Jen Taylor Friedman (hatam_soferet) wrote,
Jen Taylor Friedman
hatam_soferet

Since it’s only a week to Purim…

The original stone tablets were written by the finger of God, etzba Elohim.

Nowadays we write their less cumbersome representations, the Torah-scrolls, with quills, but what most people today don’t know is that ideally you don’t use a quill to write sifrei kodesh.

You’re supposed to use the index finger of your dominant hand — why the index finger? because Jewish tradition holds that there is a vein in the index finger leading directly to the heart; this is why in the wedding ceremony we put the ring on the index finger — you grow the nail, and then you shape it into a nib and write with that.

As well as representing the etzba Elohim, this also brings the scribe closer to the mitzvah. The Torah-scroll represents the marriage contract between God and the Jewish people; now, Jewish law states that one may contract a marriage by emissary, but it is obvious to all that it is better to attend one’s own wedding in person, since there is something rather glaringly inappropriate about contracting this closest of bonds by means of an intermediate agent. Similarly, writing a Torah-scroll with a quill, an intermediate agent, is permitted, but it is much better, if one can, to perform the act in person.

Most scribes today aren’t particular about this method of beautifying the mitzvah, and indeed it is hard to observe.

One reason quills are a decent technological substitute for fingernails is because they have very similar mechanical properties, both being made largely from keratin, rendering them tough but flexible, easily shaped but holding that shape. We’ve seen before in these pages that quills need frequent sharpening if they are to write well, and the same is true of fingernails. We’re used to cutting our fingernails, because they grow faster than we wear them down, but if you use your fingernail to write on parchment, it will wear down faster than your body can replace it, and you will run out of pen.

Since the invention of acrylic nail-tips, which are attached to the shortened nail, some scribes have been experimenting with using these prosthetic fingernails as writing tools. Interestingly, it’s following this line of thought that plastic nibs have recently been developed. Like nail-tips, these nibs are attached to one’s regular writing instrument and are designed to be longer-lasting than the original.

I’ve said before that plastic nibs definitely have their place, but they just aren’t capable of the subtlety of the keratin-based originals. Acrylic nibs are ingenious, but they really aren’t ideal. It follows that the careful scribe is forced to observe prolonged rest periods in which the fingernail must re-grow. One may, if pressed for time, use the other fingers of the hand, but this often results in reduced writing quality, given the lesser dexerity of the fourth and fifth fingers, so the truly careful scribe will plan his work such that he does not need to do this. This generally means he writes Torah one day a week and does some other job the rest of the time while his nail is re-growing.

This is why it takes such a long time to write a sefer Torah. If fingernails didn’t wear down with use, it would be possible to write a sefer Torah in an hour or so.

For consider this. We know that Moshe Rabbeinu died on Shabbat afternoon (R. Yosé in Seder ‘Olam Rabba 11), and we also know that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote thirteen Torah-scrolls on the last day of his life (R. Yannai in Devarim Rabba Vayyelekh §9).

Now, writing on Shabbat is a Biblically-forbidden activity, which Moshe Rabbeinu would not have done. But writing with one’s non-dominant hand is only prohibited on a Rabbinical level, at a much later date, which means that in Moshe Rabbeinu’s time it would have been permitted. So, we know that Moshe Rabbeinu wrote thirteen Torah-scrolls with his non-dominant hand in one day. (Clearly, had he been using his dominant hand, he would have been able to write far more Torah-scrolls, perhaps as many as forty.)

We also know that Moshe Rabbeinu had an unusually fast rate of keratin production, because his face had horns, which are, like fingernails, made from keratin. Normal people don’t produce keratin fast enough that they have horns; the best most of us can manage is hair and nails. But Moshe Rabbeinu was special. That’s why his Torah-writing wasn’t hampered by his fingernails wearing down, and how it is that he was able to produce thirteen sifrei Torah on one Shabbat.

Interestingly, the cantillation phrase traditionally used for the words etzba Elohim is a very rare one (occurs only once in Torah) called karnei Moshe – “the horns of Moses” – and this is why.

Wasn’t that educational?

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.

Tags: fun, purim, safrut, talmud and halakha
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