Tags: safrut

esther

From Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s has gigantic Judaica auctions every so often, and they often put the items on public display right before the auction. If you time your visit right, it’s almost as good as a museum (except that unlike a museum, it’s only open for three days, and then it’s over). Last time I was there, I saw these tops for Torah rollers. </p>

(You get how these work, yes? They go on top of things like broom handles, to which are attached the Torah.)

DEAR LITTLE CARVED LIONS WITH BOGGLY EYES! In little lion houses!

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esther

DRBR 17: In which I am rendered speechless

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.

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esther

From the Megillah repair mines

Sometimes you see letters which look broken, pasul:

But don’t freak out. Tilt it up, see what you can see.

Candlewax tends to gleam. Candlewax you can generally crack off with a scalpel, or X-acto knife, or a plastic spoon if you’ve really got nothing else handy.

Then you can take a blurry picture. A well-focused picture would be better; you’ll just have to pretend that this picture is after the whole Barukh Mordekhai/Arur Haman bit.

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esther

Writing instruments

(Repeat of an old post, seasonally relevant)

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?

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esther

Fun with megillot

It’s megillah-writing season. So here are some fun pictures from a megillah. A photocopy of a megillah, actually, whose provenance I do not know (other than the obvious “Ashkenaz, Beit Yosef script”).

Students, look and be impressed at the scribe’s creativity, but also take the time to look critically. Notice how you can make a splendid effect without being 100% accurate, symmetrical, etc.? You can do that too.

Also this season, bear in mind that wine carriers make very excellent megillah cases. Some of them don’t even look like wine carriers, they’re just pretty. Some of them have handles. Some are sold blank so you can do your own decoration. And liquor stores will often give you the presentation tubes for very fancy liquors if you ask nicely.

This post is for the upcoming mailing to the Sofrot Google Group. If you are a soferet, or have aspirations in that direction, you can join using the contact information which will be added to this post once Madame la administrator tells me which contact deets to put here.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


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esther

From the Torah repair mines

This is interesting. Gives you an insight into how the scribe was forming his letters.

Interestingly formed yud

From the same sefer. Internet cookies to people who can figure out what happened here:

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esther

ICK

Something you do not need to see when you open tefillin: BUGS.

The vacated exoskeletons of bugs, I grant you (note the hole in the centre one where the bug burst its way out), but still, ick. At least a dozen of them.

Perhaps surprisingly, the klafim were ok, once I’d brushed the crumbled bugs out of the folds (ick).

I’m swapping out the batim, though. Ick.

Fortunately this was a donated set so I have no idea whose head was wearing all those bugs. Not something I would want to know.

Mirrored from hasoferet.com.


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shiny jen

Parashat Teruma and vavei ha’amudim

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…

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esther

Brush-up post on erasing…

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.</p>

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.

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