to be black and stay black, and the other says that this blackness has to be attained by means of the traditional ingredients (read about that here).

The former school of thought will be satisfied with archival-quality black inks, which are designed to stay black for serious amounts of time. They're also made with entirely synthetic ingredients, which means you can be sure there aren't any non-kosher ickies in there. So, a member of the former school can use fibre-tips just fine.

The only problem then is that when they wear down, they're jolly difficult to sharpen. You can use a scalpel to sharpen up a marker, but you still don't get much mileage out of it. A $3 marker might last you a day or two, where a $0.50 quill will last you a month; that means markers are only really worth it in situations where quills are tricky (like very small mezuzot) or perilous (intricate repair jobs).

Plastics are one of my favourite modern refinements to the scribe's craft.

Once I was doing a Hebrew school visit, the sort where I hand round quills and things for the children to look at, and one of the children asked me if the quill was made of plastic. As it happened, it was a real feather quill, but this child had done something interesting - noted the material properties of the quill in her hand, and observed that they matched the material properties of plastics with which she was familiar.

Some smart sofer did the same thing, and came up with plastic nibs for scribes - pre-cut quills, essentially; you pop them onto the end of a feather or a pencil, and you're good to go. One buys them in Israel, or if in the USA from talasonline.com. You still have to sharpen them from time to time, but they're not at all bad, and very convenient.

And in an emergency, you can cut a quill from a drinking straw. Been there, done that :)
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Oct. 27th, 2009 04:20 pm)
Oops, forgot to do Monday's quill post.

(Part 1, Part 5)


Reeds have been a traditional Sephardi thing, and have contributed to the distinctive Sephardi script.

In a nutshell, a reed tends to give less contrast between thick and thin lines than a feather, and reed writing tends to show less contrast between thick and thin lines than feather writing. Compare the images below: the first is characteristically Sephardi reed-influenced script, and the second characteristically Ashkenazi and feather-influenced.

Speaking in general terms, Ashkenazi Jews tended to be in parts of Europe where quills were widely used, and Ashkenazi scripts often make heavy use of techniques and flourishes which rely on having a very flexible, very thin, very sharp writing instrument such as a quill, and trying to write that way with a reed will cause you much heartache. Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, tended to be in parts of the world where reeds were the writing instrument. A reed won't take an edge the same way a quill does, so it can't make those hair-thin vertical lines beloved of Ashkenazim, and it isn't as flexible, so the shapes are bolder and starker. This also makes Sephardi scripts quite a lot quicker to write, incidentally, which is why they are sometimes considerably cheaper to purchase.

A calligraphy marker resembles a reed a lot more than it resembles a quill, so trying to learn an Ashkenazi sta"m* alef-bet with a calligraphy marker will give you limited success. That's why my worksheets for beginners use markers but concentrate on skills, and don't go all the way to showing you how to make the fine details - it just won't really work. The logical thing would be for me to teach Sephardi script with calligraphy markers, but so few of my students are Sephardi that it doesn't make much sense really.

Here's a couple of rules from the scribal rule book of the Hida (Hayim Yosef David Azulai, late 18th century, Mediterranean regions), Torat Ha-Shelamim (chapter 18)

8. The quill should be made from a reed, not from a feather.

9. When the quill is ready for writing, he should put its tip in his mouth and roll it around in his spit (rir). He should say: Just as this spit is pure before it leaves the mouth, so shall this quill be pure when I write the holy Torah with it. This is because rir has the same numerical value as kadosh (holy) [210].

I don't write with reeds, myself, but I'd guess they're more flexible - easier to write with - if you soak them a bit before use, hence this custom. More of the Hida's rules here; more on quills shortly.

* sta"m - abbreviation for "sifrei Torah, tefillin, mezuzot."
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Oct. 23rd, 2009 12:34 pm)
(Part 4, Part 1)

Concerning interaction with one's fellows, Rabbi Elazar taught: one should be soft like a reed rather than stiff like a cedar, and it is for this reason the reed merited to be used in the writing of sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot. (Taanit, 20b)

In Rabbi Elazar's time, reeds were what people made pens from.Indeed, the rabbinic word for a quill, kulmus, comes from the Greek word for a reed, calamus. Feathers didn't come to be used for pens until about 700CE, in Europe.

Popular lore has it that one may only use a quill from a kosher bird to write Torah, but we see at once that if you can use a reed, clearly kosher feathers aren't the only permitted tool. Modern alternatives include metal, plastic, and fibre-tipped pens, as well as feathers and reeds. More about those coming up.
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Oct. 22nd, 2009 10:10 pm)
(Part 3; Part 1)

Quill cutting list. Okay, this isn't very interesting to most readers, but maybe it's a bit interesting to some readers.

or other hollow tubes

sharp knife
I use surgical scalpels, because they are SHARP, and this is good for accuracy. Craft knives also work well for rough shaping.

razor blade
Did you know you can buy them in packets? I didn't. As far as I'm concerned razors come in a packet labelled Bic Ladyshave - but if you go to the Men's Shaving section, whaddya know, razor blades.

piece of tile
or glass, metal, perspex - something to cut down onto. I like tile; a pocket mirror also works and you can also use it to check that your tefillin are on straight.

Ink and klaf for testing
Test with the materials you will actually be using. A quill that works nicely on parchment may work horribly on paper, so if you're testing on paper it'll look dodgy and then you'll be slaving away trying to fix something that isn't broken.

Razor blades and pocket mirrors you can get in a pharmacy. Feathers you can pick up from the ground if you're lucky, or buy in craft shops.

Surgical scalpels are less conveniently found - you can buy them on ebay, and I also stock them in my Etsy shop (oh right, I didn't tell you about that yet. It goes along with the updated website, which got derailed by the silly computer getting sick. Er. I have an Etsy shop. Now you know).

Once I've found something in which to ship ink, I'll be putting that up on Etsy too. But check out talasonline.com; they have kosher ink (stocked as Yemen Ink) and kosher parchment (stocked as Israeli parchment). They're expensive, but convenient. I have some spare parchment, but not reliably.

Also recommended: paperinkarts.com:
under Quills & Quill Knives:
--Feathers - RAWQUL- you can buy cured ones if you like; you're going to spoil a lot of them while you're learning, so it's not necessarily worth it. Get five or so.

under Cutting Tools
--scalpel handle - SCALPL - metal handle and two #10 blades.
--spare blades - 5#10BL - five spare #10 blades.
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Oct. 21st, 2009 04:26 pm)
(Part 2; Part 1)

Learning to cut and shape quills is one of the most stumbly stumbling-blocks a newbie scribe has to negotiate.

I learned to cut quills from a combination of websites (e.g. regia.org, liralen, and the ever-helpful Mordechai Pinchas), assistance in person, and practice.

When you're starting out, you don't know what a good quill is supposed to feel like, so you don't know if you're doing it right or not. Assistance in person is especially useful at this point.

When I was learning, Mordechai Pinchas was kind enough to send me a couple of ready-cut quills. It really helps. (Also especially worth noting is his tip about the Sharp Click - read his instructions; where he says A loud "click" confirms a good sharp cut and thus a clean edge, pay extra attention.)

Mediaeval re-enactment sites are jolly good for telling you how to recreate the mediaeval way of doing things, but they aren't very useful for incorporating modern technology. Fair enough, obviously, but one thing it took me a long time to learn was: a razor blade is the best tool for cutting the ink channel. I was shown that particular trick by the sofer at Pardes, and life got easier.

But practice is the main thing. If you're a beginner, it's quite normal to spend all morning wrestling with your quill. If you're a beginner whose teacher is nearby, they can sort you out; if you're not that lucky, you just have to keep working at it. When I started my first Torah, I could get a decent quill eventually, although it might take me an hour or more; by the end of that year, I could get a decent quill pretty much every time. Practice.
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Oct. 20th, 2009 03:30 pm)
(Quills Part 1)

An historical interlude.

Pitted against a metal nib, a quill almost always loses - strength, durability, convenience, level of skill required in user - metal nibs win. Metal pens have been around for an extraordinarily long time, since I think about 1000CE, but quills remained the writing instrument of choice for Europeans well into the nineteenth century, because they were so easily obtained and made.

Businesses bought quills by the thousand for their clerks, and professional quill-cutters were commonplace (a professional quill-cutter might reasonably be expected to produce between six and eight hundred pens per day). Metal nibs only took off with the advent of the steam-engine, mechanising the process so that mass-production of metal nibs became faster and cheaper than cutting feathers. It also took some time to develop a suitable alloy, one that was both flexible and durable. Once this was done, metal nibs quickly became ubiquitous, and the profession of quill-cutter obsolete.

Most pens, quill or otherwise, are shaped such that the barrel of the pen stays whole where the fingers grip it, but then is cut away and shaped into a nib (below, left/top). Torah scribes leave their nibs broad (below, right/bottom picture, left nib), so that they can make broad lines, but they may be larger or smaller, and for very fine writing the nib may be cut to a sharp point. As the pen is used, the corners tend to wear away (right/bottom picture, right nib) and the scribe will have to restore the shape every so often. Later on, we'll see that that can mean several times a day, so metal nibs are a good deal more convenient, for the most part.

However, a quill remains the tool of choice for top-flight calligraphers (har har), because it is capable of much more subtlety than any metal nib, more on that later. Soferim also have other issues with metal nibs; more on that later.

(You noticed, of course, that the left nib in the right picture has three ink channels instead of one. That's a modification one makes in certain circumstances, mostly in repair work when you are re-inking crumbling letters; you want a lot of ink and a lot of flexibility.)
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Oct. 6th, 2009 08:56 pm)

Quill: the tubey middle bit of a feather, the pen made from same.

Nib: the business part of a quill. Note that the nib has a slit up its centre. The slit divides the nib into semiquills*. The slit forms a channel in which ink lives (as you can see in the picture), so sometimes I call it an ink channel. The ink sits in the channel and gets pulled out gradually, as the nib sets ink onto the page - like a candle wick, but in reverse (physics is so clever).

The nib is cut from the non-fluffy end of the feather.

Many people, myself definitely included, strip off the fluffy bits before working, so that the quill resembles a pen more than it does a feather. This is because when you are working (rather than playing about), the fluffy bits get in the way and are just annoying.

The quills in the top picture are goose. The quill in the bottom picture is turkey. Goose is good for smaller work, like mezuzot; turkey tends to be sturdier and more durable, so I like using it for Torah work.

Some scribes temper their quills with heat or chemicals. The idea is for the tempering process to harden the feather, and then it stays sharp longer and is nicer to write with.

Tempering can be tricky - the problem is that if you don't do it enough, nothing happens, but if you do it too much, you melt the quill. If you melt it, tiny air bubbles form and are trapped in it when it hardens so you can't cut it to a smooth edge, plus it's far too brittle to be useful. I do it sometimes, and sometimes I don't bother.

More in a bit...

* Okay, the proper word is "tines," but "semiquills" is a much prettier word. Credit to Gabriel for inventing a good word.

hatam_soferet: (toothpaste)
( Sep. 17th, 2009 07:19 pm)
I may have said once or twice before that parchment is made from animal skins.

Like this.

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.
Blobby letter ayin in torah

(Click image for bigger version)

Ink deciding to be blobby, and turning letters from agreeably three-dimensional into excessively three-dimensional. Photographed whilst still wet.

This image amuses me for three reasons. First, just because it's amusingly blobby. Second, because the letter on the right is letter ayin, which is a fountain kind of word,* obviously the best letter to display excess liquid. Third, because it's in the story of the Flood, which of course was the archetypal problem caused by excess liquid.

Technical notes:

This sort of blobbing can be caused by variations in ink, pen, pen technique, klaf, atmosphere. Today the problem was the ink being rather too sticky - I'd left the lid loose on the inkwell over Pesach, so it had dried out a little bit and gone just sludgy enough that it behaved like this. Once I'd diluted it with a couple of drops of alcohol, it was fine. Barometer 30ins and rising slightly, temp mid-70s fahrenheit, humidity low 60%s. Leaving these as is may make them more prone to flaking decades in the future. You can sometimes sort it by blotting up the excess with blotting paper, but if the problem is sticky ink it won't blot well and you'll have to sort it later when it's dried by knifing off the excess. You should not do this in divine names.

* Linguistically, I mean. I understand that ayin literally means "eye" because of the underlying meaning "fountain," as in mayan. I could be wrong.
workspaceThis morning in the synagogue we read Exodus 13:9, which contains the phrase "The Torah of God shall be in your mouth."

Rabbinic tradition expands this concept: if we are to put the Torah in our mouths, it obviously cannot be made of things that we may not eat. So all animal products used on Torahs are made from the kosher species.

Quills - swan or goose feathers, turkey or duck, but no peacock or ostrich, eagle or crow. Glue - before synthetic glues, sticky stuff was mostly made from animal products, did you know that? - fish glue or cow-hoof glue, but not rabbit-skin glue or horse-hoof glue. Thread, which is made from tendons and glue - cow tendons, but not horse tendons. And parchment.

Torahs are written on parchment, in Hebrew klaf, קלף, (with a kuf). Proper parchment is really a type of leather - here's a site which talks about how klaf is made. Nowadays most Torah parchment is made from cows, because the meat industry mostly deals with cows; older Torahs are often goat, one also sees deer and occasionally sheep; you could use bison, or chicken or turkey (but that would make very small pieces, and probably not be worth it). You could even use a giraffe, if you could find one.

And yes, I have this dream that one day someone will give me a dead giraffe and I will be able to write a Megillah on it, because you could fit the whole Megillah on one giraffe skin* and that would be unbelievably amazing so if you do know anyone with giraffes that are looking a bit tottery, do introduce me, or if you know a parchment-maker who's up for an adventure, likewise.

Continues under cut, I just had to leave the giraffe bit visible :) )
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 8th, 2009 01:36 pm)
Today I actually approve of the bank, for once. I'm spending a Large Amount Of Money on parchment, and using my debit card to pay for it.* The bank, spotting that I generally make smallish purchases in New York, declined to process a lone transaction in the region of $5000 in Israel. So I phoned and said would they please authorise this one, and they did. This is an example of Getting It Right. Good bank. Have cookies.

* okay, actually my agent in Jerusalem, but it comes to the same thing
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Feb. 22nd, 2009 02:53 pm)
My shoulders are killing me. Tomorrow I am going to call the massage place and see about getting a massage; I have things under my skin that feel like bones, but ought to be squashy because they are actually muscles. I have got to be more responsible about stretching out after work.

At some point I am also going to buy a new chair, one with wheels and a seat that goes up and down and a footrest. Because when you write a column, you go back-and-forth across the lines like with an old typewriter, and it's comfiest if you can just scoot your chair across. Also, you go *down*; if you are writing on a slope desk, you start at the top of your column, and at the bottom of the column you have moved physically downwards about fourteen inches. I have a stool which winds down, but a wheely chair would also have wheels.

I bought my slope desk and stool two Torahs ago when it wasn't clear how long I'd be doing this; at this point I think I'm clearly going to be doing this long enough that a decent chair would be a sensible investment. Perhaps I will go to Staples and sit in chairs, en route to the massage place.
Sefertorah.net has for sale sofer's ink. Online suppliers are rare enough, and online suppliers in the USA (cheaper shipping & no customs fees) rarer still.

Torah ink is not only good for scribes, it's also excellent for calligraphy. It is shiny and slightly raised, and can do incredibly fine detail where regular calligraphy ink spreads out and doesn't hold the shape (I guess because it doesn't sink into the paper as much). Here's a lot of stuff about how sofer's ink is different from regular calligraphy ink.

That site also has gid, the special thread you need for fixing seams. A whole ball of gid is stupidly expensive; I keep enough on hand that I can sell people a few feet for one or two seams if that's what they need.

HaSofer.com has a much wider range of supplies for sale online, but is in Israel, so shipping and customs to non-Israel addresses don't come cheap. However, if you have a friend in Israel, you can get stuff shipped to their house and they can bring it home for you - good if you can't persuade anyone to go shopping for you.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jan. 1st, 2009 04:46 pm)
Sofer's inkThe main thing about Torah ink is that it has to be black and it has to stay black. If it changes colour within fifty years, it wasn't kosher to begin with.

Generally, Torah ink (דיו, in Hebrew, like dye) is what's called an iron gall ink. Iron gall inks have been used in a great many places during a great many periods in history. They last a long, long time (think Dead Sea Scrolls kind of longevity). They have an unusual property among pigments in that they form chemical bonds with the parchment, which makes them symbolically very appropriate for use on Torahs. They are lightfast, the ingredients are cheap, and they are very indelible.

I don't make my own; making good ink is hard, and I don't have anyone willing to share their recipe. Anyway, it's supposedly rather a pain, so I buy it in bottles, as shown. I don't know if it's also available in cake form - cake is much easier to transport, of course, and lasts longer, and is entirely traditional. I suspect perhaps not, because I have a feeling that buying ink like this is kind of For Dummies, and real hardcorers, the kind who would want cake ink, probably do make their own.

As you might expect, there are hundreds of different recipes for this kind of ink. However, they have some things in common, viz.: gallnuts, iron (II) in solution, something runny, and something sticky. The following descriptions are indebted to an excellent article by Cyntia Karnes.

Gallnuts on oak leavesGall nuts

See the Wikipedia entry, but basically gallnuts (also called oak-apples) are a sort of arboreal tumour. A gall wasp comes along and lays its egg on the tree, and the tree goes "whoa" and swells up around the egg, into this little hard ball. The larva sits inside the swelling, munching away, and when it grows up it eats its way out and leaves the ball on the tree.

The balls have to be turned into a gloopy solution. This basically involves grinding, dissolving, and fermenting, and there are about a zillion ways of accomplishing this. Depending how it's done, what you end up with is a liquid containing tannic acid, gallotannic acid, or gallic acid.

Iron II sulphateIron (II) sulphate

This is where the iron comes from. It tends to be known as copperas, or coppervasser if you are the Mishnah Berurah, because iron sulphate and copper sulphate tended to come out of the ground together, but the copper isn't important and the iron is.

NailsThis is why some recipes call for boiling up nails with the gallnuts. In an acidic solution, you get the right sorts of reactions. It's apparently quite dangerous if you do it properly.

More about that...and lots else... )
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Oct. 12th, 2008 10:57 pm)
Our sacred scrolls must be written on parchment, if they are to be kosher - fit for ritual use. Parchment can mean many things, but in this context it means animal skin.

Parchment for sifrei kodesh, sacred scrolls, has to come from a kosher species of animal, but the animal does not have to have been dispatched by ritual slaughter. The kosher meat industry has its ethical problems, but the non-kosher meat industry, arguably even more so. To be kosher meat, an animal has to be reasonbly healthy; to be a kosher mezuzah, the animal could have been most horribly maltreated.

But a mezuzah reminds me that I am living a Jewish life, and a big part of a Jewish life is respect for all life. It troubles me that my mezuzah - worse, my sefer Torah - should be tainted with such suffering.

In the world of kosher meat, these sentiments take the form of animals raised humanely by people who care, slaughtered carefully by people who care, sold to people who care. All these exist. The idea of humane treatment of animals and kosher meat has taken root.

The idea of humane treatment of animals and sacred scrolls has not.

We have the humanely-raised animals. We have the humanely-slaughtered animals - we can get both of these from the non-kosher world as well as the kosher world. As far as I know, we don't have anyone who knows how to make kosher parchment who would be bothered to use only these skins. So we'd need that - or at least, someone who wouldn't dismiss the idea as goyische nonsense. Then maybe we could make mezuzot - perhaps megillot and Torahs, with enough skins - that hadn't suffered. If we had someone who knew how to make tefillin cases, we could make tefillin also.

I fear that's a long way off, but I think I'm not the only one who would like it. I would like it better than giving in and just using alternatives. Saying "The meat industry is messed-up, therefore I will change the Torah and use parchment alternatives" is accepting the messed-up-ness of the meat industry. I would rather say "I will tackle the messed-up-ness of the meat industry rather than change the Torah because of it."
Why not just use paper for the sifrei kodesh, the sacred scrolls? Why not have paper mezuzot, cardboard tefillin, a sefer Torah written on specially strong reinforced indestructible paper?

Ritually, parchment is a requirement. The rabbinic tradition holds that parchment for sifrei kodesh was commanded at Mount Sinai, and therefore parchment is the material we use. Given this, for some Jews paper is and never will be an option for sifrei kodesh.

Some Jews, though, may wonder if fidelity to rabbinic tradition in this particular should outweigh concerns for humane treatment of animals. Perhaps, but it is not only about blind adherence to tradition.

There are many pragmatic reasons for using parchment rather than paper. From the artisan's perspective, parchment is far superior to paper in every aspect. It itself is more beautiful. The writing can be more beautiful. On parchment, the scroll is stronger, and is less affected by such things as damp in the air. It lasts longer - hundreds of years longer, and remember these are the scrolls which carry our tradition.

And spiritually; unlike paper, kosher ink and parchment undergo a complex series of chemical reactions by which the letters form molecular bonds with the parchment. The letters become one with the parchment and each other.

There are many reasons to use parchment. It is possible to have vegetarian, even vegan, kosher parchment; see accompanying post and outline of necessary logistics. I think this would be the best of both worlds. Halakhic, pragmatic, and ethic, all in a scroll.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Sep. 3rd, 2008 06:50 pm)
Ugh, flying.

Bottles of ink, once breached, have a tiresome habit of opening themselves in transit and distributing themselves liberally, indelibly, and irretrievably, all over their surroundings. Accordingly, when I travel with breached bottles of ink, as I do frequently, I carry them in my backpack, so that I can make sure they stay upright.

I fell victim to an arbitrary search at the flight gate. The lady looked at my ink, neatly packed in the mandatory ziplock baggie. She looked at the bottle, and looked again, not finding any English words anywhere on the Hebrew label.

She didn't like this.

Even less did she like the two inkpots; they don't carry any label at all.

"You can't have these," she said, "they're not labelled."

"Where does it say liquids have to be labelled?" I asked her. "And in any case, isn't the entire point of the liquids rule the assumption that you can't believe any claims I make about the nature of these liquids?"

"This is an internal secondary-level search" she replied, as if that answered anything. "So we can take these away from you if we want to."

She called over a colleague.

"You can have one of these," he said. "You can choose which one you take on board."


"One. You can take one."

"Can I combine the contents of these three bottles and you can have this empty one?"

He pondered this for a few moments. "No. How badly do you need these?"

"I don't need them on the flight at all. I carry them in my backpack so that I can make sure they don't spill. That isn't against the rules."

"How badly do you need them? You can keep one."

I explained that ink is exceedingly expensive and I am not, in fact, willing to discard any of it unless given a significantly more compelling reason than those hitherto offered.

"It's not about how expensive it is," he interrupted.

Fine. "You asked how badly I needed it, and need is a subjective concept. My need for this ink is based on its cost. I am answering the question you asked."

"So you don't need them."

"I'm not going to use them on the flight, no. I carry them in my backpack so that I can make sure they don't spill." He unscrewed one of the lids. "Don't get that on your clothes, it won't come off." He wiped his fingers nervously. Inwardly, I smirked.

He indicated the inkwells. "These aren't labelled."

"That's correct. They're inkwells."

"We can't tell what's in them, without labels."

For goodness' sake. "You wouldn't be able to tell what was in them even if they did have labels, would you?"

It irritates me immensely that if one does not comply blindly with illogical, unwritten, and wholly arbitrarily applied regulations, one can be designated a terminal security risk and refused permission to fly. Nonetheless, at this point I was ready to take non-compliance to the next level and request to see a supervisor, but to my surprise the male one turned away shaking his head, and the female one pushed the bottles towards me, saying "OK."

I'd have stalked off disdainfully, but a dignified exit is hard to do when you've still got to put your shoes back on. I had to settle for sitting on the floor wrestling with my bootlaces disdainfully, and to tell you the truth I think some of the effect may have been lost.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got an airline meal to eat. It looks rather distressingly soggy and greasy and like mutant green goo, but the label says "spinach pasta," and apparently labels are reliable indicators of content, so obviously it must indeed be spinach pasta. I might have to spice it up with some of that ink, though. Lucky they let me bring it on board.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jun. 4th, 2008 09:39 am)
I promised you a post on what parashat Behukotai has to do with chopsticks, and here it is.

But first, I'm going to quote you a bit from Eric Ray's book Sofer: The Story of a Torah Scroll.
...no "base metals" may be used in making or repairing these texts. Base metals are the metals used in everyday tools. That means that no iron, no steel, no brass, no copper, and no bronze can be used. Base metals are the kinds used to make weapons. Nothing that is used for killing can be used in making a Sefer Torah, a Mezuzah, or a pair of Tefillin.
Strictly speaking, this is something of an overstatement, but let's explore the sentiment. Our aversion to metal implements starts in the Torah, in Exodus 20:22:
If you build an altar of stones to me, you shall not use dressed stone; if you lift your sword to it you pollute it.
And in 1 Kings 6:7:
In building the House, stones ready-dressed were brought, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any iron tool was heard in the House during its construction.
Rashi, the most widely-accepted biblical commentator, explains:
The altar was made to lengthen man's days, and iron was made to shorten man's days; it isn't appropriate to lift something which shortens against something which lengthens. Also, the altar brings peace between Israel and their heavenly father, so one should not use upon it anything which cuts and destroys.
That's some pretty powerful anti-iron associations.

Now, from ChinaDaily.com:
Chinese people, under the cultivation of Confucianism, consider the knife and fork bearing sort of violence, like cold weapons. However, chopsticks reflect gentleness and benevolence, the main moral teaching of Confucianism. Therefore, instruments used for killing must be banned from the dining table, and that is why Chinese food is always chopped into bite size before it reaches the table.
I couldn't find an authoritative-looking reference, so this may be an urban legend. But it's evidently sufficiently compelling that it gets printed in major national newspapers, and e.g. on chopstick wrappers. This fascinates me because it suggests that it's not just Jews who are made uneasy by iron tools. I have no idea how much cross-cultural exchange there may have been, but it's fascinating that such a concept should take hold in such different places.

The haftarah to parashat Behukotai contains a line from Jeremiah 17:
Judah's guilt is written with an iron pen...
Judah here means the Jews; Jeremiah is talking about how the Jews have messed up again. It seems likely that Jeremiah didn't choose an iron pen just because of its material properties. Iron has nasty overtones. A set of sinister connotations, if you will.

Looking forward, to today's sofer. It's not actually per se forbidden to use base metals, according to various authoritative halakhic sources, but many soferim hold that it's utterly inappropriate, for their associations with violence and the incompatibility of this with the ideals of Torah; Torah, like the altar, is supposed to lengthen man's days and promote peace between Israel and God. Hence the widespread use of alternative tools - gold, silver, glass.

In particular, the iron pen, associated by Jeremiah with the numerous times the Jews have failed to play straight by God. The iron pen carries not only associations of violence but also of disregarding the Torah. It's not necessarily the best tool for the process of creating that selfsame Torah. We are encouraged to use quills, so that we can create Torah without these overtones.

Or we could use chopsticks.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Apr. 2nd, 2008 01:05 pm)
For the sake of my own convenience, mostly:

Quill Cutting Materials

I recommend paperinkarts.com;

under Quills & Quill Knives:
--Feathers - RAWQUL- you can buy cured ones if you like; you're going to spoil a lot of them while you're learning, so it's not necessarily worth it. Get five or so.

under Cutting Tools
--scalpel handle - SCALPL - metal handle and two #10 blades.
--spare blades - 5#10BL - five spare #10 blades.

and from the pharmacy:
--pack of razor blades
--make-up mirror (strictly; a piece of metal, glass, or tile, but if you're in the pharmacy anyway, a mirror is easiest to obtain)

Technique linkies here.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 20th, 2008 09:49 am)
I'm writing a thingum about why Torah ink is particularly interesting, and in so doing needed to learn more about how ordinary inks work. What I learned led me to wonder how permanent markers manage to write on glass and other very smooth surfaces. Which led me to finding out about how different types of glues stick to things, which led me to learning about geckos.

Geckos have really amazing feet.

Which is the message of this post. Geckos: way cooler than you ever thought a gecko could be.