Tags: sofrut - writing

shiny jen

Quills, part 7

And here's today's (part 1, part 6).

Fibre-tips and plastics

The thing with fibre-tips is that they don't contain the special kosher ink.

Now, this isn't necessarily the end of the world, because there are two schools of thought re ink. One says that kosher ink has to be black and stay black, and the other says that this blackness has to be attained by means of the traditional ingredients (read about that here).

The former school of thought will be satisfied with archival-quality black inks, which are designed to stay black for serious amounts of time. They're also made with entirely synthetic ingredients, which means you can be sure there aren't any non-kosher ickies in there. So, a member of the former school can use fibre-tips just fine.

The only problem then is that when they wear down, they're jolly difficult to sharpen. You can use a scalpel to sharpen up a marker, but you still don't get much mileage out of it. A $3 marker might last you a day or two, where a $0.50 quill will last you a month; that means markers are only really worth it in situations where quills are tricky (like very small mezuzot) or perilous (intricate repair jobs).

Plastics are one of my favourite modern refinements to the scribe's craft.

Once I was doing a Hebrew school visit, the sort where I hand round quills and things for the children to look at, and one of the children asked me if the quill was made of plastic. As it happened, it was a real feather quill, but this child had done something interesting - noted the material properties of the quill in her hand, and observed that they matched the material properties of plastics with which she was familiar.

Some smart sofer did the same thing, and came up with plastic nibs for scribes - pre-cut quills, essentially; you pop them onto the end of a feather or a pencil, and you're good to go. One buys them in Israel, or if in the USA from talasonline.com. You still have to sharpen them from time to time, but they're not at all bad, and very convenient.

And in an emergency, you can cut a quill from a drinking straw. Been there, done that :)

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen

Quills, part 6

Oops, forgot to do Monday's quill post.

(Part 1, Part 5)

Reeds.

Reeds have been a traditional Sephardi thing, and have contributed to the distinctive Sephardi script.

In a nutshell, a reed tends to give less contrast between thick and thin lines than a feather, and reed writing tends to show less contrast between thick and thin lines than feather writing. Compare the images below: the first is characteristically Sephardi reed-influenced script, and the second characteristically Ashkenazi and feather-influenced.


Speaking in general terms, Ashkenazi Jews tended to be in parts of Europe where quills were widely used, and Ashkenazi scripts often make heavy use of techniques and flourishes which rely on having a very flexible, very thin, very sharp writing instrument such as a quill, and trying to write that way with a reed will cause you much heartache. Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, tended to be in parts of the world where reeds were the writing instrument. A reed won't take an edge the same way a quill does, so it can't make those hair-thin vertical lines beloved of Ashkenazim, and it isn't as flexible, so the shapes are bolder and starker. This also makes Sephardi scripts quite a lot quicker to write, incidentally, which is why they are sometimes considerably cheaper to purchase.

A calligraphy marker resembles a reed a lot more than it resembles a quill, so trying to learn an Ashkenazi sta"m* alef-bet with a calligraphy marker will give you limited success. That's why my worksheets for beginners use markers but concentrate on skills, and don't go all the way to showing you how to make the fine details - it just won't really work. The logical thing would be for me to teach Sephardi script with calligraphy markers, but so few of my students are Sephardi that it doesn't make much sense really.

Here's a couple of rules from the scribal rule book of the Hida (Hayim Yosef David Azulai, late 18th century, Mediterranean regions), Torat Ha-Shelamim (chapter 18)

8. The quill should be made from a reed, not from a feather.

9. When the quill is ready for writing, he should put its tip in his mouth and roll it around in his spit (rir). He should say: Just as this spit is pure before it leaves the mouth, so shall this quill be pure when I write the holy Torah with it. This is because rir has the same numerical value as kadosh (holy) [210].


I don't write with reeds, myself, but I'd guess they're more flexible - easier to write with - if you soak them a bit before use, hence this custom. More of the Hida's rules here; more on quills shortly.


* sta"m - abbreviation for "sifrei Torah, tefillin, mezuzot."

Originally posted at Dreamwidth. Re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at LJ integration. Pity, because they have principles.
shiny jen

Quills, part 5

(Part 4, Part 1)

Concerning interaction with one's fellows, Rabbi Elazar taught: one should be soft like a reed rather than stiff like a cedar, and it is for this reason the reed merited to be used in the writing of sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot. (Taanit, 20b)

In Rabbi Elazar's time, reeds were what people made pens from.Indeed, the rabbinic word for a quill, kulmus, comes from the Greek word for a reed, calamus. Feathers didn't come to be used for pens until about 700CE, in Europe.

Popular lore has it that one may only use a quill from a kosher bird to write Torah, but we see at once that if you can use a reed, clearly kosher feathers aren't the only permitted tool. Modern alternatives include metal, plastic, and fibre-tipped pens, as well as feathers and reeds. More about those coming up.

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth. I'm re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at making openid easy to use and I'm tired of hanging abou
shiny jen

Quills, part 3

(Part 2; Part 1)

Learning to cut and shape quills is one of the most stumbly stumbling-blocks a newbie scribe has to negotiate.

I learned to cut quills from a combination of websites (e.g. regia.org, liralen, and the ever-helpful Mordechai Pinchas), assistance in person, and practice.

When you're starting out, you don't know what a good quill is supposed to feel like, so you don't know if you're doing it right or not. Assistance in person is especially useful at this point.

When I was learning, Mordechai Pinchas was kind enough to send me a couple of ready-cut quills. It really helps. (Also especially worth noting is his tip about the Sharp Click - read his instructions; where he says A loud "click" confirms a good sharp cut and thus a clean edge, pay extra attention.)

Mediaeval re-enactment sites are jolly good for telling you how to recreate the mediaeval way of doing things, but they aren't very useful for incorporating modern technology. Fair enough, obviously, but one thing it took me a long time to learn was: a razor blade is the best tool for cutting the ink channel. I was shown that particular trick by the sofer at Pardes, and life got easier.

But practice is the main thing. If you're a beginner, it's quite normal to spend all morning wrestling with your quill. If you're a beginner whose teacher is nearby, they can sort you out; if you're not that lucky, you just have to keep working at it. When I started my first Torah, I could get a decent quill eventually, although it might take me an hour or more; by the end of that year, I could get a decent quill pretty much every time. Practice.

This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth. I'm re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at making openid easy to use and I'm tired of hanging abou
shiny jen

Quills, part 2

(Quills Part 1)

An historical interlude.

Pitted against a metal nib, a quill almost always loses - strength, durability, convenience, level of skill required in user - metal nibs win. Metal pens have been around for an extraordinarily long time, since I think about 1000CE, but quills remained the writing instrument of choice for Europeans well into the nineteenth century, because they were so easily obtained and made.

Businesses bought quills by the thousand for their clerks, and professional quill-cutters were commonplace (a professional quill-cutter might reasonably be expected to produce between six and eight hundred pens per day). Metal nibs only took off with the advent of the steam-engine, mechanising the process so that mass-production of metal nibs became faster and cheaper than cutting feathers. It also took some time to develop a suitable alloy, one that was both flexible and durable. Once this was done, metal nibs quickly became ubiquitous, and the profession of quill-cutter obsolete.

Most pens, quill or otherwise, are shaped such that the barrel of the pen stays whole where the fingers grip it, but then is cut away and shaped into a nib (below, left/top). Torah scribes leave their nibs broad (below, right/bottom picture, left nib), so that they can make broad lines, but they may be larger or smaller, and for very fine writing the nib may be cut to a sharp point. As the pen is used, the corners tend to wear away (right/bottom picture, right nib) and the scribe will have to restore the shape every so often. Later on, we'll see that that can mean several times a day, so metal nibs are a good deal more convenient, for the most part.

However, a quill remains the tool of choice for top-flight calligraphers (har har), because it is capable of much more subtlety than any metal nib, more on that later. Soferim also have other issues with metal nibs; more on that later.



(You noticed, of course, that the left nib in the right picture has three ink channels instead of one. That's a modification one makes in certain circumstances, mostly in repair work when you are re-inking crumbling letters; you want a lot of ink and a lot of flexibility.)


This entry was originally posted at Dreamwidth. I'm re-enabling comments over here because dreamwidth fail at making openid easy to use and I'm tired of hanging abou
shiny jen

ok I should have posted this last Tuesday, sorry

I started writing Torah #3 last week; this one is bound for Congregation Dorshei Emet of Montreal. You can follow its story at http://torat-imeinu.blogspot.com/, but I should think I'll cross-post most things, so readers here won't miss much, if anything.

Anyway, this is a bit about the day I started to write and the part with which I started.

The project is called Torat Imeinu, Our Mother's Torah, and I started writing on the sixth day of Nisan - the first month, the month of beginning, the month of finding identity, the month of discovering liberation. As it happens the sixth of Nisan was one year exactly since my student RHS lost her mother. RHS' friends made evening services at her place in the evening, and there was mac and cheese mom-style, and I went from there to the mikveh, the ritual bath.

The mikveh in this context symbolises beginnings, renewals, transitions. Immersing in a pool of mayim hayim, living waters, carries spiritual overtones in Jewish practice, so although there was no technical reason for me to go - no issues of ritual purity which bar one from writing Torah - it seemed appropriate.

The mikveh is life and the memorial service is death, and the Torah passes from generation to generation as life and death cycle by. Generations of mothers pass life to their daughters and fade with time, and generations of Torah scholars pass tradition to their students and fade with time, and me passing writing the Torah to my student RHS makes me part of the generations of scribes who have passed on the Torah, and I am on my way to fading in time also. I find this oddly consoling; it never was all about me, and being one link in a chain is more consonant with tradition than being the crest of a wave. Thus starting the journey for this Torah by remembering RHS' mom with her is profoundly beautiful in ways I cannot completely express, and they all swirled in my head while I was in the mayim hayim, the living waters flowing past and present from time gone by and times to come, mother to daughter, scribe to scribe, Jew to Jew, the waters of Torah swirling all around me and us and from that I wrote the first words of this newest Torah.

I chose to start with Sarah, the first matriarch, the Mother of all Jews. Converts to Judaism are given Sarah as their honorary mother. My own Hebrew name is Yonah Esther bat Sarah. The first piece I wrote was the moment of transition in Sarah's life, where she leaves her old name Sarai, princess, and becomes Sarah, in partnership with God. In this story, God tells Abraham that Sarah will bear him a son, and Abraham laughs in disbelief. Sarah laughs. Their son is named Yitzhak - Laughy. Sarah has wanted a son all her life and here her wish is granted. God will bless her, and through her Abraham and his descendants will become a great and populous nation, blessed by God and in covenant with God. For a Mother's Torah, this seemed a wonderful place to start writing.

I should perhaps explain that one does not have to write the Torah strictly sequentially. I started my first Torah with the Exodus story of the giving of the Torah, because it seemed appropriate. My second Torah was for Congregation Shir Tikvah, Song of Hope, and there is a verse in the Torah which self-referentially says "Write for yourselves this song," so that one I started at the beginning and wrote through to the end. Now I am writing with the Mothers in mind, so we are starting with Sarah.

It seems appropriate to finish with a nod to my own Mother. The Torah scroll is the foundation upon which Jewish identity stands; today's Jews have come a long way from the foundations but know that it is still there at the centre. My Mum believed that with a firm foundation at home, her children would be able to go far, and I jolly well did. Thanks, Mama. L'chaim.
shiny jen

a hamalka megillah...

I had the best time this evening. You know HaMelekh megillot, right? Esther scrolls which tweak the layout such that each column starts with the word HaMelekh, which means The King.

So R' Katz at CSAIR mentioned that he'd been thinking about a HaMalka (The Queen) megillah and fiddling about with it and only getting partway...

...and I, being a Total Nerd with Mad Leet Computer Tikkun Skillz, decided to give it a shot. And I did it. HaMalka megillah, looking pretty sweet.

Of course, the thing about HaMelekh is that King is allegorical for God, and since there isn't any God in the Megillah, the HaMelekh is a compensatory move. HaMalka obviously takes away from that, so if you are doing HaMalka you have to read it as riffing on the HaMelekh/God theme, rather than as a Stomping Feminist theme.

I suspect most people would assume it was a Stomping Feminist thing ("You changed HaMelekh? Don't you realise that HaMelekh refers to God?! Sheesh, you indulge your ridiculous ignorant feminism and just make yourself look stupid..."). One would get tired of explaining that no, one is very well aware of HaMelekh, and HaMalka retains the concept of sovereignty with its hints of God but adds a feminine aspect, as to say "My relationship with God is informed by my being female, and I can engage with ritual on that basis, and it is kosher and it is joyous."

You see I think people might not understand that. It makes me wonder whether alternating Melekh and Malka on the column heads would be a better move, but on the whole I think the feminine riff is worth it.
shiny jen

handwriting over time

Purim's sort of my soffering anniversary. Five years since Megillah 1, now.

I'm putting in some pictures of my writing in the years between. This is almost certainly only of interest to calligraphy geeks, so I'm putting it under a cut. Collapse )

my handwriting
Spring 09, another megillah. This is me trying a completely different writing style. You can do that on a megillah, they're short, so if you don't like it you're not stuck for a whole year doing it.

(Oh look, there's a mistake right in the thumbnail. I *would* do that, wouldn't I. Oh well.)

It's a lot more nineteenth-century than my usual. It's quite pretty, but I think not the easiest ever to read?
shiny jen

Ink!

Sofer's inkThe main thing about Torah ink is that it has to be black and it has to stay black. If it changes colour within fifty years, it wasn't kosher to begin with.

Generally, Torah ink (דיו, in Hebrew, like dye) is what's called an iron gall ink. Iron gall inks have been used in a great many places during a great many periods in history. They last a long, long time (think Dead Sea Scrolls kind of longevity). They have an unusual property among pigments in that they form chemical bonds with the parchment, which makes them symbolically very appropriate for use on Torahs. They are lightfast, the ingredients are cheap, and they are very indelible.

I don't make my own; making good ink is hard, and I don't have anyone willing to share their recipe. Anyway, it's supposedly rather a pain, so I buy it in bottles, as shown. I don't know if it's also available in cake form - cake is much easier to transport, of course, and lasts longer, and is entirely traditional. I suspect perhaps not, because I have a feeling that buying ink like this is kind of For Dummies, and real hardcorers, the kind who would want cake ink, probably do make their own.

As you might expect, there are hundreds of different recipes for this kind of ink. However, they have some things in common, viz.: gallnuts, iron (II) in solution, something runny, and something sticky. The following descriptions are indebted to an excellent article by Cyntia Karnes.

Gallnuts on oak leavesGall nuts

See the Wikipedia entry, but basically gallnuts (also called oak-apples) are a sort of arboreal tumour. A gall wasp comes along and lays its egg on the tree, and the tree goes "whoa" and swells up around the egg, into this little hard ball. The larva sits inside the swelling, munching away, and when it grows up it eats its way out and leaves the ball on the tree.

The balls have to be turned into a gloopy solution. This basically involves grinding, dissolving, and fermenting, and there are about a zillion ways of accomplishing this. Depending how it's done, what you end up with is a liquid containing tannic acid, gallotannic acid, or gallic acid.

Iron II sulphateIron (II) sulphate

This is where the iron comes from. It tends to be known as copperas, or coppervasser if you are the Mishnah Berurah, because iron sulphate and copper sulphate tended to come out of the ground together, but the copper isn't important and the iron is.

NailsThis is why some recipes call for boiling up nails with the gallnuts. In an acidic solution, you get the right sorts of reactions. It's apparently quite dangerous if you do it properly.

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