Sunday, October 6, 2019

Mission Accomplished! My first Sefer Torah (actually, not really mine)

I have come a long way since I set out to write my own Sefer Torah years back. I studied all the relevant Halachot and sources, got myself a mentor to teach me the craft in Jerusalem and I eventually purchased the Klaf to write this scroll.

I write slowly and only in my free time, so I was expecting it would take me many years to finish the Torah. But something interesting happened.

A few months ago, I was spending my summer vacation in a seaside resort, and I got an Aliyah in the local Shul - the fifth portion of Parshas Korach, Chamishi. The Baal Koreh finished the reading, and as I was closing the Sefer Torah to make the final blessing, the corner of my eye say something strange with the last word. I still (mistakenly) made the Bracha after the Aliya but I opened the Torah once again and I realized that there was a mistake that looked like this:

The Hey's leg was connected to the top, possibly forming a Tav. The Shul's Gabbai decided to ask a child (unnecessary), who confirmed it was a Tav. It was obvious to me the word was originally written correctly; somehow this thin connector was either written by someone subsequently or it was an impurity that found its way there. I rubbed my finger against it to see if it was something that would easily come off, to no avail. So we put the Sefer Torah away and brought in a different one.

An untrained eye would not spot the problem, as the Sefer Torah's writing was very solid and it was regularly used for over 30 years in that Shul. My question was, and still is, when this mistake happened - was the Sefer Torah pasul for a long time already?

I later came back to the Shul to take another look at it with the Gabbay and I came to the conclusion this was an impurity that found its way in this letter. It was a clear case of bad luck - wrong thing at the wrong place at the wrong time - and this "ink" fell in the worst place possible, changing the form of the letter (Tzurat Haot). Once the letter's form is compromised, the Halacha is that this letter becomes invalidated, even tough it was originally written properly, and consequently the whole Torah is Pasul.

I still couldn't believe this happened - it's the first time I caught a potential psul in a Torah - and I kept touching this strange connector, when suddenly I was able to clip away the connector, restoring the letter to what it was - a Hey. Welcome back, Hey.

Problem solved? Not at all.

This seemed to be a classical case of fixing a letter via Chok Tochot, which is forbidden. Chok Tochot means shaping a letter not by writing it, but by erasing parts of another letter. Imagine you write a big square of black ink, and slowly you "sculp" a letter by erasing parts here and there - that's Chok Tochos and that's a classical act of invalidation according Halacha. By clipping away the connector, I created a Hey from a modified Tav - not by writing it but by "playing" with the Tav. If this was the case, I would have to remove the Hey and rewrite it.

In the other hand, it could be that the connector never actually modified the Hey, since it was kind of a sticker that could be removed (as I did!). If that was the case, perhaps the Torah was always Kosher and it would require no action.

We asked a knowledgeable Dayan, who decided that it was necessary to erase and re-write the Hey - the Torah was pasul indeed. I asked the Shul's board to let me fix it, so I could be the Sofer restoring this Torah by fixing just one letter. This reminded me a concept brought down in the Talmud in Menachot:
וא"ר יהושע בר אבא אמר רב גידל אמר רב הלוקח ס"ת מן השוק כחוטף מצוה מן השוק כתבו מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיבלו מהר סיני אמר רב ששת אם הגיה אפי' אות אחת מעלה עליו כאילו כתבו R. Yehoshua bar Aba: One who buys a Sefer Torah is like one who seized a Mitzvah from the market (Rashi - it is a bigger Mitzvah to write it himself; Rema - he does not fulfill the Mitzvah);If he wrote a Sefer Torah, it is considered as if he received it from Sinai. 
Rav Sheshes: If he corrected even one letter, it is considered as if he wrote it.
A simple reading of this Gemara suggests that any Sofer fixing a Sefer Torah that is pasul is actually performing the Miztva of writing a Sefer Torah - even if the Torah is not his (for example, a communal Torah scroll or a scroll that belongs to a library). After all, he is "creating" a Kosher Torah Scroll.

The Tosafists immediately weigh in this issue and write explicitly that the Gemara's last clause is not an independent one; it is the the continuation of the previous cases and it talks about someone who bought a Sefer Torah, which was invalid, and fixed it and only in this case, the Talmud is saying that this is equivalent to actually writing a whole Torah. See here verbatim:

אם הגיה בו אפי' אות אחת. פירוש בס"ת שלקח מן השוק לא נחשב עוד כחוטף מצוה

Sounds like Tosafot is explaining this Gemara in order to specifically dispel the possibility ("Hava Amina") I raised above, and would obviously rule that a Sofer fixing someone else's Torah is not fulfilling the Mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah.

This view is the mainstream outlook in this topic, and it is the universally accepted Halacha. However, the Mishnas Avrohom, an important early work on the laws of Safrut written by one of the Levush's children, brings down (see here) sources that apparently award the fixer the Miztva of writing the scroll even if the scroll belongs to someone else - precisely the idea we expounded above. The Mei Yehuda also brings other important sources agreeing with this idea. Therefore, basing myself in this minority view, I can say that when I rewrote the Hey and validated the Shul's Torah, I somehow got the Mitzva of writing my own Sefer Torah!

But realistically speaking, if I want to fulfil this magnificent Mitzva properly, I have to continue writing my own Sefer Torah, and I'm still at it. Nevertheless, this incident was a good opportunity to expand on the concept of what invalidates a scroll, Chok Tochos, how to fix it and the significance of writing even one letter in a scroll - perhaps this can also explain, as the Mei Yehuda writes (here), why people are careful to write at least one letter before the Sofer completes a new Torah Scroll (see my original post on this here). Even a small letter matters and it can make a very big difference.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Aleph א in Safrut and Modern History - Exploring the Hebrew Alphabet #1

The Aleph is probably the most famous letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and one could spend hours talking about its history, hidden meanings and symbolism. I've seen relatively few traditional resources exploring the Aleph in depth, so I decided to have a go at it, through the scope of a Sofer.

The Aleph's core shape is in the style of Ktav Ashurit as seen in the left, an ancient form which has existed throughout millennia with almost no change.

As with other Hebrew letters, you can often deconstruct it into smaller letters, for exegesis. The Aleph is composed of a higher Yud slightly facing updwards, a lower upside-down Yud and a diagonal line which is actualy a Vav (also called the Vav ha Mechaber / "connecing Vav"). It's widely known that the Aleph, the first letter, symbolizes the unity of God as the Gematria of Aleph is 1 and it's also the first letter of the hebrew word אחד / Echad   (1). And if you take the deconstructed letter, Yud Yud Vav, that will give you a Gematria of 26 which is the same as the Tetragammon - Gods Name. So you have Aleph, Echad, Tetragammon. You also have אמת / Emet, also starting with an Aleph, and according to tradition it's the Seal of God, the word best representing what God is about.

It's worth noting that many older publication used the innovative Aleph-Lamed instead of writing the word א-ל / E-L or Elokeinu / א-להינו, which are other Holy Names starting with Aleph. Again, there's a clear association between the Aleph and the holiest words in the Torah.

The Aleph is the first letter of the Ten Commandments (Anochi..) and according to the classical Rabbi Akiva's Midrash of the Letters, an ancient work, the Aleph received this honour in return for not being the first letter of the Torah, which starts with the second letter Bet (Bereishit). So here you have the Aleph as the first letter of Anochi Hashem, another important instance where the use of the Aleph stands out,

It's paradoxical that the Aleph symbolizes God's oneness, while its form has two Yuds. The explanation given is that the Two Yuds represent the spiritual and material realms, and that God is omnipresent is both. That's a common explanation. A deeper one, relates to two different ways of understanding God which is rooted in Kaballah. The explanation of these understanding is beyond the scope of this blog but Rabbi Prof. Ari Bergmann has a great series exploring this (click here for the online series; shiur 4 is specifically talking about this concept).

Aleph in Ktav Ivri
Coming back to the Aleph's form, the diagonal line sets the Aleph apart from the other letters, since most of the Hebrew letters are squared, while the Aleph is not. This diagonal look is most likely related to the way the Aleph looks in old Hebrew script - Ktav Ivri (or Paleo Hebrew - see pic in the right), an alphabet used by the Jews in Sinaitic times. In Jewish tradition there's a discussion which script came first, Ktav Ashuri or Ktav Ivri, however everyone agrees they are related and both Alephs share this diagonal commonality, which is important to keep in mind. By the way, the Greek letter “A” we use today is clearly the Aleph from the Ktav Ivri, rotated.

But throughout modern Jewish history, Jews used exclusively the Ktav Ashuri Aleph and you can find nuances in different scrolls around the world even in a letter as ubiquitous as the Aleph. Below you see the four most famous versions, which are still in use by different communities today.

From top left, clockwise: Arizal, Veilish/Sephardi, Beit Yosef/Ashkenazi, Chabad

As you can see, the differences are pretty much negligible but scribes of each community are very careful to always follow one of the options above, and keep a uniform layout.  The Arizal’s Aleph, is novel and substitutes the lower Yud for a Daled (it’s difficult to observe but it’s there, upside-down). This is a pretty radical introduction, and it’s safe to say the only the Ari had the stature to make this change; remember that the Yud Yud Vav construct is connected to the Tetragrammon and the Ari’s form is a Yud Daled Vav - completely different Gematria. I haven't found a good resource exploring this issue, however there were a few instances of Kabbalists pushing for minor tweeks in the letters in order to have some sort of mystical impact in their generations however no other Kabbalist had the level of acceptance of the Arizal, and to this day, his script is widely used in Tefillin, Mezuzot and Torahs around the world.

Reverse Aleph
I've seen some old scrolls with a reverse Aleph (see sketch in the right), following the style of the Tzadi of the Arizal which is also reversed. As the Ari did not introduce this change, this Aleph became subject to Halachic discussion in regards to its fitness and validity. The Noda BiYuda, one of the leading Dayanim of his time, validates (see here source) this post-facto, but this unusual shape in rather rare and scribes were very careful in following one of the four accepted shapes in the above diagram.
If you look closely, the Aleph has many "Ukzim", additional strokes at the extremeties of the letter. If you look at the classical Aleph of the Beit Yosef, you will find one Uketz at the top left, a second at the top right (by the Yud), a third in the lower right, and a fourth in the lower Yud. Some sofrim even add another one or two Uktzim, making the Aleph a very complex letter which requires a lot of work if you wish to achieve its ideal form.

Today, with the flourishing of the Hebrew language in Israel, many artists and publishers have proposed new versions of the Aleph for modern usage in printing and digital media. The most important typographic changes came after the invention of the printing press and subsequent need for new modern typefaces for prints. Van Dijk in Amsterdam came up with a popular font in the 1660's, which is still seen today in many books and it's clearly based on the Sephardic version of the Ktav Ashurit - "Veilish". Perhaps the strong Portuguese-Sephardi community in Amsterdam at the time had an influence in Van Dijk, but be it as it may, most typefaces today have a strong resemblance to the Veilish script. Another famous type is Frank-Ruhl's from the early 20th century. 

Some scholars have conducted extensive historical studies about the Aleph, and some have suggested a link to the ancient Swastika used by the Hindus in Asia, which was later hijacked by the Nazi propaganda. There is a resemblance between the two symbols, but in any Jewish mind, the Swastika is now connected to the atrocities of the Holocaust and it's unappealing to make any attempt to link the two. 

Above you have a cover of a Shoa film implicitly suggesting this commonality in an attempt to visually connect the letter and the Shoa. To me, that's a leap too far.

But as time goes by, the Aleph is now in use in countless websites, artistic works and everyday signs in Israel and museums around the world. The history of the Aleph continues to be written everyday but the origin of this letter is a tenet of Judaism and it can be best understood in the context of its form in Ktav Ashurit and overal Safrut practices, which have been meticulously preserved by pious scribes and strict Halacha governing them throughout the millennia of the Jewish people's existence.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Instagram's Sofer Stam

When I started blogging about Safrut years back, my goal was to provide authentic content at a time when almost all resources where from scribes not identified with Orthodox Judaism (see my very first post here).

Fast forward today, and Boruch Hashem there have been so many new platforms and websites created specifically for sofrim, and therefore it's not hard to find information about St"am now.

Additionally, people are looking less at blogs and more at social media - that's where people, specially youngsters, search and discover new interests. Here again, I have observed that on today's most popular destination -Instagram - there's a lack of users showcasing authentic Safrut to those who look for an inside look in our craft. In fact, most Sofrim will shun social media even as they use Internet with filters, which is what is acceptable today in Haredi circles. Instagram is not okayed, so when I look for Safrut related content, I'm finding Ktav Ashurit tatoos (!), or messianic stuff, but not the real deal.

So I decided to open an Instagram profile and I will occasionally post some content, in a shorter format than this blog and with a focus on visuals. And I do this solely for Yagdil Torah VeYadir.

My Sefer Torah has been pretty much on hold as I'm focused in wrapping up my first Daf Yomi cycle in a few months, but after that I ii"H hope to have some more time to coninue my quest of completing my own Sefer Torah.

Without further ado, my Instagram handle is @soferlavlor and the link is HERE.

Wishing everyone a Ksiva Vhatima Tova.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Eishes Chayil Artwork

This is an Eishes Chayil I made some 4 years ago for my wife. My ktiva came out pretty solid and the fact that there are no Halachot to follow for this work did allow me to write more freely.

I was looking for someone to do papercut work around it but I didn't yet find someone who can do a simple but nice job. I could do it by myself however I prefer to spend that time writing my Torah. Any suggestions?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

NYTimes snippet about the Ein Gedi Scrolls

Quite interesting to see how new technologies are allowing us to look at these scrolls in a different way. Now this is the oldest scroll of Vayikra and although there's little we can read from the video, it's unbelievable to see the letters and style of the writing. Note that these scrolls were almost completely burnt and until now, nobody could find a way to read it.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Line skipped - scraping needed

It has been a difficult season for my writing - I somehow made a few mistakes I never do.

One mistake involves a Shem written in the wrong place, but I will leave that for another post. That was very stressful and I still have to find the solution for that.

Here you have pictures of another mistake I made - I skipped a line, forcing me to erase some six lines in order to write it correctly. I'm many things but I'm weak at erasing, and I really don't enjoy erasing nice letters and words which were written well but in the wrong place...
But I prefer to take care of things on my own, and here is the partial result. I will post another picture when it's finished - it will look better then.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Column 4,5,6,7 of 214

After a long hiatus, an update about my progress.

I made a big mistake in this column... I skipped a line, luckily towards the end and I had to do some extensive scrapping - something I hate to do. I pushed it off for a while, but I finally got the job done. With one big aggravation; I made a small hole while scrapping.

On the bright side, I managed to write the Ayin around the hole and although cosmetically it's not ideal to have a hole in your parchment, I preferred not to give up on this yeriah. Sometimes you have to accept reality!

In this photo it is still missing the sheimos in the bottom part - I didn't forget that.

So other than this, the following four columns were pretty good. Some fixing is still warranted with minor mistakes but I didn't immediately notice anything major. Feel free to give feedback. As always, my writing is intentionally thick, and my lameds are intentionally long in their lower segment. And of course, I leave the Tagim for later.

Chazak veEmatz

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Sotheby's Auctions Oldest Complete Ashkenazi Torah Scroll

It's fascinating to see so many important books being auctioned lately, with top dollar hammer prices.

What really got my attention is this Torah of c. 1270, in good condition, which actually sold for the lowest estimate - 310,000usd. Check here for more details.

What is interesting to see is the many alterations that clearly were added by later hands - erasure of Peh Lefufa, adding of Shaatnez Getz tagin and others.

Also, it's interesting to see how much the Sofer had to stretch the letters in order to conform with the Vavei Amudim layout - something later authorities advised to avoid.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Daf Yomi Insights: Lot, His Daughters and the Dots on top of the letters of the Torah

The Talmud in Nazir 23a discusses the story of Lot and his daughters, who fled the destruction of Sodom and were alone in a cave, thinking they were the world's sole survivors. In the first night his older daughter cohabitated with him after giving him wine, and in the next night, his younger daughter. Look at the Pasuk:

וַתַּשְׁקֶיןָ אֶת אֲבִיהֶן יַיִן בַּלַּיְלָה הוּא וַתָּבֹא הַבְּכִירָה וַתִּשְׁכַּב אֶת אָבִיהָ וְלֹא יָדַע בְּשִׁכְבָהּ וּבְקוּמָהּ.
'And they made their father drink wine that night: and the firstborn went in, and lay with her father; and he perceived not when she lay down, nor when she arose. (Gen 19:33)'

It´s pretty clear that the Torah is saying the Lot did not know of what happened, nor before or after the episode. Now the Talmud makes a really puzzling commentary; while noting that the word ובקומה has a unique scribal oddity of having a dot over the letter Hey, this oddity gives a whole different meaning to the passage:

 "בשכבה ובקומה – למה נקוד על וי"ו ובקומה של בכורה? לומר – שבשכבה לא ידע, אבל בקומה ידע" 

The Talmud is saying that Lot knew about what happened after the first daughter stood up - and he did nothing to prevent a repetition in the second night. Now that's the exact opposite of the plain reading of the Torah - the Torah clearly states he did not know of what happened before AND afterwards. How can the Talmud spin the reading against what's actually stated in the Torah?

This is a very strong question and it almost makes us wonder if we are missing something. We are.

The scribal oddity addressed here is found in rare occasions in the Torah. The famous oddities of Inverted Nuns, or special Tagim (we discussed these oddities in an older post) are unlike this oddity. The Dots over Letters is a much older tradition and it actually dates all the way back to Ezra the Scribe, who saved the Torah from oblivion when he brought the Jews to Israel in 457 BCE. In Ezra's time, the Jews almost forgot many of the teachings of the Torah and he singlehandedly took upon himself to set the correct text of the Torah for generations to come. But he was not always certain about the correct text. The Avot of Rabbi Natan, a Gaonic early work often quoted by the Tosafists, quotes (here, in Perek Hey) all the words that are dotted in the Torah and then he explains the backstory: 
 למה, אלא כך אמר עזרא: אם יבא אליהו ויאמר לי מפני מה כתבת כך, אומר אני לו: כבר נקדתי עליהן. ואם אומר לי יפה כתבת, אעביר נקודה מעליהן.
'Why (are the letters dotted)? Ezra said: if Elijah comes and asks why I wrote these words, I can answer that I dotted these. If he tells me that it's good I wrote them, then I can just erase the dots'

It's clear that Ezra was unsure about the correct Mesora, and in some places he was unsure to write or not to write an extra word. For instance, in the story of Lot, he was unsure if the word ובקומה should be written or not - and writing it (or not), would cause a completely different reading of the passage. If he wrote it, it would mean that Lot did not know about what happened at all, but not writing it would mean that he knew what happened after the firstborn left. 

Therefore Ezra decided to write ובקומה and leave both readings as a possibility. If Elijah comes and asks 'why did you write it', he can counter that there is a dot over the word and that signifies that it's a word that maybe should be erased. 

Coming back to our original question - how can the Talmud spin the reading of the Pasuk against the plain reading of the verse, we were missing this crucial piece of information. The Talmud assumes we know what the dot over the word means, and the Talmud is offering its interpretation of the reading of the Pasuk without the word if ובקומה. That reading would clearly indicate that Lot knew about what happened afterward, so the Talmud is actually just conveying to us the alternative reading of the Pasuk Ezra was contemplating when he was writing the Torah. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I saw this beautiful picture the other day of an artist illuminating a Megillah. Enjoy

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jpost: Torah scroll held captive by Iraqi secret police restored for use in Foreign Ministr

Print Edition

A Torah scroll written some 150 to 200 years ago in Iraq but which fell captive to the Iraqi secret police has been restored to its former glory and was recently inaugurated in an official ceremony at the synagogue of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

Buffeted around Mesopotamia for the last few decades, the scroll found its way to Israel and is now being used for the first time in dozens of years in prayer services as was originally intended.

The exact story behind the Torah scroll and how it made its way to Israel remains, to some extent, shrouded in a diplomatic and political fog, but the basics of the account are now known.

The Torah scroll is believed to be originally from the region of Kurdistan, now in northern Iraq. It was most likely used in prayer services for many years until the Jewish community was subjected to persecution and discrimination following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

Following Israeli independence, harsh restrictions were imposed by the Iraqi government on Jewish employment and trade, which, along with violent anti-Jewish riots, led tens of thousands of Jews to flee the country, starting in earnest in 1949.

By 1951, some 121,000 had left, with just 15,000 remaining.

In addition to the restrictions and persecution, the Iraqi government also banned Jews from taking their property with them and seized assets from those who left.

Among these confiscated goods were dozens of Torah scrolls and other items from synagogues that eventually made their way to various museums and archives.

With the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, a period of anarchy took hold in the country and, before order could be restored to the conflict- torn nation, numerous museums were raided by looters and thousands of historical and archeological artifacts were plundered.

It is unclear how the Torah scroll obtained by the Foreign Ministry exited Iraq, but in around 2006 or 2007 it ended up in the hands of the Israeli Embassy in Jordan. There it remained for another five years until the outbreak of the spate of revolutions and civil wars in Arab countries that began at the end of 2010.

In September 2011, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo was attacked by a huge mob and the Foreign Ministry decided to remove all extraneous items from its embassy in Amman in case of similar incidents. Among those items was the Iraqi Torah scroll, which was brought to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem and left there until preliminary steps were taken to assess the state of the scroll and the possibility of restoring it.

Amnon Israel, the new manager of storage and supplies for the ministry, noticed the scroll in a storage room on his first day in his new job in November 2013.

He realized the scroll was in poor condition and sought to find out how much a restoration job would cost.

Israel eventually was put in contact with Akiva Garber, a Torah scribe whose company, The Jerusalem Scribe, specializes in restoring damaged Torah scrolls, and is among the leading experts on such work in Israel.

Garber and another of his scribes were invited to view the scroll in the ministry and upon seeing it immediately identified it as having come from Iraq by certain characteristics of the scroll and the way it was produced.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Garber said the Torah scroll had been in poor condition, with tears in parts of the vellum parchment that was used to make it; mold degrading the scroll; damaged letters; and other problems that invalidated it for use in formal prayer services.

In total, it took Garber and his team of two other scribes approximately six months and hundreds of hours to repair, restore and clean the scroll to make it fit for use.

During the restoration process, Garber also noticed a round stamp on the back of a section of the scroll, which later was identified as being the seal of the Iraqi secret police, testifying to its confiscation by Iraqi authorities.

“A Torah scroll which is ritually unusable is like someone who is sick, and it’s very satisfying and a great pleasure to take something like this, which had been for used for decades as a vehicle for prayer and learning, and restore it so it can be used once again for the purpose for which it was originally made,” Garber said.

“This scroll, in particular, suffered the vicissitudes of its journey, and was lying for decades in the vaults of the secret police most probably, but is now being read and used in a synagogue here in Israel,” he said.

Once the scroll itself was restored, a suitable case had to be found for it, and Israel was directed to several Torah cases that had made their way to the Prime Minister’s Office. Israel chose a case that originally had been in the possession of the Jewish community of Aleppo in Syria and was itself over 100 years old.

This, too, required restoration work and when that was completed, preparations were made to inaugurate the Torah scroll at the Foreign Ministry synagogue, which previously had not had a scroll.

The ceremony took place last Thursday in the presence of Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and between 200 and 300 ministry employees.

“The story of this Torah scroll embodies Jewish fate more than any story,” Liberman said. “Over some 200 years it wandered from Kurdistan to the archives of the Iraqi secret police, and to Jordan, until it reached here. Like the Jewish people, it has taken root again once again in Israel through faith and strength.”

Israel, himself of Iraqi origin from a family that came from northern Iraq, said he was thrilled to have played a part in bringing about the restoration of the Torah scroll.

His paternal grandfather was a mayor of the town of Dohuk, close to the border with Turkey.

His family, including his father, seven siblings and two grandparents, left Iraq in 1951 and had to leave all their possessions and property behind.

Israel said his father, who was 22 when he left Iraq and is now 86, was moved to tears by the ceremony.

“Perhaps my own grandfather once touched and read from this Torah scroll,” Israel told the Post. “Somehow the merit to help bring about the restoration of the scroll fell to me. The story of Kurdish Jewry has not really been told, but here we have a tangible part of our history back in our hands and it is uplifting to have been part of this process.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

70-Year-Old Mezuzah in Perfect Condition Found in Poland

As part of project to memoralize Jews who disappeared in Holocaust, remarkable discovery made on doorpost in Przemysl.
Mezuzah (illustration)
Mezuzah (illustration)
Noam Moskowitz/Flash 90
A unique discovery was made last week in the Polish town of Przemysl, as a 70-year-old mezuzah scroll was discovered in excellent condition as part of a national initiative to identify homes whose former Jewish owners disappeared in the Holocaust.
As part of the project, doorways featuring mezuzah niches bearingwitness to the Jewish families who lived there prior to the Holocaust are marked with a certain color to commemorate the former Jewish residents - all with the permission of the current residents.
Resident Hanna Merlak provided information about the remarkable mezuzah discovery in Przemysl last week according to Virtual Shtetl, after she saw a flat piece of metal mounted diagonally on the home's doorway at Wladycze Street.
Merlak suspected that under the metal other remnants of the mezuzah were concealed, and with permission nails were removed in taking down the metal and revealing the mezuzah niche underneath, which still contained parts of the mezuzah and an intact scroll.
The 70-year-old mezuzah was brought to the Jewish community in Warsaw, and after being inspected it was found to be in a condition allowing usage according to Jewish law. Currently the Jewish residents who owned the home are being searched for.
Helena Czernek and Aleksander Prugar of the Mi Polin studio specializing in Jewish art were involved in the recovery of the mezuzah.
"The parchment seems to be perfectly preserved," said Czernek. "It has been taken care of by experts on the preservation of monuments of history from the National Museum in Warsaw. We will decide together what to do with that precious piece of Jewish ceremonial art."
Mi Polin studio has been preparing an exhibit of mezuzahs, featuring casts of mezuzahs left from before the Holocaust along with information about the Jewish residents who are thought to have lived in the homes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Judaica: The World's Most Expensive Aron Kodesh

Last week, Christie's sold a famous Rotschild Aron Kodesh for a whopping U$1,565,000, a record for a Judaica item. While it's artwork is truly unique, it's hard to understand how such a piece can fetch these kind of prices. However it seems that the Jewish Judaica world is on the up, and people expect prices only to rise.

Last month a bought a book in Hebrew about Judaica in the Synagogue - torah mantels, torah ornaments and arks - called  מעשה רוקםfrom Yaniv Bracha. You can see in this book how these items are easy to find and relatively low in demand, since most of old Judaica items are rather of poor quality. That might explain why an exceptional item like the Rotschild Torah Ark stands out and can fetch such a high bid. Here is the full description:

By the mid eighteenth century, Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland) had a flourishing Jewish community, with important commercial ties to Western Galicia. The Breslau fairs had been centers of trade for centuries, attended by Jews throughout Eastern Europe.  

The Rothschild Torah Ark well represents the wealth of Breslau, and its high baroque style relates to the elaborately decorated interiors of the wooden synagogues in the region. A distinctive style of synagogue architecture developed in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, characterized by imposing but plain pitch-roofed exteriors which concealed contrastingly complex interiors. These interiors, of wooden truss construction, supported multiple vaults, domes, and profusely carved and painted decoration, much of it focused on the Torah Ark. The wooden synagogue interior is considered one of the most outstanding Jewish artistic achievements in Europe. Because the most significant of these synagogues were completely destroyed during the Second World War, carved wooden Torah Arks are almost unknown today. The survival of this example in silver, undoubtedly used for private services in a wealthy household, is phenomenal.  

The only other silver Torah Arks of this type known are much later in date. A miniature example made in Vienna in 1783 is now in the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, and a Polish example of 1838 from the J. Kaufmann Collection in Frankfurt-am-Main was sold in 1955 (see J. Gutmann, The Jewish Sanctuary, Leiden, 1983, pl. xxxii and Parke-Bernet, New York, 17 March 1955, lot 124). The back plate of a silver Hanukkah Lamp made in Galicia in 1787 takes its form very literally from carved wooden Torah Arks in that region (illustrated in Vivian B. Mann and Norman L. Kleeblatt,Treasures of the Jewish Museum, New York 1986, p. 110). 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Column 3 of 214

Column 2 of 214

Time to update and post here my progress. I fixed a mistake in the line that starts with Hashem Elohim - BH the fixing didn't leave marks and it's a very nice Amud overall.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Girsology blog

I'm a longtime fan of the parshablog, where Rabbi Josh Waxman often writes about mesorah and scribal oddities in the Torah. He stands out for his eclectic selection of sources and also for not being afraid of thinking outside of the box.

Waxman started a new blog called Girsology, dedicated to the different girsaot of the Torah and he wrote an excellent post about the famous פצועי דכא/דכה controversy. 

For those interested in Safrut, this is a must read and something I intended to write about. 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Chagiga 15b - the shape of the Lamed

Today's Daf, while discussing the sages of different centuries, says:
איה סופר המגדלים שהיו שונים שלוש מאות הלכות במגדל הפורח באויר
"Where is the one who counts the towers - for they would teach three hundred laws concerning a tower that floats in the air"

The artscroll note says that this is referring to the shape of the Lamed, which looks like a tower that is falling. Thus, many write the upper part of this letter slanted, as if it is falling. See here in full:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Tzitzis - wool, cashmere, cotton or silk?

As I wrote my Sefer Torah, I often look topically in a few commentaries to further understand the text and be more focused.

I'm now at Parshat Noach, and I had a chance to study the Ben Ish Chai commentary on the passage (Bereishit 9:7)

  ואתם, פרו ורבו; שרצו בארץ, ורבו-בה

While his kabalistic explanation to this passage is beyond the scope of this blog, the Ben Ish Chai does link this mitzva of having children to the mitzva of tzitzis. Both commandments provide a special protection to those who fulfill it and he goes on to detail the Halachot of tzitzis. By chance this mitzva is also to be found in this week's Parsha גדילים תעשה לך so although I usually only write about Safrut here, I will open an exception just this time. 

The Talmud says that only sheep wool and linen are considered "fabric" in regards to tzizis, and therefore one should only make tzizis from these two fabrics. Other garments are only rabinically required to have tzizis. The authoritative Shulchan Aruch rules this way, and the Sephardim generally are careful with this. 

However the Rema, followed by Ashkenazim, rules like another opinion of the Talmud that fabrics other than wool and linen are also biblically required to have tzizis. That's why Ashkenazim use cotton tzitzis, although many try to be machmir like the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. 

The catch - written in big letters Mehadrin
but on the left side "hashgacha only for
the threads".
Mesh tzitzit

However some fabrics seen today in the market are not required to have tzitzis even Rabinically; polyester is the best example. A square polyester garment does not need tzitzis, even though you can see many judaica stores (and even on Amazon) selling mesh polyester tzitzis as a solution for hot summer days. That's rather ironic - according to Halacha it's totally unnecessary to wear mesh tzitzis and the person might as well wear no tzitzis. If you want to perform the mitzva you should do it right and mesh tzitzis has no Halacha significance according to all (this is the widely accepted ruling of Iggrot Moshe 2:1). 

So we have established that wool and linen are undisputedly the best option for tzizis, as far as the Biblical miztva of tzitzis is concerned. 

Actually, that's imprecise. The wool that is undisputedly subject to tzizis is sheep's wool but other woolen fabrics such as cashmere, which is wool from goats, are not undisputed for Biblical miztva of tzitzis and therefore less optimal specially for Sephardim. Goat and sheep are two completely different animals, and while sheep wool is white, goats wool is more beige.

Cashmere goat wool
Sheep and goat

That's very relevant when buying a Tallit. Since we only wear Tallit briefly every day for shacharit, there's an unofficial consensus of wearing only woolen Tallit to make sure that at least once a day you will be wearing the optimal tzizis fabric - Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike. For this reason, virtually every Tallit sold in Judaica stores is made from sheep wool. 

However lately I've seen some specialty stores selling cashmere Tallit, which would go against the consensus I mentioned. Always make sure you buy Tallit from sheep wool.

Now let's turn to the second undisputedly good tzizis fabric - linen. I personally love everything made of linen for summer use, since it's a strong and breathable fabric - in fact, throughout history linen was regarded as the most superior and fine fabric (see here for more on that). But let's get back to Halacha:

Alongside sheep wool, linen is also a "Biblical fabric" and ideal for tzitzis use according to the Shulchan Aruch I quoted before, but an external factor is a threat to using linen tzitzis - Shaatnez, the Biblical prohibition of mixing linen and wool. I will quote a very good piece delineating this issue I found in YUTorah:

    The Gemara, Menachot 40a, states that the rabbis placed certain limitations on the use of linen garments for the mitzvah of tzitzit.  According to Rashi, ad loc., the rabbis prohibited placing techelet on a linen garment.  The reason is because techelet is not only unique in its color, but it must also be made of wool.  While the Torah does allow a wool techelet string to be placed on a linen garment, this leniency only applies if there is a fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzitzit.  However, if for whatever reason, there is no fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzitzit, one violates the prohibition of sha'atnez by wearing such a garment.  Out of concern that one might wear such a garment without adhering to the many laws of tzitzit and techelet, the rabbis banned placing techelet on linen garments.  Rabbeinu Tam, Shabbat 25b s.v. Sadin, disputes the opinion of Rashi and claims that the ban is not limited to techelet.  The ban extends to the use of any linen garment, even if no techelet is placed on the garment.
    Teshuvot HaRosh 2:8, claims that the common practice is to follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam and to disallow the use of all linen garments for the mitzvah of tzitzit.  However, he notes that upon arriving in Spain he noticed that many people used linen to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit.  He suggests that they might have been relying on the fact that there is no techelet, and perhaps even Rabbeinu Tam would agree that there is less of a concern.
      Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 9:6, cites the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam as normative.  However, Rama ad loc., mentions the leniency of Teshuvot HaRosh that if only linen is available one may use it for tzitzit, as there is no techelet available.  It should be noted, that nowadays there are many people who place techelet on their garments, and Teshuvot HaRosh's leniency may not be applicable.  This would apply even to those who question the authenticity of modern day techelet, as the concern exists that by allowing linen garments, it may lead to someone who does use modern day techelet to violate the prohibition of sha'atnez. 
It's also interesting to add that the influential Chaye Adam (Hil. Tzitzis 11:12) writes:
כלל י״א סי׳ י״ב ״וכבר
 נתפשט המנהג בקהלתינו לעשות טלית של פשתים
 וציצית של פשתים, ע״פ הגר״א ז״ל״
He is saying the custom of his community, in Poland, was to wear linen tzitzis like the ruling of the Gr"a, the Vilna Gaon. In other words, he is giving the same testimony teh Teshuvat HaRosh gave when he arrived in Spain. So it seems clear that it wasn't uncommon to wear linen tzitzit in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities.

Linen tzitsis with Techelet
It seems to me to be a case of Halacha VeEin Morim Kein i.e. it's permissible and optimal to wear linen tzitzit but this should not be a publicized practice because of the concern than less knowledgeable people will eventually transgress Shaatnez as a result. 

And I will also add that this concern for other people is not farfetched - the vast majority of people, even among the observant communities, don't know Hilchot Tzitzis in depth and as you have seen, these Halachot are rather complex and often times a little confusing (I did try my best to keep this post as organized and short as possible..). Click here to see a website selling linen tzizis with techelet, which questionable according to what we have seen.

SO, Tzitzis - wool, cashmere, cotton or silk? Answer: Tallit surely should be made of sheep wool and tzizis you wear all day can be from cotton too.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Amazing Megillot 12: Yonah Weinrib

Rabbi Yonah Weinrib is a great illuminator and also a very knowledgeble scholar who adds explanations next to his works. My Bar Mitzva birkon was made by him and today he is a very famous artist.

Rabbi Weinrib published a very nice Megillat Esther on paper, based on a Megilla he was comissioned to write.

I love the unusual motifs like the Queen of Hearts, symbolizing the demise of Vashti and rise of Esther and the chess board, which is a metaphor for how all the story was orchestraded by Hashem and how each character of the story was carefully controlled by His hidden hand.

Very clever and very beautiful!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Sacred Monsters by N. Slifkin

As I was writing Parshat Bereishit in my ongoing Sefer Torah project, one theme stood out from the story of creation: the Bnei Elohim. The Torah says:

6:2 That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
6:3 And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years.
6:4 There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
The Torah seems to speak negatively of these "sons of God". I quickly realized that although I learn this Parsha every year since I'm a small kid, I never really stopped to think about this.

I suppose my teachers in school intentionally didn't spend much time exploring who these people were. I was told by a very knowledgeable educator that specifically today, in times where Lord of the Rings and other fantasy stories are so popular, there is a point not to explore the theme of giants and unusual creatures mentioned in the Torah. Many educators are afraid kids will start looking at Torah as just another fantasy book, cv"s. 

But even worst than confusing the Torah with fantasy books, kids can find many cartoons and movies inspired in Biblical stories that are visually stunning and often have their own takes on some creatures of the Torah. Most notably, as I a started writing Parshat Noach a few weeks ago, Hollywood released "Noah", a blockbuster movie loosely inspired in the story of Noach. 

Hollywood's Bnei Elohim
These movies can be actually even more dangerous for our kids since they always take artistic license and make up a whole bunch of things. Specifically in "Noah", the film, the Bnei Elohim are depicted as stone monsters made of light, with seven hands (see picture). If we don't teach the "giants" theme for our kids in school, I would say that they should equally not be exposed to cartoons and movies based on Torah stories. 

But not everyone agrees with this mindset. Recently, a Rabbi launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a fantasy book for kids based on the Torah, with the argument that Jewish-fantasy books can be a good alternative to kids who like to read Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I disagree. 

So I decided to look for somebody that would shed light in the concept of giants like Bnei Elohim and Og but I found very little resources. The best one I've come across is Sacred Monsters, by Rabbi Natan Slifkin aka Zoo Rabbi. 

For the unninitiated, Rabbi Slifkin was in the epicenter of a huge theological feud a few years ago. He wrote about Creation and how to reconcile the Torah's account with science, based of classical Jewish commentators. Although he got an endorsement from the very respected Rosh Yeshiva of Philadelphia, his book became subject to virulent attacks from a segment of the Haredi world that rejects scientific reconciliation with Torah. I was learning in Ner Yisrael at the time and my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, was a very important figure in this debate. Click here for Rabbi Slifkin's own link list of this controversy.

Be it as it may, Sacred Monsters is a very open and honest discussion about how we should look at the many unusual and strange creatures mentioned in the Torah. Rabbi Slifkin uses a scientific approach and is not afraid of asking questions nor shy to offer unusual answers. 

Og as a real super giant
Rabbi Slifkin discusses how big were the giants mentioned in the Torah. According to some, they were literarily hundeds of meters tall. But he also mentions the Rambam, who says that Og was probably not taller than 5 meters since it's organically impossible to be taller than that. 

Rabbi Slifkin brings many examples of modern day "giants" that measure over 3 meters and notes that the Rambam's estimation would indeed make sense from a scientific point of view. 

Although the book does mention other giants and also the very tall Moshe Rabbeinu, I was disappointed not to see a specific discussion of the Bnei Elohim. After all, they were the first giants mentioned in the Torah and the forebearers of Og. 

After reading almost the entire book, I leave with a feeling that we know very little about most of the unusual creatures of the Torah. There are opinions  that offer some plausible possibilities and Rabbi Slifkin often broadens the discussion bringing in achademics and zoologists, but from the classical Jewish commentators there are many gaps and speculation. 

I do think the book is an excellent resource and introduction guide for those who want to know the a little of everything. It did kind of leave me with even more questions than before but that's not necessarily a bad thing!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hamas in Scripture

As Israel gets more and more entangled in what looks like a full blown war with Hamas, I got to the pasuk which mentions the very name of this terrorist group, when describing the world in the times of Noah. 

וַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ לִפְנֵי הָאֱלהִים וַתִּמָּלֵא הָאָרֶץ חָמָס
"The world was filled with 'Hamas'" Genesis

What’s the translation of the scriptural word “Hamas”? Although I’ve studied the Torah many times, I realized that I didn’t really know the exact translation of this word. I knew it meant something bad, since this was the reason why G-d got angry at mankind and brought the great flood in the times of Noach.

The Artscroll Chumash translates “the earth became filled with robbery”, which is the understanding of Rashi, the main medieval commentary of the Torah. 

Interestingly, the other classic commentator of the Torah - Unkulos -goes in another direction and translates Chamas to mean  חטופין, kidnappers, meaning that the world was full of kidnappers. 

Some commentators relate this to the Bnei Elohim mentioned in the end of Parshat Bereishit, which kidnapped and married woman. But it's clear that Unkulos understands Hamas to mean not monetary robbery but kidnapping, which is a violent act. In fact, many other translations of the Torah mention that "the earth was filled with violence", possibly following the Unkulos' understanding. 

Now the Targum Yerushalmi, which is occasionally different than the Unkelos, seems to merge the explanations of Rashi and Onkelos. 

In other words, the Targum Yerushalmi understands that Hamas is an umbrella term that includes kidnapping and robbery. 

The Or Hachaim goes one step further, perhaps troubled by the fact that the Yerushlami derives two translations for one word. How is that possible? Hamas should either be kidnapping or robbery - how can this word refer to both? 

The Or Hachaim says that Hamas is the umbrella term for evil, in all its different manifestations:

It includes robbery, sexual misconduct, killing, idol worshipping and more. So according to this, Rashi, Unkulos and Targum Yerushlami actually all agree with what Hamas means. They simply struggle to choose one aspect that best represents evil. 

It's interesting to note that like in the times of Noach, when the earth got overrun by Hamas, today we seem to be living a very similar situation. The world today is full of Hamas ideology, be it Hamas itself or other violent ideologies like Al Qaeda, Isis and their kin. 

In the present war between Hamas and Israel, a very large portion of the world is siding with Hamas, be it by explicitly endorsing them or simply by failing to condone their violent ideology. In this sense, the world seems to be full of violent people or people who endorse violence. 

And this present day violent ideology, like in the times of Noach, is multi faceted: it's based on murder, robbery, dishonesty, sexual harassment and kidnappings.

Noach could only save his family by barricating himself in his ark. He publicly built his ark for many years so everyone could see and perhaps change their ways. Eventually only Noach's family got in the ark and got saved. 

How can we react to the modern day world which seems to be more and more full of Hamas and the people who support them? We have to build our ark, which is Israel. That's the only place where we can defend ourselves without relying in others. And like Noach was the last stand against evil, Israel today is the world's last stand against this evil, violent ideology of death that is taking over the world. 

PS: it's interesting to note that according to some, the flood in times of Noah never reached Israel - the holy land enjoys special protection. And many commentators say that this is why the olive branch brought to Noah came from Israel - Israel was the only place that survived. See below: