Text and image from this article at the Contemporary Jewish Museum site:

Starting this October, the Contemporary Jewish Museum will present As It Is Written: Project 304,805, an exhibition centered around a Soferet (a professionally trained female scribe) who, for one year, will meticulously write out the entire text of the Torah, also referred to as the Five Books of Moses, on public view. As she works within the gallery, the Soferet will actively engage in dialogue, answer questions, and share the mysteries and tools of her trade [but not while she's working -jtf]. The Museum will be the first public institution to reveal this process, offering visitors an opportunity to learn about its spiritual and ritual essence while framing it as a profoundly contemporary act.

that's my student whee!

and do you recognise the HAT?

I started writing Torah #3 last week; this one is bound for Congregation Dorshei Emet of Montreal. You can follow its story at http://torat-imeinu.blogspot.com/, but I should think I'll cross-post most things, so readers here won't miss much, if anything.

Anyway, this is a bit about the day I started to write and the part with which I started.

The project is called Torat Imeinu, Our Mother's Torah, and I started writing on the sixth day of Nisan - the first month, the month of beginning, the month of finding identity, the month of discovering liberation. As it happens the sixth of Nisan was one year exactly since my student RHS lost her mother. RHS' friends made evening services at her place in the evening, and there was mac and cheese mom-style, and I went from there to the mikveh, the ritual bath.

The mikveh in this context symbolises beginnings, renewals, transitions. Immersing in a pool of mayim hayim, living waters, carries spiritual overtones in Jewish practice, so although there was no technical reason for me to go - no issues of ritual purity which bar one from writing Torah - it seemed appropriate.

The mikveh is life and the memorial service is death, and the Torah passes from generation to generation as life and death cycle by. Generations of mothers pass life to their daughters and fade with time, and generations of Torah scholars pass tradition to their students and fade with time, and me passing writing the Torah to my student RHS makes me part of the generations of scribes who have passed on the Torah, and I am on my way to fading in time also. I find this oddly consoling; it never was all about me, and being one link in a chain is more consonant with tradition than being the crest of a wave. Thus starting the journey for this Torah by remembering RHS' mom with her is profoundly beautiful in ways I cannot completely express, and they all swirled in my head while I was in the mayim hayim, the living waters flowing past and present from time gone by and times to come, mother to daughter, scribe to scribe, Jew to Jew, the waters of Torah swirling all around me and us and from that I wrote the first words of this newest Torah.

I chose to start with Sarah, the first matriarch, the Mother of all Jews. Converts to Judaism are given Sarah as their honorary mother. My own Hebrew name is Yonah Esther bat Sarah. The first piece I wrote was the moment of transition in Sarah's life, where she leaves her old name Sarai, princess, and becomes Sarah, in partnership with God. In this story, God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, and Abraham laughs in disbelief. Sarah laughs. Their son is named Yitzhak - Laughy. Sarah has wanted a son all her life and here her wish is granted. God will bless her, and through her Abraham and his descendants will become a great and populous nation, blessed by God and in covenant with God. For a Mother's Torah, this seemed a wonderful place to start writing.

I should perhaps explain that one does not have to write the Torah strictly sequentially. I started my first Torah with the Exodus story of the giving of the Torah, because it seemed appropriate. My second Torah was for Congregation Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope, and there is a verse in the Torah which self-referentially says "Write for yourselves this song," so that one I started at the beginning and wrote through to the end. Now I am writing with the Mothers in mind, so we are starting with Sarah.

It seems appropriate to finish with a nod to my own Mother. The Torah scroll is the foundation upon which Jewish identity stands; today's Jews have come a long way from the foundations but know that it is still there at the centre. My Mum believed that with a firm foundation at home, her children would be able to go far, and I jolly well did. Thanks, Mama. L'chaim.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 6th, 2009 04:11 pm)
Onion win excerpt:

...Mouse-killing isn't solely the province of organic and medical scientists. Many other scientists kill mice, as well.

"As a physicist, I don't really have much cause to use mice in my regular research, which mostly requires the use of theoretical math," said Dr. Thomas Huber, author of the 1996 study Mouse Elasticity And Kinetic Rebound In High-Acceleration Collisions...

In other news, I've just put together a worksheet for those who would like to begin learning to write Torah-style, but don't want to get into quills and suchlike just yet. This is a worksheet that gets you going on motor skills and eye skills, and you can do it with a two-dollar calligraphy marker. I'm going to keep it off the internets for the moment, so if you would like a copy, bung me an email.

We discovered an error in [our] Sefer Torah this Shabbat. The error...involves a Tav that should be a Hay.

There are two aspects to dealing with this; the theoretical and the practical.

The theoretical side represents hours and hours of study. Before you go anywhere near fixing a Torah, you've got to know why this is a total disaster, for instance:

and you have to learn the several thousand other potential disasters that a sofer has to know how to avoid.

However, the practical side of a fix like this is actually very easy. It's a tiny bit of knife work and a tiny bit of ink work.

I've put in the hours and hours of study, and we live in a digital world. Suppose Esther lives hundreds of miles away from any sofer, and her Torah has this problem. She takes a picture of the problem in the Torah and emails it to me. I can look at it, and chances are I'll know how to fix it. If she knows how to use a knife and ink, I can send her something like this:*

and she can fix the problem. She can be my hands over hundreds of miles. If necessary, we could use a webcam, so that I can see exactly what she's doing.

Of course ideally Esther's community would have a fully-trained sofer. But in the real world, I think this could be the next best thing. It's better than reading from a non-kosher Torah, and it's better than having the Torah languish unused until a sofer happens to come to town.

I think this could happen. I could take a day and teach people how to use these:

and how NOT to use them (can you identify the things there that you must NEVER NEVER use on a Torah?).

In a day, someone is not going to learn all the rules about how to fix letters (what do you do with something like that thing to the right? do you need to do anything?), but I believe they can learn enough that they can make basic repairs under remote supervision.

One might say that letting half-trained people loose on Torahs is a dreadful idea, with unlimited potential for havoc to be unleashed. However, of course one would teach boundaries. Fences around tricky areas. When not to attempt something. The importance of not overestimating one's ability. And it might very well be better than the present state of affairs, where entirely untrained people attempt repairs that are quite horrifying.

* NOTE: Don't try this at home. This is not Torah writing. This is Times New Roman. It would not look quite like this on a Torah.


That's my vision. I reckon I can teach someone to do this in a day, if they've got some arts-and-crafts background. Anyone want to have a bit of a Manhattan guinea-pig day?
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 26th, 2008 10:02 pm)
Picture a room with a couple of soferim in it, writing Torah. A proto-sofer is practising letter samekh. The sound of a lecture on the weekly Torah portion floats in from down the hallway. Another proto-sofer takes a deep breath; she's about to start writing her first mezuzah. Her teacher is there, keeping an eye on her as she turns months of hard study into a real scroll.

A rabbinical student drops in with a megillah; he can't quite work out what he's doing wrong, but someone with more experience can get him back on track. Bolstered with good advice, he goes on his way, passing on his way out another proto-soferet who is coming from her Talmud class. Letter samekh is set aside and the two pull out books and tackle halakha. Mezuzah girl, taking a lunch break, helps them out when they get stuck.

They leave - they have Bible class now - and another student arrives. She's an expert on the Ancient Near East, a university professor and rabbi. She lives in the next state and studies on her own, and comes in every few weeks for an hour's lesson, after which someone is bound to get her into a discussion about texts from antiquity, and everyone will get very excited. After she's gone, work resumes, perhaps punctuated by occasional exchanges of advice or the sharing of a thought on the text. Someone will fetch some tea, someone will take a minute to look up a halakhic ruling. Letter by letter, their scrolls grow.

In the late afternoon, a round-eyed eleven-year-old comes in with her bat mitzvah teacher. They're taking a break from a Torah reading lesson, and coming to see the Torah being written. A Torah scholar spends an hour working on her own calligraphy; she doesn't want to be a sofer, but she likes practising here with the scribes. Her Seeing Eye dog sleeps under the table; she's practically blind, but she finds calligraphy inspiring. Everyone else finds her inspiring.

Around suppertime, a sofer and a proto-sofer arrive from their day jobs. Over supper, they catch up, talk shop a bit, and then set to reviewing some of the basics. They'll almost certainly end up chasing a tangent through the rabbinic literature. Someone will bring an academic perspective, someone will share a midrash; they may finish the evening discussing practical concerns, or philosophy, or awed speechless by some particularly astounding idea.

Sounds nice, doesn't it? And the great thing is, it's not just a pretty dream. It happened last week, and the week before, and the week before, and God willing it will happen next week and the week after and the week after. Baby scribes and proto-scribes and getting-better scribes, people sharing what they know and what they've learned, writing and studying and listening together, and all the while the Torah grows and grows. It's very beautiful.

(I can be emailed for more info.)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Oct. 28th, 2008 09:48 pm)
The High Holiday period tends to fry my brain rather, and the year can't really get under way until Succot's finished. Not getting started until November is quite, quite ridiculous, I agree, and most sensible people have been swinging along for two months already.

Amongst other things, this means I've only just got back into teaching, but, I'm now teaching regularly.

At present I intend spending Tuesdays at Drisha, in midtown Manhattan. There is space there for people to study and write for as long as they like, and to have hour-long slots working one-on-one with me.

So if X is writing a mezuzah and has a two-second question, I can answer it during Y's lesson while Y is experimenting with a new technique. That means X has company and motivation and supervision while she's working on her mezuzah, and Y has the same during X's lesson, and everyone's happy.

And I have space for some new students right now, so if you're interested, email me jen%hasoferet,com. Chaps and lasses, it doesn't bother me if it doesn't bother you.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Apr. 30th, 2008 09:32 pm)
I visited a Hebrew school today, to talk to the children about how a Torah scroll is made. We unrolled a Torah and looked at it carefully, I passed out materials so they could have something to touch, and we talked about what, and about why.

Children in Hebrew schools often have excellent questions about the Torah. Sometimes they make me think pretty hard. Often the answers are on several levels,* and I have to think fast and decide which level of answer is most appropriate for the age group, the level of Jewish literacy, and the denominational setting. I don't know how formative an experience it is to meet the Torah scribe, but there's always the chance something I say is going to colour some kid's religious experience, so I'd better get the right colour. It means working with Hebrew schools is always different, always a challenge, and always interesting.

This group had some unusually intense thinkers. In addition to some particularly sharp Torah questions, I was particularly charmed by one child who nobbled me afterwards while I was packing up my bag of toys. I'd mentioned (tangentially) how kosher slaughter is effected with a very sharp knife, and this kid wanted to know why sharp was important, and what would happen if you used a blunt one. So we talked about helping in the kitchen, and how it's easier to use a sharp knife on a tomato than e.g. a plastic knife, and went from there to how the same would apply for a goat, and what effect that might be supposed to have on the goat's experience of it. Kids don't usually stay focused enough to ask me stuff afterwards, and particularly not about things like that. That was a nice experience.

* Anything starting with "why," for starters.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 20th, 2008 09:36 pm)
I'm so evil sometimes.

Student S has been learning with me since the beginning of the year. We spend three and a half hours together on Wednesdays, practical and theory, and she works in her free time as well so she's making awesome progress.

And looking at her latest work this Wednesday, I reckon she's about ready to start a proper mezuzah. I know this will come as something of a surprise to her, because she tends to underestimate herself, so I just drop it in, ever so casually, over her shoulder while she's working - Okay, this is looking really nice now...I'd say you could start that mezuzah whenever you feel like it - knowing perfectly well that she's going to be entirely gobsmacked (Huh? Me? Mezuzah? Yikes!), and anticipating amusement.

Which was rather evil, imo. But it was funny.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 20th, 2006 12:49 pm)
Fourth-graders, yay!

I like starting sessions with a visual, just to make sure we all know what we're talking about. So we unrolled a Torah down a long table, and everybody looked, and then the session went with the children's questions. You never can tell what they're going to be interested in, but with the fourth grade it's a pretty fair bet they're going to enjoy the gross bits. So that was a fun session; some of them had really interesting questions, and they were all tremendously well-behaved, no grabbing at the Torah or any of that.

I met with about a zillion other groups, three-year-olds from the preschool going up in age more or less indefinitely. One of the functions of this week was to introduce the congregation to their new Torah while it was in the genesis state, as it were, and I certainly got to introduce the Torah to a lot of people. It's pretty cool when you think about it - these tiny people are going to be bar mitzvah in ten years, and they'll be reading from this Torah, and they might still remember that they saw it being written. And they might be able to tell their children, when they have bar mitzvah age children, that the Torah they're reading from was the one Mom saw being written when she was in preschool.

And on the subject of pretty cool, this came from the day school:

cute pic by kids

We saw the Torah scribe my favrit paet was seeying all her writing.

Is that not the cutest thing ever? I'm the one in the middle with the Artistic Beret. And look at the sheet of Torah with the wee crowns on the letters. I remember writing similar compositions when we met the doctor and the nurse and the fishmonger - now I'm the Torah Scribe! I mean gosh - me! In kiddies' notebooks!
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Aug. 22nd, 2006 11:47 am)
Yesterday I...
a) wrote column 63
b) went into the city to teach my current Torah reading student
c) worked with Sofrut I
d) went swimming

Regarding a), that means the Torah is 15% done.
Regarding b), I observe that when I teach adult women, they have a tremendous lack of self-confidence, which has an extremely marked effect on what they do. If they believe they can do it - it sounds fine. If they give up halfway through, it immediately sounds distinctly less good. A funny thing.
Regarding c), Sofrut I is working through Mishnat Soferim now - the Mishnah Berurah's version of how the letters ought to be formed. As we go, we're noting how MB differs from Keset about these things. Sofrut I also involves pizza and, this week, cake, which is super :)
Regarding d), splosh!

Today I am attempting to write column 64, but have had a Bad Quill morning. I think that Really Bad Quill days are a direct consequence of Blunt Knife days, but sometimes a knife doesn't feel very blunt so one doesn't notice, and just puts it down to poor cutting. So I took a break. The break is now over. Toodle-pip.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Aug. 7th, 2006 10:12 pm)
Sofrut I met in New Jersey this week, for a change. We've been plugging through the letter forms according to the Keset ha-Sofer.

Laws about letter forms are the ideal example of why you need an Oral Torah. The idea behind rabbinic Judaism is that there's a Written Torah, and then there's an Oral Torah which helps you understand it - so if you look at the Torah and it says "an eye for an eye," the Oral Torah helpfully explains that that's metaphorical. Then you read that passage of the Torah in the light of metaphor, and bingo, you have a system of legal damages.

Letter form laws explain that this bit of a letter must be just so, and this bit of a letter must be just so, but they do it in Hebrew, so in order to understand them at all you must already have a pretty good idea of what the letters look like. The extra-textual tradition tells us what the letters look like, and then the textual tradition tells us more about what exactly makes an aleph into an aleph.

Does that make sense? I think it's a rather fun philosophical theme, myself.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jul. 19th, 2006 05:21 pm)
Tuesday: Unbelivably HOT, oh my. The poor AC couldn't cool the room. But I had to write Torah, so I froze a damp cloth and worked with it draped around my neck.

Despite this, Tuesday was a super work day: I'd written a column by the early afternoon, and then conducted sofrut studies until evening. Sofrut II (4-7ish) is learning Keset ha-Sofer with Lishkat ha-Sofer (i.e. the scribal manual with some intense commentary) and Sofrut I (7.45-10.30ish) is learning Keset without commentary. Sofrut I tends to feature pizza :D
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( May. 1st, 2006 11:34 pm)
Hung out this evening with Proto-Soferet LC. Proto-Sofer DMV was sick, so he wasn't there. LC and I talked technique for a bit, and read through the Mishnah Berurah's definitions of some of the letters.

I thought I had an English translation of them somewhere, and thought I'd post it here, but I seem to've mislaid it, and there's not a great deal of point putting only the Hebrew up (since if you're able to comprehend it, chances are you have access to the Mishnah Berurah already; this bit's at the end of siman 36). Bleah. [livejournal.com profile] margavriel, you haven't perchance made a translation, have you?
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Apr. 17th, 2006 11:21 pm)
I didn't mention how the day before Pesach was crazy mad, largely because I wasn't blogging because it was, uh, crazy mad. We were on the way to Boston, but stopped off at Mar Gavriel's for a Megillat Shir-ha-Shirim-finishing session. The poor boy had been up more or less all night writing like crazy, because the Megillah, if it was going to be useful, needed to be finished before the festival started, since one can't legitimately write on festivals, and he wanted it to be ready to read Saturday. So he was completely exhausted, but had a finished Megillah, and after a bit of erasing and correcting and general fiddling, he had a kosher finished Megillah as well.

Shir ha-Shirim doesn't have to be read from a written scroll; most of us read it from books, but it's certainly rather cool to read it from a scroll, and being a Man With Scroll apparently makes one very popular...when the Mar is blogging again, I shall link to his post detailing his adventures as a Man With Scroll. From what he tells me, it was read many times in many places and was generally a Jolly Good Thing, and demonstrates that with enough dedication, one can go from more or less nothing to a finished scroll in about six weeks. Shkoiyach!
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 27th, 2006 09:28 pm)
I got up at 5am today to catch a bus to Philadelphia. The 5am part wasn't so great, but the Philadelphia part was fun. I was assessing the Torahs in a shul, which means taking a whole lot of notes regarding the conditions of the sefer with an eye to estimating how much it'll cost to restore them.

They had six Torahs - three bad, three good.

One was in basically good condition but for the seams, which someone had stuck together with duct tape. People, please - if your sefer's seam breaks, either use artist's or archivist's tape, or don't tape it. The duct tape had not only dried up but had left hideous, hideous stains, which probably contain elements of non-kosher animals as well as being a ghastly orange-yellow - and the seams still need to be fixed. Overall gain negative.

Two were hugely satisfying, because the text and klaf were in lovely condition, really fine quality, and nicely written - but very, very, very dirty. So dirty that they looked to be in awful condition and perhaps beyond restoration, but hurrah! the dirt will almost all come off, and they'll look like new Torahs by the time I'm done with them. I was very happy about this, because it was such a nice surprise for the shul! Instead of two Torahs headed for retirement, two high-quality sefarim which won't cost too much to repair...nice!

One was in a terrible condition, but it was a Czech Memorial Scroll, so you'd sort of expect that. It would be fiendishly expensive to repair - it had extensive flaking, which I'd guess came from being stored in a damp warehouse by the Nazis - but those scrolls are terrific educational tools, there's all kinds of history/geneaology/shul-twinning things that can go on. Sometimes they have enough sentimental/historical value that repairing them is worth the expense. After all, these were scrolls that the Nazis collected up to put in their museum of Jewish stuff - they were supposed to be the last things that were left after the Jews had all been killed. So restoring them to use carries a pretty powerful message.

Two were in truly terrible condition, really beyond repair from a financial perspective. They had been designated Junior Scrolls, which meant they were hanging out in the Hebrew school area. It's not clear what they're used for; they can't be being read from since they're largely illegible. One of them had crumbs and sesame seeds in it. I'm a little bit concerned by this; it seems to me that these scrolls ought to be retired, because it doesn't seem to me that the educational benefit outweighs the indignity. What do you think - am I over-reacting?

There was a collection of Russian cantors visiting the shul - mostly Russians who got here and became cantors (some of them had been opera singers in Russia) - they were doing choral stuff for fun. I listened to them for a bit; they were very nice to listen to indeed. Unusually for a choir of cantors, they had excellent blend. Every other cantorial chorus I've heard has had simply awful blend - prima donnas all trying to out-prima-donna the rest. So to hear a choir of cantors singing like a choir was a treat and a half!

Philadelphia seemed very pleasant, the bits of it I saw. Another nice city to add to the list of Nice Places I've Seen. My favourite bit was the statue of Mr Penn on top of the city hall, because it used to be against planning laws to build higher than his hat (this was revoked twenty years ago to encourage business growth). I found this charming.

Journey back marred by the movie - the screens were not showing anything, but the soundtrack was playing: a mixture of very loud music, indistinct speech, screams, and gunshots. At 5pm! It doesn't seem appropriate to be showing people getting killed for fun on public transport, especially during the day. This is basically why I prefer taking the Chinatown buses when I can - no nasty movies.

But when I got home, my W had made supper and it was ready and yummy. A good day.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Mar. 6th, 2006 09:31 pm)
Friday: worked on flaky torah
Saturday: in Forest Hills seeing various nice people
Sunday: didn't do any work! except teaching. We bought vegetables and put up blinds in the sitting room, and had lunch at Judaica Treasures on 72nd (fantastic menu). Mar Gavriel came round and worked on mezuzah skills. He's coming along nicely. Getting started is always tricky, because there are so many skills to master simultaneously, so it's good when people get past making random letters and into making respectable paragraphs.
Monday: finished working on flaky torah!!!!!!!! yay!!!! And taught leyning, and picked up megillah from Eichlers, where it had been getting a computer check. There were quite a lot of errors; I like to think that I would have picked most of them up had I gone through and checked by hand before sending it to the computer checker. The logistics didn't work out that way, though.

Busy weekends coming up: this Sunday I'm presenting a megillah at Ansche Chesed and then going out to Brooklyn to do writing with people at a Purim Carnival, and then the week after I'm doing a similar meet-the-soferet event at a Purim Carnival in Scarsdale. Need to think of something vaguely profound relating the Story of Esther to the Hebrew School. It's tricky; I can think of fewer stories less suited to a Hebrew school than Esther. Something about salvation of peoples, I suspect.