What we have today is a lithograph, Das Innere einer Sinagoge in Rom, or Interior of a Synagogue in Rome; click the image at right to see a larger version. It’s by the Swiss artist Hieronymus Hess, and it’s one of a pair, the Rare Book Room doesn’t have the other half of the pair, but Sothebys had some notes about it. The first half of the pair “portrays a Catholic practice of requiring Jews to listen to conversionist sermons which persisted until well into the 19th century” and they’re all staring into the distance as a preacher harangues them. But in our print they’re on home turf and enjoying themselves.

Hess is famous for social caricature and satire. This piece is certainly that. Open question whether you also want to label it antisemitica, Hess not being Jewish (but he hung out with Nazarenes, so he probably had Ideas about Who Is Doing Religion Right, and it isn’t the Jews, so he’s probably disapproving at the least). Christians quite often get on our case for being insufficiently decorous in shul.

So, we have a synagogue interior, that of the Tempio Italiano in Rome. I thought it very odd indeed that the frieze around the top of the shul has the text of “An eye for an eye;” Vivian Mann says many of the interior details are accurate, but she doesn’t mention this specifically, and it seems more likely to be an anti-semitic comment. We don’t usually put bloodthirsty, vengeful verses on our holy spaces.
It appears to be Torah-reading time; there’s what looks like a scroll on the bima, one of those very tall scrolls, and another scroll up at the front by the aron with a crown on.

Bear in mind that particular details of such a picture as this are a heavy mix of artist’s impression and fantasy. There’s no guarantee that the Italian Jews read with three persons on the bima. That said, I’m guessing the guy with the top hat gazing off into the distance is the person honoured with the aliyah, because he isn’t paying attention to the reading. The guy whose tallit covers his eyes is the one doing the reading, because it’s practically a rule that the reader has to be so muffled as to be inaudible. And the one with the tricorn hat is the gabbai, who’s actually the one paying attention.

I think this chap is taking snuff.
I do not know why this chap is climbing on the column, tallit flying, but possibly he wants to leap down and deliver retribution on that guy with the flowing white headgear. It doesn’t seem that his problem is being unable to see the activity on the bima.
These guys I am all too familiar with. They’re saying “Can’t they shut up with the damn leyning? We’re trying to learn Torah here!”
It’s unclear whether this child is responding to the din in the synagogue, or whether he’s an allegorical Jew, equally uninterested in his own religion as the one the kind Christians are trying to give him. Obviously all the Jews here are pretty uninterested in their own religion, but they don’t actually have their fingers in their actual ears. The other two kids in the foreground are a) sleeping b) climbing over the pew back to get away.
Here we have a very pious chap; you can tell he’s pious because he has mighty moustachios, whereas most of the people in the shul have no beards. And right behind him, juxtaposed, is a big fat guy (Jews are greedy) making a hand-signal which I read as “money” but I might be wrong. Perhaps the book he’s holding is an account book; perhaps it’s the Bible and it’s showing how Jews just twist the Holy Law to get money out of it.
The Tablets of the Law above the ark are divided the Christian way, four and six, not the Jewish way of five and five, the way they actually were in that shul (Evelyn Cohen, Vivian Mann, Gardens and Ghettos, p. 255). This points to the picture being a Christian allegory, and our guy here would be an allusion to the moneychangers in the Temple.

Which I could go on about at some length, but this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say that with the amount of administration the Temple was doing, there’s nothing wrong with having moneychangers there, and it’s only a big deal if you correlate piety with poverty. Which some Jews do and some Christians do, and some Jews don’t and some Christians certainly don’t (see various church schisms throughout the history of the church). But it’s used to show that Jews are venial and given to profaning the holy with their everlasting grubbing for money, which is not nice.

I shall leave you with the impressions of another Christian, Samuel Pepys the diarist, upon visiting the synagogue, not witting that it was Simchat Torah:

But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

Next time, we shall see some examples of Proper Decorum, also featuring a camel.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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

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

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

Here’s another picture:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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

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

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

Blue ink.

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

Say what?

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

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

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

Same again...

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

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

IMG_5296You haven’t had time to forget the story of the spies yet. Moses sends twelve good men and true out of the wilderness to check out the Promised Land; they come back reporting that the land is full of scary giants; the people decide that they actually don’t want to invade right now thanks all the same; and God is wroth.

The end of the first aliyah:

וּמָ֣ה הָ֠אָרֶץ הַשְּׁמֵנָ֨ה הִ֝וא אִם־רָזָ֗ה הֲיֵֽשׁ־בָּ֥הּ עֵץ֙ אִם־אַ֔יִן וְהִ֨תְחַזַּקְתֶּ֔ם וּלְקַחְתֶּ֖ם מִפְּרִ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ וְהַ֨יָּמִ֔ים יְמֵ֖י בִּכּוּרֵ֥י עֲנָבִֽים׃ And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be trees therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring ye of the fruit of the land.” And the days were the days of the ripening of the grapes.

Here’s something interesting. Various nineteenth-century chasidic commentators, such as Hekhal Ha-berakha (Rabbi Isaac Judah Jehiel Safrun, 1865) say that this is a Bad Place to end the aliyah, because it refers to harsh judgement, and you aren’t supposed to end aliyot on negative notes.

What is negative about grapes?! The season is that of blooming and flourishing, when the harvest is full of fine promise and the land full of beauty. Why is this bad?

Enter Seder ‘Olam Rabba, an early rabbinic text attributed to the Tanna Eli‘ezer ben Yosé Ha-gelili, which calculates biblical chronologies. The Israelites spent a year less ten days at Sinai (Numbers 10:11), thirty days at Qivroth-Ha‑ta’ava (11:19-20), and seven days at Ḥatzerot (12:15). And then, the spies left the camp on the last day of Sivan — late June or early July, the days of the first ripening of the grapes. They returned forty days later, on the Ninth of Av. And on that day God declared that none of that generation would enter the land.

In later sources, the months of Tammuz and Av, especially between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, become understood as forboding, dangerous, or even demonic. A time of gathering wrath and impending curse. The Zohar even ties the verse to the Tree from which the Sin of Adam was committed, which some rabbinic sources identify as a grape-vine (the source of wine, which leads to sin). The author of the Zohar sees these weeks as the time when the universe re-lives the Sin of Adam.

In the 17th century, R’ Samson of Ostropolia even reads the word ‘anavim, grapes, as a reference to Samma’el, the Devil himself: through a caesar cipher, the word ענבם converts to סמאל, when each letter of the word is replaced by the preceding letter in the alphabet. Surely the chasidic sources who refuse to end the aliyah on this word are worried about something extremely frightening.

But we who end the first aliyah on these words are surely seeing the grapes as a positive thing. We’re more like the view of the Keli Yaqar (Ephraim of Luntshitz, 1550-1619) which views the ripe grapes in our verse as symbolizing the state of the Israelites at this point in their narrative; their time had come to enter the land, for they had already ripened, like grapes; their perfection had become complete from the Torah which they had learned at Sinai. And so it is that the sefer Torah is wearing a leafy crown with grapes; we put it on for Shavuot, and we will take it off only before the Ninth of Av.


This view is based on Psalm 80:9-16, which has an extended metaphor of Israel as a grape-vine:

גֶּ֭פֶן מִמִּצְרַ֣יִם תַּסִּ֑יעַ תְּגָרֵ֥שׁ גּ֝וֹיִ֗ם וַתִּטָּעֶֽהָ׃
פִּנִּ֥יתָ לְפָנֶ֑יהָ וַתַּשְׁרֵ֥שׁ שָֽׁ֝רָשֶׁ֗יהָ וַתְּמַלֵּא־אָֽרֶץ׃
כָּסּ֣וּ הָרִ֣ים צִלָּ֑הּ וַֽ֝עֲנָפֶ֗יהָ אַֽרְזֵי־אֵֽל׃
תְּשַׁלַּ֣ח קְצִירֶ֣הָ עַד־יָ֑ם וְאֶל־נָ֝הָ֗ר יֽוֹנְקוֹתֶֽיהָ׃
לָ֭מָּה פָּרַ֣צְתָּ גְדֵרֶ֑יהָ וְ֝אָר֗וּהָ כָּל־עֹ֥בְרֵי דָֽרֶךְ׃
יְכַרְסְמֶ֣נָּֽה חֲזִ֣יר מִיָּ֑עַר וְזִ֖יז שָׂדַ֣י יִרְעֶֽנָּה׃
אֱלֹהִ֣ים צְבָאוֹת֮ שֽׁ֫וּב נָ֥א הַבֵּ֣ט מִשָּׁמַ֣יִם וּרְאֵ֑ה וּ֝פְקֹ֗ד גֶּ֣פֶן זֹֽאת׃
וְ֭כַנָּה אֲשֶׁר־נָֽטְעָ֣ה יְמִינֶ֑ךָ וְעַל־בֵּ֗֝ן אִמַּ֥צְתָּה לָּֽךְ׃
8 Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt: thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.
9 Thou preparedst room before it, and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land.
10 The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars.
11 She sent out her boughs unto the sea, and her branches unto the river.
12 Why hast thou then broken down her hedges, so that all they which pass by the way do pluck her?
13 The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it.
14 Return, we beseech thee, O God of hosts: look down from heaven, and behold, and visit this vine;
15 And the vineyard which thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

You could be taking my class at Yeshivat Hadar!

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

Apprentice with a Sofer

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

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

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

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

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

So how was your Shavuot? I spent it in Washington Heights, davening at Breuer’s.

Breuer’s looks like this on Shavuot:

Green velvet draperies, all hung about with boughs and flowers, with trees in tubs, and a chuppah-thing over the amud made from green branches. When it is a hundred degrees out and you walk into the cool air-conditioning and you breathe the pine scent and see all the greenery and the flowers, it’s a most beautiful feeling.

Breuer’s also does poetry, and this year I was struck by one of the piyutim for the first day of Shavuot. The poet has been talking for several pages about the various travails of the Israelites; the tough times the patriarchs went through, and he mentions the smiting of the rock, which made me think of the Israelites being hungry and thirsty in the desert, and he talks about the scary thunder and lightning and mountains being torn up by the roots and voices of trumpets waxing loud and louder. It is somewhat overwhelming.

And then he says:

צִיר אֱמוּנִים נִתְעַלָּה בִּבְחִירִים
כְּצִנַּת שֶׁלֶג בְּיוֹם קְצִירִים
חָכָם עָלָה לְעִיר גִּבּוֹרִים
וַיּוֹרֶד עֹז מִבְטֶחָה לַהֲדוּרִים
אֲמָרִים נְעִימִים מִפְּנִינִים יְקָרִים
The messenger of the reliable ones was elevated among the chosen,
Like the cold of snow in the time of harvest.
The wise man ascended to the City of the Mighty [angels].
And brought down Strength [the Torah] as a stronghold, for the beautified ones –
Sweet words, dearer than pearls.

It’s referencing a line from Proverbs (25:13) –

כְּצִנַּת-שֶׁ֨לֶג׀ בְּי֬וֹם קָצִ֗יר צִ֣יר נֶ֭אֱמָן לְשֹׁלְחָ֑יו וְנֶ֖פֶשׁ אֲדֹנָ֣יו יָשִֽׁיב׃ As the cold of snow in the time of harvest, so is a faithful messenger to them that send him: for he refresheth the soul of his masters.

The Israelites have been having rather a tumultous time of it, hitherto. Like navigating crowds of people at an outdoor market with a zillion errands to run in boiling hot humid weather. Then Moses gets the Torah and it’s like the cold of snow in the time of harvest – like walking from hundred-degree heat into a spacious, pine-scented, air-conditioned room and not having any errands to run any more.

I’m put in mind of a friend I once had, who was formerly an egal-type Jew, but then became very chareidi, very Traditional Women’s Roles. Why? we asked her. Why have you done this to yourself? And she replied, with a contented serenity, “Everything is so simple now.”

I think it was like that for the Israelites, a bit. Now they had the Torah, they had rules and goals and guidelines. They didn’t have to do anything at all except what they were told. Everything had become simple now. And when you walk into Breuer’s, and you feel the delicious coolness of snow but see the lush green of the harvest, you’re reminded – via the poem – of Torah, and everything being clear and refreshing and simple.

Of course it’s not that easy – it never is – but the poet is giving a vision, and one that it doesn’t hurt to be inspired by now and again.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

I can’t remember which of you asked me about the word יששכר last week, but MarGavriel just sent me a translation of part of S. S. Boyarski’s work Ammudei Shesh and it had a tangent about יששכר in it, so here goes.

The question was “What’s the deal with there being two letter shins in יששכר but our only pronouncing one of them?” That is, why’s it pronounced yissåkhår rather than yissåsskhår or anything else you might come up with?

So, today I learned that it’s okay to be confused about it, because it’s confusing.

It’s kind of like the name Catherine (which started out as Greek Aikaterinẽ, according to Wikipedia) – Cath-er-ine and Cath-rin are both legitimate ways of saying it depending on what sort of attitude your dialect has towards extra syllables. Around the end of the first millennium CE there were at least two ways of saying יששכר floating about; yissåkhår and yish-såkhår.

This period is important because it’s when the masoretes were doing their enormous project of recording the scriptural canon. They went out and listened to people chanting the scriptures, and they wrote down what they heard.

In particular, they were very interested in how things sounded. Their job was one of listening to people, experts, reading the Torah and Nakh, and recording what they heard – aiming for the best, most accurate, most precise record of How The Torah Is Pronounced. We have them to thank for our vowel notations; before the Masoretes, we just didn’t have a way of recording vowels.

There were different centres of masoretic activity – in Babylon, Jerusalem, and Tiberias – and within the centres, different schools. And sometimes they heard different things. There are lists of Differences Between Masoretic Traditions which we still have.

For instance, the school of Ben Asher recorded a tradition of spoken Hebrew in which יששכר is pronounced yissåkhår, and the school of Ben Naphtali recorded a tradition of yish-såkhår.

I have a feeling that as the vowel notation became more canonical – more recognised as part of the apparatus accompanying the Written Torah – our comfort with having variant, equally valid traditions receded. It became important to us to have one, and just one, way of doing things.

Whether justly or no, the Tiberian centre came to be regarded as the most authoritative centre, and the school of Ben Asher its most authoritative school. Our manuscripts today are vocalised in accordance with Ben Asher; there are no surviving Ben Naphtali manuscripts, barring perhaps a few geniza fragments and the aforementioned lists.

Our friend Boyarski quotes one M. di Lonzano: “All Jews have the custom to rely on Ben-Asher, as if a heavenly voice had gone forth, and declared that the halakha was in accordance with Ben-Asher.

Now, here’s a funny thing. MarGavriel says that Yossi Peretz says that in the early modern period, there was a new wave of interest in things masoretic. A general surge of faith in the wisdom of the ancients combined with said wisdom being newly accessible in print, and in particular people noticing that goodness, there used to be a tradition where יששכר was pronounced with two shins!

And so a custom arose among Ashkenazim sometimes to pronounce יששכר with two shins – perhaps as per Ben Naphtali, yish-sokhor, perhaps simply – intuitively – yisoschor. Some did it only for its first appearance in Torah, in Genesis 30:18. And some did it all the way up to – but not including – Parshat Pinchas.


Look at Genesis 46:13 and compare it to Numbers 26:23-24. Who are יששכר’s children?

In Genesis, his third child is יוב. But in Numbers, his third child is ישוב. Extra shin, see?

So here’s the story. Issachar named one of his sons יוב. Then, somebody told him that this was the name of an idol in some country, and he was upset.

In order to get rid of the idolatrous name, he took one of the shins from his own name, and generously gave it to his son. So Yishsåkhår became Yissåkhår and Yov became Yåshuv – but until he does that, in parshat Pinchas, you still have to pronounce the extra shin in the father’s name.

Cute, but in no way authoritative. In any case, it’s more common to say it with two shins just the first time, but don’t start doing either of them just because you read it here. You aren’t living in early modern Ashkenaz; you don’t live in historical circumstances which justify you mispronouncing a word to invoke a mostly-forgotten Tiberian Masorete. You start doing that, you’ll never stop.

I am sort-of considering, for my next sefer Torah, giving crowns to both letters shin in יששכר up to Pinchas, and then crowning only one of them thereafter, but that’s rather a liberty, so it may remain a dream. But one does have more leeway with crowns than with pronounciation.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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

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

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

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

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

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

טז) לא יעשה חציו גויל וחציו קלפים, אבל עושה חציו גויל וחציו צבאים, אף על פי שאינו מן המובחר. He shouldn’t do half of it on gevil [=a thicker type of cow parchment, more like leather] and half on klaf [a thinner type of parchment made by splitting a cow skin laterally]. But he may do half on gevil and half on deer [deer also comes out thickish with a similar texture to gevil], even though that isn’t the nicest way of doing it.
יז) אין דובקין בדבק, ולא כותבין על גבי המטלית, ולא תופרין במקום הכתב, אמר ר’ שמעון בן אלעזר משום ר’ מאיר שדובקין בדבק, וכותבין על גבי המטלית, אבל אין תופרין במקום הכתב מבפנים, ותופרין במקום הכתב מבחוץ. One does not stick it together with glue, and one doesn’t write on patches, nor sew in the bit with the writing. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said in the name of Rabbi Meir that we do stick it together with glue, and write on patches; but we don’t sew it in the bit with the writing on the front side, and we do sew in the bit with the writing on the back side. [You can do this if you are working with unsplit hides; they’re thick enough that you can stitch through only part of the thickness of the material. I think this is what it's talking about. ]
יח) צריך שיהא משייר מלמעלן ומלמטן, כדי שלא יקרע, ומאחר ליה על מחייה, מלמטה למעלה ומלמעלה למטה, הלכה למשה מסיני. One must leave a bit [unsewn] above and below, so that it shouldn’t tear. And one has to go back over the sewing – from bottom to top, and from top to bottom – this is halakha from Moses at Sinai. [I think it’s saying that you make a backstitch at each end, but I’m not sure. The various other things I’ve read haven’t discussed this one. Remember a few days ago I said this text isn’t authoritative?]
יט) ספר שנקרע טולה עליו מטלית מבחוץ. A sefer which tore – you put a patch on the back.
כ) כל האותיות הכפולים באלפא ביתא, כותב את הראשונים בתחילת התיבה, ובאמצע התיבה, ואת האחרונים בסוף, ואם שינה פסול. The letters of the alphabet for which two forms exist – you put the former at the beginning of the word, and in the middle of the word, and the latter at the end of the word, and if you deviate from this, it is invalid. [Note to self: look at this in the context of the development of final letterforms, sometime or other.]

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

יב) ובקלפים לא נתנו שיעור, אלא כל מה שהוא רוצה, מוסיף, ובלבד שלא יפחות משלשה דפין. There is no defined measurement for the klafim; whatever one wants, he may add, provided he does not go under three columns.
יג) יריעה שבלת, לא יטול שנים ויחזיר שנים, אלא נוטל שלשה ומחזיר שלשה, ומה שהוא מחזיר, כמדת כתב הראשון. A worn-out sheet – one does not remove two [columns] and return two, but one may remove three and return three, measuring the same as the original.
יד) שיעור הדף כדי שיהא רואהו, ובקטן לא יפחות מטפח, ר’ יוסי בר’ יהודה אומר לא יפחות משלש אצבעות. A column should be sized so that he can see it, and at the smallest it should not be less than a tefach [wide; see above about them being six tefachim high]. Rabbi Yosi in the name of Rabbi Yehudah says, he shouldn’t make it smaller than three finger-widths.
טו) ולא יעשה חצי ארכו יתר על רחבו, ולא רחבו יתר על ארכו, אבל ממצעו הוא, ועושה אותו מן המובחר. He should not make half its length [=column height] greater than its width, and its width should not be greater than its length, but he should do it between, to do it as nicely as possible [That is, width < length < 2*width.]

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Okay! This bit is what got me started on this in the first place.

יא) אבל בשיטין נתנו טעם, כמסעות ארבעים ושנים, וכרבבות של ישראל ששים, וכזקנים של ישראל שבעים ושנים, וכתוכחות של משנה תורה תשעים ושמנה, הכל לפי הכתב.

כמסעות, שנאמר ויכתוב משה את מוצאיהם;

כרבבות ישראל, שנאמר כתב לך את הדברים האלה כי על פי הדברים האלה כרתי אתך ברית ואת ישראל, מה ישראל בששים ריבוא אף שיטיה של תורה בששים;

וכזקנים שבעים ושנים, שנאמר אספה לי שבעים איש, וישארו שני אנשים במחנה, והמה בכתובים, שבעים ושנים;

וכתוכחות תשעים ושמנה, שנאמר אם לא תשמר לעשות את כל דברי התורה הזאת.

But for the lines, we have a reason: like the journey-stations, forty-two; and like the myriads of Israel, sixty; and like the elders of Israel, seventy-two; and like the Admonitions in Deuteronomy, ninety-eight; all according to one’s writing.

The journey-stations, as it says, Moses wrote their journeys (Numbers 33:2).

The myriads of Israel, as it says, Write thou these words, for after the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with thee and with Israel (Exodus 34:27); just as Israel are in sixty myriads, so too the lines of the Torah are sixty.

And the seventy-two elders, as it says, Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel (Numbers 11:16) and There remained two men in the camp and They were numbered among the elders (ibid. 11:26), which makes seventy-two.

And the ninety-eight admonitions, as it says, If you do not observe and obey all the words of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 28:58)

If you have a ninety-eight line Torah in your shul, I would like to see a photograph. Please.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

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

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

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

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

ח) מניחין בסוף הדף כדי הקיפו, ואינו צריך לעשות כן בתחילתו, ולתורה מיכאן ומיכאן; לפיכך גוללין את הספר לתחילתו, ואת התורה לאמצעיתה. One leaves at the end of the [last] column enough to wrap around it. It is not necessary to do this at its beginning. For Torah, on both sides; accordingly, one rolls the book from its beginning, and the Torah from its middle.
ט) ואין פוחתין את התורה ביריעה מארכה של תורה, ששה טפחים. One doesn’t reduce the Torah, in a sheet from the length of the Torah, more than six tefachim. [Yes, this is truly painful translation. Sorry. It means a sheet of Torah ought to be six hand-breadths high.]
י) ואין פוחתין ביריעה פחות משלשה דפין, ולא מוסיפין על שמנה. One doesn’t make a sheet with fewer than three columns, or more than eight.

As I said last time, for pity’s sake, don’t go trying to use this to write the Torah.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Here’s a quote from Eric Ray’s book Sofer: The Story of a Torah Scroll:

…no “base metals” may be used in making or repairing these texts. Base metals are the metals used in everyday tools. That means that no iron, no steel, no brass, no copper, and no bronze can be used. Base metals are the kinds used to make weapons. Nothing that is used for killing can be used in making a Sefer Torah, a Mezuzah, or a pair of Tefillin.

Strictly speaking, this is something of an overstatement, but let’s explore the sentiment. Our aversion to metal implements starts in the Torah, in Exodus 20:22:

If you build an altar of stones to me, you shall not use dressed stone; if you lift your sword to it you pollute it.

And in 1 Kings 6:7:

In building the House, stones ready-dressed were brought, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any iron tool was heard in the House during its construction.

Rashi, the most widely-accepted biblical commentator, explains:

The altar was made to lengthen man’s days, and iron was made to shorten man’s days; it isn’t appropriate to lift something which shortens against something which lengthens. Also, the altar brings peace between Israel and their heavenly father, so one should not use upon it anything which cuts and destroys.

That’s some pretty powerful anti-iron associations.

Now, from ChinaDaily.com, an element of Chinese culture:

Chinese people, under the cultivation of Confucianism, consider the knife and fork bearing sort of violence, like cold weapons. However, chopsticks reflect gentleness and benevolence, the main moral teaching of Confucianism. Therefore, instruments used for killing must be banned from the dining table, and that is why Chinese food is always chopped into bite size before it reaches the table.

This fascinates me because it suggests that it’s not just Jews who are made uneasy by iron tools. I have no idea how much cross-cultural exchange there may have been, but it’s interesting that such a concept should take hold in such different places.

The haftarah to parashat Behukotai contains a line from Jeremiah 17:

Judah’s guilt is written with an iron pen…

Judah here means the Jews; Jeremiah is talking about how the Jews have messed up again. It seems likely that Jeremiah didn’t choose an iron pen just because of its material properties. Iron has nasty overtones. A set of sinister connotations, if you will.

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

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

Or we could use chopsticks.

The astute will note that this is a repost with edits. It’s still interesting :P

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

I was looking up the bit about the number of lines per column (thanks, MarGavriel), and I figured I might as well review (and translate, because that’s how I learn best) the whole chapter.

Various people describe Masechet Soferim as a rulebook for writing the Torah. It really isn’t. It’s a minor talmudic tractate containing a mish-mash of interesting things, many of which are connected to writing Torah scrolls, but it isn’t a rulebook. It doesn’t even mention a whole lot of things we hold to be rather important; you also have to remember that it is a Lesser Source; many of its statements are contradicted by more authoritative talmudical tractates. So for pity’s sake, don’t go trying to use this to write the Torah. Learn the Keset haSofer instead.

Text pulled from responsa.co.il. If you appreciated this, buy a subscription. Translation by me without looking up any commentaries or parallel texts, so don’t expect perfection.

א) מניחין בין שם לשם כדי שיהא ניכרין, ובאותיות כדי שלא יהא מעורבבין. אם עירב את האותיות, או שהפסיק באמצע השם, אל יקרא בו. One leaves between word and word enough that we can recognise it, and between letter and letter enough that they aren’t joined together. If one joined the letters, or made a gap in the middle of a word, it is not to be read from.
ב) מניחין בין שיטה לשיטה כמלא שיטה, ובין תיבה לתיבה כמלא אות, ובין אות לאות כמלא שיער, ובין דף לדף כמלא גודל, עשה סוף הדף לתחילתו פסל. עירב את האותיות, או שהפסיק באמצע השם, אל יקרא בו. One leaves between line and line the amount of a line; and between word and word as much as a letter; and between letter and letter as much as a hair; and between column and column as much as a thumb’s-width; if one made the trailing edge of a column [i.e. the left-hand edge] up against the leading edge [of the next] it is pasul. If one joined the letters, or made a gap in the middle of a word, it is not to be read from.
ג) מניחין בין לדף לדף. שם בן ארבע אותיות, לא יכתוב שתים בסוף הדף, ושתים בין דף לדף, אבל לא משם קטן, ואם היה שם קטן בפני עצמו של שלש אותיות אסור. Leaving between column and column: a word of four letters should not be written two at the edge of the column and two in the space between – but not from a little word, and if there is a little word on its own of three letters, it is assur.
ד) מניחין בין דף לדף, בתורה שתי אצבעות ריוח, ובנביאים ובחומשים ריוח גודל אחד. One leaves between column and column – in Torah, two finger-widths’ space, and in prophetic books and single books of the Torah, one thumb-width.
ה) מניחין מלמטן בתורה ריוח טפח, ומלמעלן שלשה חלקים בטפח, ובנביאים ובחומשין שלש אצבעות מלמטן, ושתים מלמעלן; כאן וכאן אם רצה להוסיף יוסיף, ובלבד שלא יהא הרוחות מרובין מן הכתב. One leaves beneath – in Torah, a tefach-space, and above, three parts of a tefach; in prophetic books and single books of the Torah, three finger-widths beneath and two above. In both, one may make them bigger if he wishes, provided that the blank space is not bigger than the writing.
ו) מניחין בין ספר לספר, בתורה ריוח ארבע שיטין, ובנביא של שנים עשר שלש שיטין. One leaves between book and book – in Torah, four lines; and in the Twelve Minor Prophets, three lines.
ז) גמר כל הספרים, ושייר בו דף אחד, עושה אותו יריעה אחת קטנה, ואינו נמנע. If one finished all the books, and one column remained, he makes of it a little sheet, and that is okay.

All right. There’s twenty of these. I’ll give you the rest later.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( May. 17th, 2011 04:18 pm)

See how the scribe here has adjusted his lines to fit around the hole in his klaf?

Hole in klaf

Rabbi Dan describes this perfectly: “a loving reminder that we live in a very, very wealthy time when we can have perfect klafim in our synagogues, and admiring the sofer who adapted to the needs of the moment.”

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

My beloved student Julie has been writing a Torah in San Francisco at the Contemporary Jewish Museum for the past year, and once she’d finished writing (yay) it came time to sew it together and have a bit of an Event.

So I went out there to help with the sewing and to be part of the Event, because your student doesn’t finish her first sefer Torah every day. I mean wow, seriously.

And I learned…that sewing a Torah together is a lot more fun when there’s two of you doing it. (Here’s a description of sewing a Torah.) It’s pretty fun anyway, but it’s even better when shared.

First we took awls and punched holes down the edges.

Then we took burnishers and folded over one edge.

Then we sorted all the sheets into order.

Then we each took part of the pile

laid two sheets right sides together (this is Sewing 101)

checked that they were the CORRECT two sheets (this is Sewing 101 section 1.1.1)

cut lengths of gid

threaded needles

tied knots




knotted off the threads

cut them

smoothed the seams

and rolled the new sheet up

and continued

and the rolls grew and grew and grew!

until there was a whole Torah

just sitting there

where before there had been a pile of sheets of parchment.

Pretty magical eh?

The museum isn’t a shul. It doesn’t have Torah readings. But don’t you think it’s awfully sad to write a whole Torah and then not have it read from? Julie did, and so did the museum. So they arranged for the Torah to visit Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, and on Shabbat we read from it.

Now, the funny thing is, that you write a Torah, and everyone involved is all, whoop-de-hey! amazingcakes! spiffettydoo!, but once you’re reading from it, it’s just like any other Torah. Kind of like pouring water into a lake. The water you’re pouring may be terribly special to you, but once you pour it into the lake, it’s part of the lake, and it doesn’t matter that once it was your special water. It becomes essentially anonymous, just part of the greater body.

No-one would know, to look at it, unless you told them that it was your special Torah. It acquires a life of its own, independent of you (it’s not a mixed metaphor if you start a new paragraph, right?). It’s rather beautiful, in a funny sort of way.

Julie looking slightly surprised, rather relieved, and altogether joyful to have written a Torah.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

hatam_soferet: (esther)
( Dec. 10th, 2010 11:10 am)

In my email:

Hi Jen! I hope it’s okay if I ask you a quick question — the school I’m working at just paid a bunch to have our Torah repaired — lots of letter were flaking off. The sofer said this was due to humidity and…mentioned something about silicate powder, but we don’t know how much to get. Do you know anything about this subject? Thank you so much and chag sameach!

Background: when parchment gets humid, it expands, slightly and unevenly. I’ve posted before about how parchment sometimes goes cockly on warm days; see old post How a soferet knows it’s spring, for instance.The dampness causes small amounts of expanding and contracting.

The ink doesn’t expand or contract at the same rate as the parchment, and that’s where we run into difficulties. You’re probably all familiar with the effects; you’ve seen it happen on a t-shirt after it’s been through the laundry a few times.

click to see bigger

click images to see bigger

Same thing happens to Torah letters, if they’re not well-guarded against humidity. Rapid changes are especially harmful.


REALLY bad humidity has even worse effects – worst of all when you have actual condensation, which causes real water damage, very hard to repair – but even when it isn’t that extreme, it can still be pretty bad, as in this next picture. There, the back of the parchment semi-melted and glued itself to the letters; when the scroll was unrolled, the letters stayed stuck to the back of the parchment, except in the places where the back of the parchment stayed stuck to the letters.

Effects of bad humidity

So what’re you supposed to do? How do you guard against humidity?

Aron design is part of it. If your aron kodesh is built into an exterior wall, and not damp-proofed, you’re setting yourself up for trouble. If you’re storing your sifrei torah in the boiler room during the week, likewise. If the aron lives right next to the heating unit, likewise. If you’re in Florida in the summer, likewise. Storing your sifrei torah away from the more obvious sources of moisture is a good idea, where possible.

If you’ve got no clue whether your aron is humid or not, there are humidity-testing devices out there. Hardcore cigar people have hygrometers in their cigar arons; you might borrow one from someone’s uncle. You can also pick one up on eBay, and they’re quite fun to have around so that you can grumble in the summer (”it’s 80% humidity today would you believe”). Also, every Jewish community has someone whose hair goes frizzy on humid days; put them in the aron and see if they come out complaining about their hair…no, I’m just joking. More info on humidity and testing here.

Museums face similar issues – even if they’re not in the boiler room or in Florida, museums store valuable documents in climate-controlled rooms, to prevent the same kind of damage we’re talking about here. Air-conditioning serves pretty well for climate control; one can also use a regular powered dehumidifier. Of course, using masses of electricity has its disadvantages.

The non-electric option is silica gel, that stuff that comes in packets in shoeboxes. It sits in the aron and absorbs atmospheric moisture; very clever, very handy. One can buy it in packages to suit particular volumes; it comes with a little indicator-thing so you can see how it’s doing, and when it’s absorbed as much moisture as it can hold, you dry it out in the oven and put it back. Here’s a nice FAQ about silica gel and the practicalities of how much to buy.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

The Czech Memorial Scrolls were originally collected up by the Jews of Prague, in the wake of Nazi devastation. As the Jews of Bohemia disappeared, the Prague Jews collected up their scrolls to keep them safe, hoping to give them back to their owners after the war. But their owners were all murdered – and then the Prague Jews were murdered too. After the war, the Czech government didn’t want them – so Westminster Synagogue bought 1,564 sifrei Torah and brought them to London. Their website is really excellent and a fascinating read (see also the USA associate site).

sev-flaking Now many of the scrolls have been given foster-homes in the United States, and their new communities want to make them part of the family – so they look at the possibility of having the sefer repaired, so that it can be read from once more. That’s where I come in.

The story is usually the same – it was clearly a beautiful sefer once, but the Holocaust left its mark on it. Time has dried out the parchment and ink so that now the letters are just crumbling into nonexistence with the barest touch, even just the touch of the parchment as the scroll is rolled and unrolled. The little black splots in the picture are ink crumbles. (The orange colouration is rust. See below.)

I think these Holocaust sefarim are like the father character in the book Maus. They’re so damaged by the Holocaust that they simply aren’t really capable of functioning normally any more. Just like people, it’s normal for all sifrei Torah to age to a point beyond which it’s no longer practical or kind to keep fixing them up so they can stay at work, but it’s so much sadder with the Holocaust ones.

oldrepairsOver time, most sifrei Torah go a bit flaky in places. When it’s just a few letters here and there, we apply another coat of ink to the scuffy parts – like that hey in the top line, you see where it’s just a bit white? We’d colour those bits black, and continue as normal.

You can see, in places, where this Holocaust sefer has actually had that kind of repair, years and years ago – look at the brown letters; see how they’ve got black patches on them? The brown will be what remains of the original ink, gone reddish because of oxidisation in the iron compounds – rust, in other words – and the black is a more recently-applied coat of ink, applied where once the letter was just a bit scuffy in the middle.

But now it’s not just a letter here and there, it’s basically all the letters. You can restore a sefer in this condition, but it’s difficult to do well because they’re so very flaky. Either you have to remove all the flakes and basically start over, or you have to apply a stickier ink than usual to try and glue the remaining flakes into place; both of these are rather delicate processes.

One can try using fixatives such as artists use, to hold what remains in place and retard decay, but they’re limited in their effect, they make the sefer much heavier than it already is, and you still won’t have a kosher sefer unless you put in all the time repairing the poor flaky flaky letters.

There are people who will re-ink every letter on a sefer like this, spray it with fixative, and tell you to come back for a checkup in five years, at which point you’ll probably have to do a lot of it over again. This course of action is sometimes appropriate, for instance in a community that really can’t invest in a new sefer, or a sefer which has enormous emotional significance to the community in some way. It’s still often exceedingly expensive, say upwards of $5000, if the sefer is starting out in very poor condition, like this one. And it seems to me that – especially with these poor sad Holocaust scrolls – that it’s often just kinder to accept that this sefer has aged and sustained damage beyond telling, and instead of applying severe restorative therapies to make it “normal” again, let it have a dignified retirement.

Which was the advice I gave this community, sadly enough.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.