The JPost article contains this piece:

The Talmud places women among a list of people - including informers, slaves and star-worshipers - considered unfit to write a Torah scroll.

The reasoning is the halachic principle that one who is not directed to perform a commandment cannot significantly help others perform that commandment. Since women are not obligated to put on tefillin, they are forbidden to write the passages placed inside tefillin, for example.

But Friedman found her own way out of that halachic problem: five years ago, she began to put on tefillin.

This is absolutely not how it works. I didn't start laying tefillin so as to become a soferet, and there's an awful lot more to it than just deciding to put on tefillin. So for all those people who are saying "that's bullshit" - yes, you're right, it's bullshit. I can't help it if the JPost missed the point.

When I was trying to explain the issues, I thought the article would probably get it wrong, because it's a lot more complicated than that. And it did. Oh well.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Sep. 15th, 2007 09:20 pm)
Me in the Forward :)

Just in time for the new year, several notable firsts have taken place in the world of Jewish women...

Full story (but there's a picture in the print version!)


I've written a whole Torah.*

Owing to logistics, the last few words I wrote today were these:

לא בשמים הוא לאמר מי יעלה לנו השמימה ויקחה לנו וישמענו אתה ונעשנה ולא מעבר לים הוא לאמר מי יעבר לנו אל עבר הים ויקחה לנו

That is: It is not in the heavens, so that you should say, Who will ascend to the heavens and fetch it for us, so that we can hear and act upon it? And it is not over the sea, so that you should say, Who will cross for us to the land beyond and fetch it for us...

I think that's a beautiful way to end a process which gets one about as close to the Torah as it's possible to get. And I didn't even plan it that way!

* well, 99.99% because of the 12 words I'm saving for the siyum, but you're allowed to round up when it's that small.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Aug. 28th, 2007 08:05 pm)

Isn't that a lovely big number? At this rate I'll be finished before Shabbat. Hurrah!
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Aug. 21st, 2007 08:08 pm)
95.3%, and a huge roll has tootled off to the computer-checking people in Brooklyn. Totally home stretch!
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Aug. 1st, 2007 10:23 am)
, people!
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jul. 25th, 2007 10:38 pm)
Whoo, sofer's cramp! I'm keeping a stiff pace of one-and-a-half columns per day now, and it's hard going. Didn't finish today's quota until 10.20 this evening, and my hand is protesting. I'm feeding it cake and ice-cream - well, what else can one do?
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jul. 22nd, 2007 07:11 pm)
The Torah is at...


When the book of Deuteronomy's served up in portions week by week, one doesn't realise just how repetitive it is, but when you write it day in, day out, my goodness. The beginning sections basically go: "This is the land, these are the mitzvot. The mitzvot God told me and I told you. And this is the lovely land. To which God brought you from Egypt. Do the mitzvot. Don't screw up. If you screw up God's going to make the land be nasty to you. This lovely land. And all these lovely mitzvot." Over and over again.

This makes sense in a strictly human perspective, because this book is Moses' final words to the Israelites. He's had a rotten time bringing them through the desert, and he's not even going to get to go into the land after forty years wandering about taking flak from the Israelites. He's old, he's worn-out, he's grumpy, so it's fair enough that he rambles on and repeats himself really, is it? I wouldn't be surprised if Joshua the son of Nun stopped him on his way out of the tent that morning and was all: Moses, you need to change out of your slippers before you go out on the mountain, and have you had your pills?

Then Moses would crack him one with his staff and mumble something about cheeky youngsters.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jul. 10th, 2007 06:23 pm)
Note: I have edited this post to remove references to a specific organisation. This is because I had a nice conversation with them. I am going to leave the meat of the post up here, because the substance of it is still out there and still relevant.

More and more, recently, I run into things like this:

A Sefer Torah, by definition, is a Torah scribed by someone who has been certified to do this work. Certification is not unlike an ordination of a rabbi or designation of a doctoral degree; the authority is confirmed by one who also has the authority. Generally, certification allows the individual to scribe, within the context of Jewish law or halachah, Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot (the three ritual objects that contain Torah texts).

This makes me cross, because it is not true, and it is deceiving people. Scribal certification is not like rabbinic ordination. It is much more like kashrut certification. Rabbinic ordination is what makes a rabbi, undoubtedly. But scribal certification is not what makes a scribe. R' Askotzky in his book Tefillin and Mezuzos says quite clearly that one does not have to be certified to be a scribe,* and he probably ought to know, given his list of qualifications.

Kashrut certification indicates that you can trust that the chef's work is kosher. Scribal certification indicates that you can trust that the scribe's work is kosher. That is all.

The other reason it makes me cross is because some people are using this falsehood to discredit UHC's Torah Project, written by me. So, if you hear that: think twice, for my sake.

* And that if someone is not certified you should ask why, which is a jolly good idea.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jun. 25th, 2007 07:06 pm)
חזק חזק ונתחזק

Finished the Book of Numbers

That makes 80.4% of the Torah

Bring on the ice-cream!!!!!
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jun. 25th, 2007 07:02 pm)
Now my apartment has a Holy Ark of the Covenant.

From OfficeMax.

This amuses me immensely.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Jun. 10th, 2007 08:13 am)
The Torah is at...


So we had cake and ice-cream for Shabbat.

It's very exciting.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( May. 8th, 2007 09:44 pm)
Someone asked me: isn't it hard to write the parts of the Torah that are mean about women?

Like the ritual for the suspected wife, in Numbers 5?

Basically, if a chap thinks his wife's been screwing the milkman - or the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, as the Torah puts it - he takes her to the priest and they do a lie-detector test: they write some nasty curses on a paper and dissolve the ink in some water along with some ick off the floor and make her drink it, and if she's guilty she bloats up hideously.*

Often ruffles people's feminist feathers because it seems so jolly unfair. It always reminds me of that bit in Chicago:
I'm standin' in the kitchen, carving up a chicken for dinner, minding my own business, in storms my husband Wilbur in a jealous rage. "You've been screwing the milkman," he said. He was crazy, and he kept on screaming, "You've been screwing the milkman!"
The sotah ritual sounds as though it's intended for that kind of situation - Wilbur drags June out to the temple that very second, screaming all the way, insisting on having the lie-detector test at once - which, granted, does seem to pander rather too much to jealous rages, and doesn't seem to respect women particularly.

'Cept I don't find it particularly distressing, because first Wilbur has to find two witnesses (kosher ones - not relations, and not of dubious moral character), and solemnly inform June that she is to stay away from the milkman. Then, if he wants to accuse her, he needs to find two witnesses to testify that June and the milkman were alone together long enough to hem-hem-you-know. Then he has to cart her all the way to the temple in Jerusalem, which is a bit of a pain for your average Judean peasant, and he has to stop sleeping with her until after they've done the ritual to prove whether she was in fact screwing the milkman since he can't have it both ways. The rabbinic message says, no making accusations in a jealous rage, if you think she's screwing the milkman you go about it within the parameters of the law.

This is an example of a case where Torah provides for something and rabbinic tradition interprets the provision to suit its ideas of how things ought to be.** It's not so much that I'm greatly enamoured of the restructuring the rabbis did here; more that writing the sotah ritual is a reminder of the power rabbinic tradition has to do whatever it jolly well wants, and when I see myself as part of such a tradition, I am reminded that religion is a tool for making life more meaningful rather than an encumbrance for making it more difficult.

Course, I might feel differently if there were still a Temple and it was still actually a possibility ;-)

* There's a bit more to it than that, but that's basically it.
** Possibly simply in order to stop the temple being overrun with jealous husbands? One could posit various motivations; the point is not what they were but that they were.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( May. 7th, 2007 06:08 pm)

yes, 2/3, complete. Yay hooray and hurrah, don't you think?

AND, as if that weren't enough, I've got ANOTHER TORAH lined up. Yes, Congregation Shir Tikvah of Troy, Michigan, want me to write their new Torah. Isn't that just super-jolly darn fab?

I'd be going out for a celebratory dinner, but I've got a ketubah to finish. That's ketubah season for you :)
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Apr. 26th, 2007 09:03 pm)
This post is a sort-of continuation to this post.

The arch-traditional view holds that the entire text of the Torah was dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai in 1313 BCE by God; Moses copied it out a few times whilst on Sinai, and all subsequent copies have been made from those masters, the text remaining marvellously unaltered through several thousand years. You don't have to look very far to see that the text has rather suffered a few minor mutations since then, mostly yuds and vavs popping in and out. Yuds and vavs don't alter the meaning of the word per se, but in a theology which holds that every single letter of the Torah contains oodles of meaning, such that a law may be decided on the existence or lack thereof of a single yud or vav, that's a bit problematic. Nonetheless, the text is more or less intact.

Then you look a bit more closely, and just sometimes there are bits which look an awful lot like scribal errors. The homophones "lo" meaning "to him" or "to it" and "lo" meaning "not" get confused a few times; in Leviticus 25, for instance, the difference between a city which has unto it walls and a city which has not walls is considerable. It's exceedingly easy to make that kind of error in copying; on the other hand one might say that it is not an error but a deliberate message from the Holy One.

Then you look closely on a large scale, and sometimes there are Really Weird Things Going On. You get stories which contradict each other, different linguistic styles, that sort of thing. Higher biblical criticism posits that such Really Weird Things happen when you have several sets of canonical legends from different cultures which get combined into a single canon when the cultures merge, and tries to deduce which bits are from which sources. Higher biblical criticism is, obviously, Massively Problematic if you believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses complete on Mount Sinai.

When writing, I don't pick up so much on the large-scale oddities, nor really so much on the minor spelling things, but more on the tone of the parts I'm wriitng. My relationship with text is fairly experiential; if I'm reading fiction, I read not so much for the details of the story, more for the atmosphere one experiences whilst reading the story. If I'm writing Torah, I don't remember the precise words of the text necessarily, but whatever it was that that particular combination of words evoked in me. While I was writing Exodus, I was struck by the disproportionate amount of space given over to the minutae of the sanctuary tent, and how the holy shopping list at that point doesn't fit into the narrative very smoothly, and it made me think; if I wanted people to think that something was really important and they ought to donate lots of money to it, a lengthy description of how God commanded said thing and how our ancestors willingly donated to it would really be rather useful.

Earlier in Bemidbar, in chapter 3, there's a chunk detailing the division of the ritual duties amongst the sons of Aaron. By the way, I've theoretically read all this before a number of times, but it's very easy to skim-read this stuff and not pay detailed attention to every word. When you're writing, you have to pay attention to every word, so you see it in a different way, so this is actually the first time I've noticed some of this even though I've read it umpteen times. Anyway, this division of duties reminded me of a Mishnah which talks about the fierce competition amongst the priests for the temple duties. In particular, a certain part of the service could be performed by whoever got there first, and the duty priests would all gallop round the sanctuary and up the altar, pushing and shoving to get to the front. The altar being rather high and not having handrails, people quite often sustained injury (the point of the mishnah there is that eventually they instituted a safer way of allocating the work, as I recall). This image stayed with me, too; being willing to risk falling off the altar and breaking one's leg suggests a pretty high prestige on getting to do the parts of the service. The sort of thing, in fact, that would be hotly contested unless it was utterly inarguable. A legend suggesting divine origin for allocating different families to different jobs would, again, be rather useful.

And then shortly afterwards is the temple honours list - "The following donations are gratefully acknowledged: Millie Cohen, twenty siddurim, in memory of Irving Cohen; Phil Stein, twenty siddurim, in memory of Sadie Leib; Valerie and Max Miller, twenty siddurim, in memory of Irving Miller" - only it's actually "On the first day, the leader of the tribe of Yehudah, Nahshon ben Aminadav. His offering was one silver dish, of a hundred and thirty shekels' weight; one silver bowl, seventy shekels by the shekel of the sanctuary..." I can totally see that someone polishing up the canonical texts would be inclined to emphasise this sort of thing.

In historical context, the sacrificial cult which became rabbinic Judaism had been scattered over the land. At some point, the cult centralised in the Jerusalem temple, not without a lot of resistance; the Jerusalem priests I think claimed authenticity through lineage to Aaron. Also, the Temple required a good deal of taxation to fund its construction. King Solomon had pretty good statescraft, and when he built the temple was able to persuade people to cough up, but there's only so much coughing up a society can do, and a sacrificial cult is pretty expensive to maintain. Given this, the similarity of some of the priestly bits to some of the materials put out by shuls makes quite a lot of sense, in my head. Certainly makes it a bit less boring. This is a paragraph which could be expanded to a whole book, or several books. Of course it's a bit sketchy on the details.

Of course, then the question is: if this whole thing was written by people like me, why on earth do any of it? The answer to that could take a whole book, too, but basically: people need a sense of the awesomeness of the big picture, people need communal identity and social structure, and people need lifecycle structure. Rabbinic Judaism gives me that. And actually, rabbinic Judaism can do pretty much anything it damn well likes; it can contradict the Torah if it wants to, and sometimes it jolly well does. It's not really motivated by What God Said so much as by What People Do. Unless you're a hermit, you have to deal with What People Do no matter what standards you choose to live by; Judaism gives me a structure for dealing with that, one which enables me to work towards being a good person in a good society. If I can do that, it doesn't matter a great deal whether the inspiration for it came from a God on a Mountain or a Priest in a Temple.
At present I'm writing parshat Naso.

Parshat Naso is very, very boring.

Now, you know normally I wouldn't say such a thing, because there's something interesting in nearly everything if you look for it, but this really is very boring.

Parshat Bemidbar, the one previous to Naso, had the census, which listed the leaders of the tribes and counted how many people were in the tribe. That wasn't so interesting, but it's okay; you can play the name game, so the leader of the tribe of Zevulun goes from being Eliav ben Helon to My-god-is-my-dad son of Window. Naso goes through all the same names again, though, and the name game's less fun when you only played it last week.

Worse, it does it like this: On the first day, the leader of the tribe of Yehudah, Nahshon ben Aminadav. His offering was one silver dish, of a hundred and thirty shekels' weight; one silver bowl, seventy shekels by the shekel of the sanctuary; both of them full of fine flour mixed with oil as a meal-offering. One spoon, ten gold, full of incense; one young bull, one ram, one lamb in its first year for an olah offering; one kid from the flock as a hatat offering; for the shelaimim offering, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, five lambs in their first year. This was the offering of Nahshon ben Aminadav.

OK, fine, right? Jolly interesting. But it says it TWELVE TIMES, once for each tribe. I tell you, after about the fourth time it's pretty old, and by the ninth time you're desperate for it to be over.

torathayimpagekorah It's not just me, either. Here we have some pages from Torat Hayim, a set of books containing the Torah plus the traditional commentaries. The top image is what an average sort of page looks like; a couple of verses of Torah, the Aramaic translation of Onkelos (a throwback to the days when Aramaic was the vernacular), and a bunch of commentators' contributions, some wordier than others.The bottom image is what our section of Naso looks like - days three, four, five and six. You see the Torah text and the Aramaic translation? and NOTHING ELSE. Even Rashi couldn't find any nits to pick, and Rashi is Mr Nit-Picker Extraordinaire. Even the Ramban, who can sometimes take up a whole page just rambling on his own, couldn't find anything to say about this. No-one has anything to say at all! When even Rashi and the Ramban can't think of anything to say, you're pretty justified in thinking it dull. torathayimpagenaso

In fact, it strikes me as like nothing so much as a temple honours list. You know when the shul does its thank-you list after the fundraising drive? And it says, "The following donations are gratefully acknowledged: Millie Cohen, twenty siddurim, in memory of Irving Cohen; Phil Stein, twenty siddurim, in memory of Sadie Leib; Valerie and Max Miller, twenty siddurim, in memory of Irving Miller," and so on. I've written a few of those, too, and there is not an awful lot of difference between that and this.

This feeds into another problem, which is better saved for another post. But I've written the other post already, so you don't have to wait for it. Here it is. Blogs being what they are, you probably read that one first.
hatam_soferet: (Default)
( Apr. 17th, 2007 06:00 pm)
Rain's stopped, and so I am in a position to say: ain't nothing like a nice quill on nice parchment. Mmmmmmmmm :)

Sand tempering works pretty well for me these days. You heat up sand in the oven (I've got mine in an old tomato tin*), and when it's good and hot, park your quills** in it. The idea is for the heat to harden the feather, and then it stays sharp longer and is nicer to write with. The problem is that if you don't do it enough, nothing happens, but if you do it too much, you melt the quill. If you melt it, tiny air bubbles form and are trapped in it when it hardens so you can't cut it to a smooth edge, plus it's far too brittle to be useful.

One thing which works is stirring it around in the sand and hooking it out every ten seconds or so to see how it's doing. Another thing is using a spoon to pour sand over it and into it, as far up the barrel as possible, and then pouring it out and repeating. You know it's good just after it starts going opaque. I find that if you leave it until it's totally opaque, it's too brittle already, but it's hard to describe exactly, and it's one of the things you learn from experience.

* Sand isn't so common in New York City. I couldn't find any building sites that weren't sectioned off, and I don't know any small children with sandpits. I delayed learning this technique until the summer and its associated beach trip. Now I have a big jar of sand. Heh.
** which you have already divested of their various membranes and other extraneous bits
Damp weather makes quills go all bendy and silly; says it's 90% humidity out, which doesn't surprise me given that it's raining buckets, and my humidity meter says it's 68% in here. Ergo, the three quills I have for Torah writing are all misbehaving horribly, wobbling around feebly instead of being nice and firm and springy. I have a can of sand heating in the oven; perhaps that'll perk them up a bit, even if only temporarily. Still, I am officially Not In A Very Good Mood.

Second day of Pesach we stopped asking the Holy One for rain, and started asking for dew and blessings, cos we don't want rain in the summer. Come on - who forgot? Who hasn't changed their liturgical habits? All this rain is your fault!
What happens if you make a mistake? part 1 talked about some of the situations in which mistakes in Torahs and other holy books can and can't be fixed. This post is Part 2 - fixing mistakes by erasing.

Oops. This is supposed to read ve-sar me-hem, but some sort of lapse in concentration has caused the scribe to miss out the "me" and cut straight to the "hem," realising that something was wrong partway through the hey.

A bit of blotting paper is used to take up as much of the wet ink as possible. One doesn't have to do this, but it makes it easier later. Unlike marker pens, Torah ink sits on top of the parchment, and doesn't soak all the way through, so it can be scraped off quite easily. It's very like a kitchen spill - scraping off a lot of yuk once it's dried is hard work and messy, and it's much easier to mop up as much as you can while it's still wet.

Some scribes make two little marks in pencil, one above the mistake and one in the margin, so they'll know where to come back to when the ink is dry. Without some sort of marker, finding mistakes later is a bit like Where's Wally but not knowing how many Wallys you're supposed to find. It's a real pain and you might miss one, which would be bad since even one mistake technically invalidates the whole Torah. Not all scribes do this. Presumably the scribes who don't are really, really good at Where's Wally.

Erasing tools. From left to right: electric eraser, #10 surgical scalpel, bone folder, rose thorns, plastic eraser.
Once the mistake is dry, the remaining ink is scraped off. The electric eraser has a specially abrasive type of eraser in it, which makes quick work of the job (see below). For tiny mistakes, or delicate areas where the electric won't fit, one can use a surgical scalpel with a good sharp blade (see right). You may have heard that one can't use metal tools on a Torah, because ordinary metals have associations with war and hurting people. But surgical scalpels are used to save lives, not take them, so that makes a difference. Other scribes use gold knives or glass shards, for the same reason.

The surface is usually a bit ruffled after this, which makes it hard to write on, so it is smoothed and burnished with a bone folder or other burnishing tool. If the surface is very bad, powdered gum sanderac may be added, which stops the ink misbehaving. Then the guideline is marked back in. An awl is a sensible tool for this, but a rose thorn is a traditional non-metal alternative. Both are sharp enough to mark the surface without being so sharp they will cut through it.

Finally, the proper letter is written in, always by copying it from a tikkun. Here the ink is still wet, so the new letters are more shiny than the old ones.

One does not use correction fluid.