Questions from an artist who writes blessings and creates art around them.

Q:“Am I allowed to draw over the letters, including Hashem’s name if you can see them underneath?”

A:How you treat Hashem’s name is a metaphor for how you treat Hashem. How literally Jews take metaphors roughly depends on where they fall on the denominational spectrum. Thus some (most) Jews would say that painting transparent watercolour over a Divine Name is fine if it contributes to making it beautiful, but a few would think it inappropriate. Without knowing you personally I cannot say how you should feel about all that.

Q: “If I make a mistake and the writing is not legible anymore, do I need to bury it?”

A:If a text is damaged but contains legible Divine Names it is proper to bury it because it is improper to dispose of Divine Names in any other way. If you made the Name itself illegible by making the mistake, such as spilling opaque paint onto it, opinions vary since the Name has already been destroyed, but you should probably go to the extra effort of burying it, to teach you to be more careful next time.

Q:“I use canvas, is that ok?”

A:Okay, look, there is an opinion that says you aren’t allowed to write verses from Tanakh on anything except kosher parchment, with anything except kosher ink, in anything less than book-length amounts. There is also an opinion that says someone who writes down blessings is like someone who burns the Torah (כותבי ברכות כשורפי תורהת Shabbat 115b). The vast, vast majority of Jews do not abide by these opinions.* I assume you are among them since you create blessing art on printed material. In that case, obviously it is fine to use canvas; canvas is a respectable art material. I wouldn’t suggest you go all “Piss Christ” because ugh, and I personally think it would be weird to write blessings on parchment made from pigskin, for instance, but basically there are no rules about this beyond “Don’t do it.”

* Even very frum ones. They too use prayerbooks, for instance. I might talk about that at some later time.

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This caught my eye because it’s just weird to print a newspaper by lithography from a handwritten original. So I went a-searching, and discovered that this was the first Yiddish-language newspaper produced in America. Now the lithography makes much more sense; to produce a Yiddish newspaper you need a newspaper press and a set of Yiddish type. I think Yiddish books were being printed in New York at the time (based on a sort of general impression of an existing and literate community), but not periodicals, so it would make sense that the producer just didn’t have access to a newspaper press which could set Yiddish type.

They were also backed by Tammany Hall, which at this period was a rather unpleasant organisation controlling local politics, heavily Irish-immigrant, with violence and corruption, so perhaps Yiddish printers (in a nascent immigrant community) didn’t want to get involved?

Here are some sources from the internets:

The first entry in what would become a crowd of Yiddish newspapers in America, Di Yidishe Tsaytung first appeared on March 1, 1870, a self-described “weekly paper of politics, religion, history, science and art” with the English title, “The New York Hebrew Times,” emblazoned above the Yiddish logotype. Its publisher was I. K. Buchner, like so many of the first Yiddish editors a Lithuanian Jew devoted to the subjects of the New Enlightenment. It took its editorial material from German and other European Jewish periodicals, and was quickly scorned by English-language Jewish publications. The uptown Jewish Times said, “Buchner’s Yidishe Tsaytung is a weekly publication written in the Jewish and German-Polish jargon, and its contents are as laughable as its language. It provides reading material entirely suited to the recently imported Russian Jews, and is a shining example of Middle Ages superstitions and naivete.” The paper, produced by lithography, cost six cents, and loyally followed the party line of Tammany Hall. It finally expired in 1877.

–from Live and be Well, Richard F. Shepard, page 186.

The first Yiddish periodical published in America, Di yidishe tsaytung, was founded in 1870 by J.K. Buchner. He generally published his paper, which was subsidized by Tammany Hall, prior to election time or when a sensational story promised high sales…Its masthead identified it variously as a monthly and a weekly, but as few as fifteen issues appeared in a period of seven years; at most three issues are recorded extant today. The first commercially viable Yiddish dailies were published in the 1890s and in 1917 New York City alone had five dailies with a combined circulation of 600,000.

From the Jewish Theological Seminary’s exhibition catalogue People of Faith, Land of Promise.

And that bit about “three issues are recorded extant today”…this is one of the perks of doing volunteer work in a rare book room…

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A clip from a testimonial,* signed by appreciative members of an Italian community in 1956. In the subsequent sixty years, note how one of the substances in the black ink has spread out around the signature, giving it a sort of halo. Ink can be funny like that. It’s one of the reasons artists use “archival-quality” materials–the idea is that they aren’t going to do this. Not sure how they know.

* Before you start grumbling: you’ll see the whole thing next time, so hang in there.

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Drawer 9 has a lot of pretty things like this:

Image copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission. Click to see bigger.

They’re mostly in Italian or Latin, and they have the most lovely illuminated borders, with coats of arms of cardinals.

What they are are testimonials. When you supplied things such as furniture to cardinals’ households in seventeenth-century Rome, they might give you a testimonial, which you could use to secure business from other households. JTS has lots of these from a family named Ambron, who were merchants supplying a lot of things to a lot of people.

The testimonial might also give the holder permissions and privileges for other things. You might be allowed to be treated as a member of the cardinal’s household (“don’t mess with this person or I the cardinal will mess with you”), or to live in a fancy district outside the Jewish ghetto, or to travel freely and trade within the Holy Roman Empire. All things that regular Jews couldn’t necessarily expect. The Ambrons supplied the Vatican’s army, as well as the cardinals at home and abroad, so after a time they were guaranteed a market as well.

I admit that my eye was caught mostly by the prettiness of these, but they are also very interesting. This family, the Ambrons, eventually built up a whole network of merchant trading across Europe, part of the Jew-as-trader narrative.

I don’t know what happened to them eventually. There’s one testimonial issued in 1804 “during the Napoleonic occupation of Tuscany,” saying that they have the job of supplying the military there. I suppose that when Napoleon broke the power of the Pope and emancipated everyone including the Jews, Jews who relied on papal preference didn’t fare too well. And then when the papacy’s power came back I suppose they were much more anti-Jew than before, even if the Ambrons had been in a position to supply them with stuff, but war doesn’t always treat networks of merchants kindly.

Other pretty elements from various testimonials, which I’d like to adopt into calligraphy pieces sometime or other:

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Today we have some public health notices from 1923 (DR5-L73 and 74).

Images copyright Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Used with permission. Click to see larger image.

“Either you’ve washed your hands and nails with soap and water, or you mustn’t eat or touch your eyes. Contagious diseases are in dirt!”

Thanks to Alex Casser for translations from Yiddish.

‘Dam, tsfardeya, kinim’–the third plague is the worst! Check yourself for lice! Typhus comes from lice!”

Also observe the interesting font, how the lamed doesn’t rise above the line of type, nor the kuf descend below it.

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hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Jul. 10th, 2012 10:28 pm)

So I did this ketubah recently. It’s round, which is a new thing for me, and it has twelve-fold radial symmetry, and it’s scrumptious (Click the image to see a bigger version).

Once it was done, it occurred to me that it would make a pretty awesome clock. You’d scan the ketubah and photoshop out the middle, and put in the numbers instead. You’d get it printed. Then you’d make a wooden base, cutting it to the shape of those pretty peaked edges. Then you’d stick the print onto the wood (I don’t know the best way of doing this–decoupage techniques?) and seal it, and then add a clock mechanism. Which would be totally yummy.

I commented as much to the happy couple, and they were unexpectedly, gratifyingly, enthusiastic.

This is where you lot come in. I know how to get a scan done; I know how to use Photoshop, and I know how to get a print made. I don’t have woodworking space.

Does anyone have the skills and wherewithal to take it from there? I don’t have woodworking space, but I’m betting there’s at least one person reads this blog who does. Speak up if you want a commission!

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Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


The hardest part was getting the braid around the outside right. I wanted it to be just one line, going round and round, but if you just run a sinewave around the edge, you get either two or four lines, and I very much wanted only one line, because I only wanted to have the one text in the border.

It frustrates me no end that I no longer have the mathematical vocabulary to articulate the problem and thus find the solution easily. I contemplated asking a certain chap I know who works with knot theory, but didn’t want to admit defeat, and eventually figured it out the painful way, by drawing it on squared paper.

If you look carefully, you can see that there are eleven troughs along the top border but only ten along the bottom border. This is because a one-strand braid works if your border isn’t a whole number of wavelengths but is something-and-a-half wavelengths. The easiest way to do that is remove one of the troughs on one of the short edges and stretch the others a bit to make up for it – you could say, ok, the border is 100cm and the wavelength is about 4cm which would come out to 25 phases so let’s make it 24.5 okay divide 100 by 24.5 that’s 4.08 rightio let’s make the wavelength 4.08cm and figure out how to centre that so that the side borders are level with each other…but that’s very tiresome, so I didn’t bother.

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Part 1, Part 2

One of the clever things about piyutim is all the little linguistic tricks they use. Rhyme, of course; I tried to use white space between stanzas to show the rhyming structure, but I think I didn’t use quite enough of it. So, there’s rhyme.


Then there’s alphabetical acrostic, which I’ve indicated with little pink-highlighted squiggles, and anadiplosis. Anadiplosis is also called שירשור, and it’s when one line begins with the same words as the previous line. I’ve used bigger squiggles for anadiplosis, coloured in pairs. See how the alphabetical poem connects to the verse block, which connects to the last stanza, which connects to the blessing?


The squiggles are from an old sketchbook, which I take to exhibitions and things for the express purpose of collecting squiggles and patterns and whatnot. The note in the sketchbook says “Ramban, Rome, 1469,” but I looked that up on the JNUL site (cheers, Gabriel) and I didn’t see my squigglies in it. So they must be from something else. I’ll find them one day.

The border elements are a combination of something I pulled from a museum catalogue (Adoration of the Magi, Fitzwilliam Museum) and New York City ironwork (always buy the catalogue, if it’s pretty, and always carry a sketchbook). The little coloured bits are the same colours as the writing nearby.

I used three weights of Pigma Micron pen for the border, that’s all. You can have a lot of fun with contrasting-weight pens. The coloured parts are my beloved sparkly watercolours, which shine and gleam and are HAPPY. Yay art supplies!


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Part 1

Since this is a poem for Shabbat Nachamu, a poem which references the first verse of the haftara we say that day, I wanted to have that haftara in the border. It’s Isaiah chapter 40:2 ff and a bit of 41; it starts in the top right-hand corner.

top corner

There are a couple of scribal errors in the haftara part (click here for closeup of entire thing). It’s hard copying a text you’re not totally familiar with into a pattern, when your attention is largely focused on getting the pattern right. I could have avoided that by writing it all out in pencil first, but…well, I just didn’t want to bother, and I paid the price!

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This is a liturgical piece, a Magen by Qallir for Shabbat Nachamu. A Magen is the first in a sequence of poems adorning the first three berakhot of the Amidah, up to the Kedusha; the Magen adorns the first berakha, “Magen Avraham.”


Translation from the ever-estimable Mar Gavriel:

With Me, from Lebanon, you shall not be shamed;
Your raiments of strength you will don with honor;
Nations you will trample with your legs, and trod over them;
Your flags I shall adorn with linen and silk.

Rouse yourself up, O daughter of Zion, from the dust,
And get up and enrobe in beautiful clothing!
Your later halo will be more beautiful than your first;
Your sin will be over, and atoned like [the passing of] a cloud.

Your palaces, which were dimmed due to My fury,
Burned in anger, and with destruction were wrathed –
They shall be robed in glory, and given compassion from My mouth.
Announce to them: “Give ye comfort, give ye comfort!”

As it is written: Give ye comfort, give ye comfort to my people, saith the LORD. (Isaiah 40:1)
And it is written: Though there be a multitude of [anxious] thoughts within me, thy consolations charm my soul. (Psalm 94:19)
And it is written: And let this be my consolation, though I be anxious with unsparing fear: I have not rejected the words of the Holy One. (Job 6:10)
And it is written: Rejoice with Jerusalem, yea, be glad with her, all who love her; celebrate a celebration with her, all who mourn for her. (Isaiah 66:10)
And it is written: So that ye may nurse, be satisfied from the teat of her consolations; so that ye may suck, and enjoy the breasts of her glory. (ibid.,
verse 11)

Her glory will be elevated above all,
And Thy glory shalt Thou then reveal in her.
Our days – may you fill them, like the days of yore,
And in the strength of Thy shield may we be uplifted in glory.

More tomorrow :)

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Bride and groom,

When we started this process, you said “I don’t think it could possibly work out, but I just had to give it a try.” You asked for something you thought was impossible, and it turned into something quite lovely. May your marriage have many similar shots at seemingly-impossible targets.

The text you chose for your ketubah is a modern one, reflecting your commitment to each other as equals. Yet you chose to have it translated into Aramaic, reflecting your awareness of your heritage. May your marriage be as strongly rooted.

Your text has traditional legal language sprinkled with phrases from Tanakh. The legal language is written in an ordinary book-hand, but the Torah phrases are written in Torah script – distinctive when you look for it, but subtly blending into the broader context. May your marriage have joyous discoveries of the divine amongst the everyday.

The texts adorning the edge of your ketubah are also traditional texts for ketubot. Although the border seems to be one gloriously intricate swirl of letters, if you look carefully, you will see that the two texts are in fact still distinct. May you each preserve your individuality, yet blend together into a harmonious whole.

One of the texts is Sos asis – a haftarah for the Seven Weeks of Consolation, and also traditionally recited on the Shabbat before the wedding. It starts with Isaiah 61:10: “I will greatly rejoice” and goes up to 62:10, a verse whose wordplay means it can read “Lift up a flag over the people” or “Raise a miracle over the people.” May your marriage have whichever you need of consolation and rejoicing, inspiration and miracle.

The other text is Eshet Hayil, Proverbs 31:10-31. Eshet Hayil sings the virtues of a fine wife, and in doing so it shares its vision of a well-balanced, comfortable, smoothly-functioning household. May your marriage also have this contentment.

Eshet Hayil wasn’t quite enough to fill up the space allotted to it, so I also added a line or two from the sheva berakhot, the wedding blessings – “Blessed is the one who created joy and gladness, groom and bride, mirth, song, delight and rejoicing…” The blessing continues: “…love and harmony and peace and companionship.” As your text contains only the beginning of the blessing, may your wedding contain only the beginning of a life of love and harmony, peace and companionship.

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I like a bit of a challenge now and again.

Here’s a community that wants to honour its rabbi by giving him a piece of artwork.
Since the rabbi is well-beloved by the families with children, the Surprise Committee wanted to have the children participate in creating the artwork.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually result in something you want to frame and hang on the wall.

Enter a fun, bubbly style of calligraphy. These letters are outlined with marker, and they’re intentionally idiosyncratic. The children can help colour the letters in, and if they overshoot the edges, the outlines can just be thickened to compensate, and it’ll still look fine because it’s designed that way. Each letter can have several colours, increasing the number of possible identifiable contributions.


I provided the calligraphy, as an ex-member of the community. I left a lot of room around the edge; a current member of the community provided the border, in much the same style.

Then the community had a Making The Surprise day, and they made the surprise, and here it is:


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Here’s an interesting question:

Dear Ms. Friedman,

this is not specifically about religious scrolls, but as a scribe, could you tell me how many handwritten letters can usually fit on the parchment made from one cow, or on the parchment made from one goat,
or on the parchment made from one sheep? Assuming the letter sizes, lines distances, and margins that were usually used before the invention of printing, so that the result is readable and doesn’t look
rushed or squeezed.

I’m asking out of curiosity; I was wondering what kind of short stories, treatises, poems or articles could fit on one hide.


“Assuming the letter sizes, lines distances, and margins that were usually used before the invention of printing, so that the result is readable and doesn’t look rushed or squeezed.”

That’s a huge assumption, which may be shaping your thinking in an unhelpful way. If you look at different manuscripts from the appropriate period you will see an enormous variation in letter sizes. A skilled scribe with good materials can write a truly tiny book which nonetheless doesn’t look “rushed or squeezed.” The style of writing also makes a difference; for instance, black-letter takes up a great deal less space than uncial letters of the same height, so one can fit more letters in. Speaking as a scribe, the amount of text I have to write and the size of the available media often dictates my choice of script and size.

An instructive exercise would be to look at, for example, a small psalter or prayer-book; note the page dimensions, and count the average number of letters per line and lines per page. Many libraries have online collections, see below. Find out how much writing surface one generally gets from a hide by asking parchment suppliers. Use your page dimension to calculate number of pages per hide; remember you can write on both sides. You might also find the fields of book history and codicology fruitful.


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Isn’t this sweet? It’s the little letter aleph in “Vayikra,” but it’s a particularly tiny version, where the height of the whole letter aleph is same as the width of the quill used for the other letters.


The regular letters in this sefer, by the way, were 7mm high. Huge!

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A question from someone typesetting a ketubah:

“I’m using typefaces that have a hand-done feel to them, but obviously they are mechanical. There are some typefaces (Guttman Stam and Guttman Stam 1) that recreate a sofrut look. One of these uses taggin and one is plain. I have no pretension to be following sofrut laws, but I’d prefer to use a typeface that won’t look completely ridiculous or pretentious to somebody familiar with the customs of how these documents are traditionally written… Is it appropriate to use the font with the taggin as the general typeface, or are those letters with taggin only reserved for special instances of letters?”

That is…instead of going for something instantly identifiable as “font that came with your computer,” like this:


she’s going for something that is both prettier and evokes some of our more cherished solemn traditions, like this:


“I just had this nightmare scenario in mind where I had my beatuiful, tag-saturated ketubah on my wall and then became friends with someone savvy in sofrut who looked at it and saw the equivalent of an entire contract composed entirely of those giant gothic storybook letters that are supposed to come at the beginning of a paragraph in an illuminated manuscript”

Like this, that is to say:


where it ought to look like this:


The answer: in our days, tagin are letter-specific, not context-specific; they generally occur on the letters שעטנז גץ only. You can use a font with tagin without looking like an utter chump.

Now, some people do hold that since this is the script used for sifrei torah, tefillin, and mezuzot, it should be reserved exclusively for use on those documents; that using sta”m script on things such as ketubot isn’t appropriate. I don’t hold that way personally, and this isn’t even a script we’re talking, it’s a font, so it’s not really even the same thing since you basically can’t use it for sta”m anyway.* Still, something to bear in mind; if one’s community fetishises the script, best not to use it for a ketubah.

I’ve even heard the view that since this is the script used for gittin, tagin aren’t appropriate for ketubot – gittin being divorce documents and tagin apparently being a kind of bad-luck talisman when employed in wedding contexts. Except that we don’t put tagin on the letters in gittin, so that one kind of falls down at the starting post, but underneath what it’s saying, again, is that there’s a desire to keep these letters apart and special – “gittin” is just the language used to clothe that concept.

But some people** take it in the other direction, and say that since this is the script used for our most important and significant documents, it makes sense to use it for a ketubah.

Which is fair enough, so long as one does it with awareness.

* Not without some innovative responsa, anyway
** I haven’t got published sources for either of these views. This is just “I talked to some rabbi, and he said…” territory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the letters on the Megillah case spelling out?

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

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

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


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

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Ever wonder what makes heavy Torahs so heavy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

beautiful big letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tzaddi and taggin

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

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“We like Rivka,” said my client, “but we’d like something more elaborate.” (Click to see bigger Rivka.)

Rivka ketubah, elaborate versionSo this is what I did. (Click to see bigger Elaborate!Rivka.)
Rivka ketubah with sparkliesNote particularly the SHINY PAINTS that sparkle in the light! I like this very much.

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