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. 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: (Default)
( Oct. 13th, 2009 08:49 pm)
When writing Torah, the sofer is supposed to speak each word before writing it.* The speech somehow causes the essence of the words to waft through the air in holy, mystical fashion and settle onto the parchment, to be followed in short order by the letters themselves. Like spreading rose petals before a bride, if you will.

Today I was writing down at Yeshivat Hadar. I like writing Torah in places of Torah in general, but today it so happened that while I was writing, the group was listening to Rabbi Held talking.

It's always worth listening to Rabbi Held talking (PLUG FOR OCTOBER 21 EVENT), he's the sort of person you ought to want to be when you grow up, but today in particular - I was listening with a quarter of an ear because I was mostly concentrating on writing Torah - he was talking about making your Torah study lead to being a better person. How learning Torah ought to be allied with becoming a better, kinder, more present person. About how all of Torah is fundamentally a set of pointers towards getting more chesed - loving-kindness - into the world. How chesed is and can be all-pervading and enough.

Mix that in with the image of the sofer's articulated words settling onto the parchment. This afternoon I think all that chesed in the air must have settled onto the parchment as well, how could it not have? Layers and layers of chesed, and then the breathed words, and then the written words.

I thought it was a nice image.***

* Keset ha-Sofer 4:6
** Except richer and better, but I was only listening with a quarter of an ear, so I can't give more details, sorry; go hear R' Held if you get the chance
*** I was writing the bit about the Sin of the Golden Calf at the time. You tell me how that plays out!
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Sep. 29th, 2009 09:11 pm)
I never got around to saying, last month - one reason the soferet loves going blackberrying is because blackberries are all gleamy and black in the hedgerows, so they look an awful lot like new letters, which are also gleamy and black, albeit not in the hedgerows.

It being vilely hot and sticky in New York at the moment, the fancy takes me to show y'all just how little of a sheet of Torah is actually visible while I'm writing it. Well-written, polished, intellectual blog posts with nicely-edited pictures and everything are kind of hard when almost your entire brain is screaming "MORE ICE CREAM NOW PLZ," and this is moderately educational, anyway.

Here's a picture of my tabletop last Thursday.

Soferet desktop

A and B: plasticised cardboard off old calendars (or cereal boxes, whatever's around). This is a general protection against mucky fingers, dust (not that the work is ever lying around long enough to collect dust, oh no), stray ink blots, and the like.

C and D: kitchen paper. On hot hot hot days, the function of the kitchen paper is primarily as a sweat-soaker. Resting my forearms on kitchen paper means that when I raise my arm to dip the pen in the ink or write along the line or other such activities calling for a certain degree of mobility in the limbs, there isn't a sticky timelag while my arm peels itself away from A and B.

You will notice the inkstains on D, though; that's because even on sensible days when one can wear sleeves to the wrist one still needs pen-wipers. Long sleeves present a peril all of their own, namely FLUFF, which is why A and B are present whenever I can manage it; there's nothing quite like finishing a day's work in a purple sweater and realising that now you have to fetch your erasing sponge and remove the delicate purple bloom from your parchment, except *not* realising it and having your client ask why their sefer is patchily purple. I would guess. Not that that has ever happened to me. No indeed.

A thru D are attached to the parchment with paperclips. E, though, actually moves (that is to say, it is mobile. I move it, like a manual carriage return). I call E a finger guard; goodness knows what anyone else calls it, but its function is to keep the fingers off the parchment, so "finger guard" seems like a good name to me.

Parchment is temperamental, especially on hot days; it likes to cockle itself nostalgically and ripple gently across the desk. This is not especially helpful when you are trying to write on the darn stuff, so your left hand has the constant task of holding flat the square inch you're writing on. Without the trusty finger guard, that means you're continually writing on nice fresh fingerprints, and that's not so spiffy.

F is my tikkun page, wot I am copying off of. I have it as near to the working line as possible, because it's much easier to flick one's eyes a short way than raise one's whole head. You aren't allowed to write sans tikkun, as I've mentioned before.

G is the usual amount of visible Torah, although recently the days have been so hot and sticky that the ink takes forever to dry, so there are perhaps ten lines visible instead of the more usual four.

H. I'm very proud of H. It's that non-slip stuff that yachtie tablemats are made out of, that will sit quite happily on a table inclined at thirty degrees and not go anywhere. Ideal for people who work on tables inclined at thirty degrees, if you see what I mean. H is being a place marker, so that I don't go writing line 29 instead of line 35 or some similar foolishness.

I uses the same stuff to keep the inkwell and other tools from sliding off the desk. On I you can see tile; scalpel; pen; inkwell; giant blots. The tile and scalpel are for pen-sharpening (the tile serves as a chopping board). The giant blots are the natural consequence of giving Soferet Jen bottles of ink in handy easy-to-knock-over locations (you might describe me as ham-fisted, but we're too kosher for that aren't we); at J you can see how the wall has suffered similarly in the past.

Ice cream is totally relevant to writing Torah, anyway. They both come from cows.
In some script styles the samekh and the mem look quite similar, and the only difference is the bottom right-hand corner.

I came across a Torah in this script style, in which the word "Ramses" (you know, as in Egypt) had been misspelled, so it read "Ramsem." The final samekh had been mistakenly done as a mem.

So it was my job to fix that problem, and turn that final mem into a samekh.

This kind of fix illustrates one of the crucial sofrut principles, that of hak tokhot, or carving-to-form-a-letter. To turn final mem into samekh, all you need to do in principle is round off the corners - but in sofrut, that counts as forming the letter by carving, and we don't do this. Why? because carving isn't writing, and what we do is writing. So instead of just merrily trimming away the corners, you have to erase the whole bottom part of the letter until it isn't any letter at all, and then rewrite it with curved corners.

This is one of the things where afterwards you can't tell the difference, but the proper method is crucial. If you carve, the letter is pasul and the Torah is pasul. If you write, all is kosher. But no-one except you knows whether you wrote or carved.

It's pure formalism, in a way - it doesn't look any different, whether you make it by scraping or inking; you can't tell the difference, but the way we define Torah writing, there is a difference.

Looking at it from a homiletical perspective, it's easier to see why.

You can't form Torah from destructive acts. The letters have to be made with additive processes, not subtractive processes. The creation has to go in one direction, adding to the body of the letter, not taking away from an existing body.

We might make a comparison with sculpture, in particular Michelangelo's famous comment that David was already inside the marble and he, as the sculptor, merely removed the surplus. Torah letters cannot be made in this way. You can't take a blob of ink, scrape away the surplus, and reveal a letter, and on some level that's because without human interaction Torah doesn't mean anything. It's not a pretty statue, that once revealed stands there looking beautiful - it's a relationship, so there has to be interaction. The content comes from without, but it doesn't become part of us unless it also comes from within.

Compare how Torahs are made from perishable materials. They last a long time, but ultimately they decay, and hence the ever-renewing process of writing fresh scrolls to replace the worn. Stone tablets are very symbolic, but like the statue of David, they aren't a relationship. You make them once and there they are (until they break or get lost), but there isn't that process of internal, ongoing recreation which is what keeps Torah alive.

Really the more you think about it, the more important this little rule about not-forming-letters-by-erasing seems. On one level it's a formalist rule of artisanship, and on another level it's a whole theological discourse on the sympathetic relationship between the Jews and the Law.

good, eh?
hatam_soferet: Fractal zayins (zayin)
( Jul. 15th, 2009 09:35 am)
Yalkut ha-Sofer (thanks MG for typing it up):

וי"ו של תיבת "בריתי שלום" צ"ל קטיעה [קידושין דף ס"ו ע"ב], ורבו הדעות איך יש לעשותו, עיין בספר משנת אברהם סי' ל"א, שאסף אותם, ובשו"ת רעק"א סי' ע"ה, מסיק דהעיקר הוא לעשות וי"ו זעירא, ולרווחא דמילתא יעשה כשיטת הריטב"א, שיכתוב וי"ו זעירא ויניח מעט הפסק, ואח"כ יכתוב עוד קו קטן, וכך ציוה לעשות בס"ת שלו, וכעין זה הביא המשנ"א שם בשם הרה"ק ר' אפרים סופר זצ"ל, דעשה את הקטיעה באלכסון, אולם בדיעבד אם כתב כשאר הווי"ן אין לפסול.

The vav in the word "beriti shlom" must be written broken (Kiddushin 66b), and there are many opinions as to how it is done, see the Mishnat Avraham 31 who explores them. Note the responsa of the Rak"a 75, who think you should not break it at all but write it little. Basically though one ought to make as per the Ritva, who says you ought to write a small vav and leave a little gap, and after that write a little line, and that was how he said it should be done in his sefer Torah. The Mishnat Avraham says something similar in the name of the Raha"k R' Ephraim Sofer, who says you should make the break diagonal. And if you made it just like all the other vavs, one doesn't declare it invalid.

I sometimes wonder whether one can make the broken vav by hak tokhot, erasing. You aren't allowed to make letters by scraping away ink that's already on the page, but you are sometimes allowed to prettify letters by scraping. So if you start with a regular vav, and make the break in it by scraping, you still have a vav, so arguably that's permitted. On the other hand, you accomplished something that made an important difference in the letter, by scraping, and that's arguably problematic. (Someone probably deals with it somewhere and I just haven't read it yet, if you want to tell me where, that'd be nice.)
hatam_soferet: (tea)
( May. 7th, 2009 10:32 pm)
Big smiles for:

my student JS being on the front page of the local paper, fixing a Torah :D

thunderstorms :D

still happy writing on lovely lovely klaf :D

appreciating small luxuries like being able to buy hobby supplies when one feels like it :D

springy smells in the air :D

bad soferet punsBig groans for:

dreadful puns caused by thinking too much whilst writing (I'm not much of a one for freehand drawing)...the top one is for ויפתח הגמלים, sort of Trojan camels, and the bottom one is for ועמד על הגמלים. I recall once asking a rabbi if God had a sense of humour, and receiving the answer that camels were inherently amusing...evidently they cause bad punnage, anyway. This is why I play music whilst writing - it keeps my active brain busy and stops this sort of thing happening too much.

ETA: Quote reference Genesis 24, Abraham's servant meeting Rivkah.
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. 26th, 2009 10:33 pm)
Taggin starburstI decided to have a bit of fun in this megillah I'm doing. This is the first son-of-Haman - they're in bigger script, in this scroll, so there's more scope for having fun with them.
I had the best time this evening. You know HaMelekh megillot, right? Esther scrolls which tweak the layout such that each column starts with the word HaMelekh, which means The King.

So R' Katz at CSAIR mentioned that he'd been thinking about a HaMalka (The Queen) megillah and fiddling about with it and only getting partway...

...and I, being a Total Nerd with Mad Leet Computer Tikkun Skillz, decided to give it a shot. And I did it. HaMalka megillah, looking pretty sweet.

Of course, the thing about HaMelekh is that King is allegorical for God, and since there isn't any God in the Megillah, the HaMelekh is a compensatory move. HaMalka obviously takes away from that, so if you are doing HaMalka you have to read it as riffing on the HaMelekh/God theme, rather than as a Stomping Feminist theme.

I suspect most people would assume it was a Stomping Feminist thing ("You changed HaMelekh? Don't you realise that HaMelekh refers to God?! Sheesh, you indulge your ridiculous ignorant feminism and just make yourself look stupid..."). One would get tired of explaining that no, one is very well aware of HaMelekh, and HaMalka retains the concept of sovereignty with its hints of God but adds a feminine aspect, as to say "My relationship with God is informed by my being female, and I can engage with ritual on that basis, and it is kosher and it is joyous."

You see I think people might not understand that. It makes me wonder whether alternating Melekh and Malka on the column heads would be a better move, but on the whole I think the feminine riff is worth it.
Purim's sort of my soffering anniversary. Five years since Megillah 1, now.

I'm putting in some pictures of my writing in the years between. This is almost certainly only of interest to calligraphy geeks, so I'm putting it under a cut. Except one which is a bit of an experiment and I wouldn't mind feedback, here: )

my handwriting
Spring 09, another megillah. This is me trying a completely different writing style. You can do that on a megillah, they're short, so if you don't like it you're not stuck for a whole year doing it.

(Oh look, there's a mistake right in the thumbnail. I *would* do that, wouldn't I. Oh well.)

It's a lot more nineteenth-century than my usual. It's quite pretty, but I think not the easiest ever to read?
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)
( Nov. 30th, 2008 09:38 pm)
In this week's Torah reading, Leah is fecund. It's really really sad actually, although officially this is a post about scribal errors and not about why I feel sorry for Leah. Scribal errors, here we come.

Here's the reading - Gen 29:32-35

Leah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Reuven, as she said, God has seen my affliction, and now my man will love me. ותהר לאה ותלד בן ותקרא שמו ראובן כי אמרה כי ראה יקוק בעניי כי עתה יאהבני אישי
She conceived again and bore a son, and she said, As God has heard that I am hated, he has given me this one also, and she called his name Shimon. ותהר עוד ותלד בן ותאמר כי שמע יקוק כי שנואה אנכי ויתן לי גם את זה ותקרא שמו שמעון
She conceived again and bore a son, and she said, This time my man will become attached to me, as I have borne him three sons. Accordingly, he called his name Levi. ותהר עוד ותלד בן ותאמר עתה הפעם ילוה אישי אלי כי ילדתי לו שלשה בנים על כן קרא שמו לוי
She conceived again and bore a son, and she said, This time I will praise God. Accordingly she called his name Yehudah, and she laid off bearing. ותהר עוד ותלד בן ותאמר הפעם אודה את יקוק על כן קראה שמו יהודה ותעמד מלדת

Isn't that just so sad? I mean, childbirth then was rottenly painful and rottenly dangerous, and to keep on having sons and hoping that your husband will love you because of it? Hoping and hoping that this time he'll love her and it never does come true. (Don't keep hoping that if you're good enough someone will love you, kids. It's a big lie. Be yourself, and to hell with being good.)

Anyway, look at the verb קרא - "call." Comes up four times, once in each verse.

First verse: in the form vatikra, "and she called."
Second verse: likewise in the form vatikra, "and she called."
Third verse: it says kara shemo, which can mean "he called his name," or just "his name was called."
Fourth verse: karah shemo; which means "she called."

Not tidy, that, is it? Where did that "he" come from in the third verse?

Me, I'm awfully inclined to put that third verse down to scribal error. קרא and קראה sound just the same, and it's jolly easy to forget to write a final letter hey at the end of a word. This I know only too well. The whole sequence would be so much tidier if it was vatikra:vatikra:karah:karah - Leah doing all the calling. Not that I would go around changing the text, you understand, but if I wanted to posit how it got like that, I'd be inclined to say scribal error lost in mists of antiquity.

Rashi thinks it's weird too - this masculine verb in a run of feminines. But Rashi is much cooler than I am, so he brings a midrash, thus:
God sent the angel Gavriel, bringing him before him, and he called him by this name, and assigned to him the 24 priestly gifts, and because of this he was called Levi. תמהתי שבכולם כתיב ותקרא, וזה כתב בו קרא, ויש מדרש אגדה באלה הדברים רבה ששלח הקב"ה גבריאל והביאו לפניו וקרא לו שם זה ונתן לו עשרים וארבע מתנות כהונה, ועל שם שלוהו במתנות קראו לוי

The wordplay's a bit lost if you aren't following the Hebrew at all - why assign leads to Levi. You'll have to take my word for it.

But anyway, I like that. Little me says "gosh that looks like a scribal error isn't that interesting." The translation I have here takes the safe option, the this-is-a-linguistic-thing: "his name was called." The Rashbam takes it literally and says Jacob came along and named this baby, even though he didn't bother with 1, 2, or 4. And Rashi comes along and looks at this oddness and reckons there's something more to it than just plain old what-seems-to-be-there, and tells us this whole thing about an angel foreshadowing the priesthood, that we never ever would have guessed, but the oddness in the letters is a clue.

For those not used to rabbinic text study, this is one of the characteristic ways we come at Torah. We take a word, and there's a whole drop-down menu of possible ways of understanding it, and depending on who you are and what you're interested in, you can take whichever one you like, and see what that says to you. This is Torah.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 28th, 2008 03:27 pm)
I have finished writing the Torah.

I have laid in supplies of ice-cream.

Shabbat shalom.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Nov. 26th, 2008 08:33 pm)

ויאכל תנובת שדי
ושמן מחלמיש צור
עם חלב כרים
עם חלב כליות חטה
וישמן ישרון ויבעט
ויטש אלוה עשהו
יקנאהו בזרים
יזבחו לשדים לא אלה
חדשים מקרב באו

Haazinu suck - skipped line

You see what I did?

This, my friends, is what is known as a Setback. It's also what's known as a Totally Classic Scribal Error That You Totally Should Have Avoided.

The bits with boxes drawn round them - אלוה is a Name of God, which means I can't erase it, and אלה is a Maybe Name of God, which I also can't erase in case it Is A Name of God.

I can fix it, it'll just involve some tedious erasing and some clever (but fiddly and somewhat fraught) knifework to avoid erasing the Divine Names. Blehhhhhh.