I wanted to do you a post about why there aren’t any vowels or musical notation-marks in a sefer Torah, but when I came to study the subject, I realised it’s a good deal more complicated than can fit into one post. It seemed to require a brief history of vowel-marks, which in turn required a brief history of the alef-bet, which in turn required a brief history of writing in general.

So we’re going to start with a brief history of writing, and then we’ll do the alef-bet, and then we’ll do vowel-marks, and then we’ll be sorted.

Let’s get into it by way of Yosef. This week’s parsha and last week’s, Vayigash and Miketz, tell us about Yosef, employed in a high administrative position tracking and controlling food supplies for an enormous region through fourteen years of plenty and famine.

This kind of activity is how writing was invented, we think. People wanted to keep track of how many things they had (or were owed), so they used tallies, with one-to-one correspondence between the number of marks and the number of things; tally marks have been in use since the Stone Age, a matter of some forty thousand years.

Writing seems to have evolved independently in various areas. We’re ultimately interested in the alef-bet, so we’re going to take that route, but it’s worth remembering that this isn’t the only history of writing out there.

Between 8000 and 4000 BCE people used a token-based kind of abstraction for record-keeping: pebbles or clay tokens representing quantities. One pebble in a jar means one goat in the field; two pebbles in a different jar represents two baskets of grain, and you’d better remember which is which. During these four millennia, the level of abstraction expanded somewhat, such that instead of sixty-three pebbles in a jar meaning sixty-three I-think-it-was-goats-or-is-that-the-grain-jar-damn, you had one sixty-goat token and three one-goat tokens in your jar, and maybe some grain-tokens too, if you had any grain.

Keeping your goat record in a jar leaves you a bit open to your accountant hooking some of your goats, though, so people developed the habit of sealing their tokens in clay containers. Very nice and secure, right?

But a bit tiresome when you want to check up on how many goats you’ve got, that being the whole point of this record-keeping business anyway. Rather than keep on breaking open and resealing the clay containers, around 3500 BCE people started marking the containers while the clay was still wet, using a stylus to carve representations of the contents’ type and quantity.

The next step was to realise that once you have those marks in the clay, the tokens inside the jars are obsolete. The marks are now fully representing real-life objects, without the intermediary stage of tokens; they are no longer mnemonic but pictographic.

Once you’re writing things like “60 goats,” you might also want to convey “Belonging to me” or “When I counted them in the springtime”. Marks come to convey not just objects but ideas and situations.

The next step in the history of writing is using marks to represent sounds. You’ve read the Just So Stories, I take it? If not, go read the one under the link, and then come back.

Say a culture has a symbol :) okay? It starts out representing someone with a smiley face, so when you see it, you think of someone smiling. How do you speak it? :) also stands for the sound which comes out of your mouth when you say “smileyface.” Eventually, we might abbreviate :) to be the sound “sm”.

This is how alphabetic writing systems are born. More about that next week.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

I’ve been neglecting you a bit, I’m afraid. This is because I’ve been posting regular posts for my current Torah client at their special blog, and I haven’t had energy to do two lots of posts or to set up proper cross-posting. Check out last week’s post A single mistake invalidates the entire sefer Torah (with spiffy new photographs) and then continue reading below:

A few weeks ago I wrote this in the Torah:
Ad yashovet hamayimעד ישבת המים, the nonsensical phrase until the feminine singular water sat [thanks Heloise for pointing that out]. The passage in question is וישלח את הערב ויצא יצוא ושוב עד יבשת המים מעל הארץ, He sent forth the raven, and it went out repeatedly and returned, until the waters had dried up from the earth.

יבשת vs ישבת, you see. Both versions make sense, but one of them is wrong, and so it has to be fixed.

Tools for fixing, left to right: electric eraser, scalpel, burnishing tool, rose thorn, eraser.

As discussed last week, you first remove the ink. Some like to use electric erasers for this; with the right grade of abrasive tip, the electric eraser makes short work of the ink. At present I’m in a phase of preferring a scalpel; what you lose on speed, you gain in finesse.
Eventually it’s all gone. At this point, you use the eraser to clear any bits of ink that didn’t brush off. Then you burnish the surface so that it’s good to write on. You use the rose thorn to re-score the line (it’s hard and about the right thickness to match the existing lines, plus extensive biblical/poetic symbolism of roses).
Rewrite properly. They stand out a bit while they’re still wet…
…but once they’ve dried you can’t really tell the difference.

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.

You’re merrily checking through a sefer Torah, one in which the scribe tends to underestimate his lines, and has to stretch at the ends to compensate (lines 1, 2, 6, 7). And you see a chunk (lines 3, 4, 5) of squishied-up writing. Why?

vezot torat hamincha edited

This usually happens when you accidentally leave words out. Calligraphers have various ways of dealing with missing lines; here’s a particularly sweet example from the St John’s Bible, where the missing words are written in the margin and flown into place by a little bird:

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Homoioteleuton in St John's Bible

Torah scribes don’t have such luxury. No writing words in the margin for us.

We do, technically, have the option of writing the missing words above the line, but a) that’s Not Done these days b) if there are a lot of words, that’s not going to work.

So what options remain? Either start the sheet over, or erase words from the surrounding text, and make enough space that we can squish the extra words in.

Note that the second item in line 3 is an obligatory space. The space has to be in the middle of a line. I expect he started erasing after the space because repositioning the space would have been even more tiresome than not.

Also, note that the second item in line 6 is a Divine Name. These can’t be erased. So the scribe erased the two-and-a-bit lines of 3, 4, and 5 to write in the proper text, unless he realised his error before he got to the divine name.

So what was his mistake?

From the shadows, I can sort of see where some letters used to be:

vezot torat hamincha 3

But whatever did he write first? I’m stumped by those apparent two kufs. Maybe we’ve got two rounds of erasing to contend with? Certainly that “et” is on a double erasure – maybe it’s actually on a triple erasure?

Real scribal archaeologists have UV lights and all sorts of toys for reading the underneath writing on palimpsests. If this was actually important we could use some of those toys, but it isn’t really – just fun. So – any thoughts?

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


When re-inking letters, do not forget and plonk your stupid elbow down on them.

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.

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.

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!

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.

Tears in Torahs are scary, people. I know. You see a big tear, you want to STICK IT BACK TOGETHER REALLY HARD so it WON’T TEAR ANY MORE. Nobody could be calm about finding this in their Torah, for instance:


But for the love of all things holy, don’t whip out the duck tape and do this:


The amount of tape used is directly proportional to the amount of trauma someone’s trying to fix. But think about it for a second – it’s torn already. Tape isn’t going to fix it. You’re only trying to make yourself feel better with all that duck tape.

Go have a cup of tea instead. When you’ve calmed down, come back. The job of the tape is not to fix the sefer or to assuage your guilt at having let it get torn; tape is to stop things getting any worse until it can be fixed properly with parchment. Duck tape is for pipes and trucks. A Torah is neither. For a Torah we use artists’ tape to stop something getting worse, while we’re working on getting it fixed.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.