Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Story of the Kulmus

The Kulmus is the feather a Sofer uses when writing in the Klaf. The previous statement is actually not entirely accurate – the kulmus is not necessarily a feather, in fact, the original kulmus was made from reeds. Let me explain. The Sefer Torah written by Moshe Rabbeinu wasn’t written like ours – he used reed quills, which are bamboo-like wood pencils. Reeds are viewed positively by Chazal, who said we should be “Soft as a reed and not hard like a cedrus” and for centuries reeds had the merit to be used for scribal writing.

Safrut is not “vacuum-sealed” and it was influenced by the calligraphy of the gentiles. Until 700 BCE, reeds were the most common writing instrument and that explains why the original Halacha is that Hebrew scribes must write a Sefer Torah with reeds. After 700 BCE, feather quills were "discovered" and became increasingly popular for writing purposes (source). In fact, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are dated around 150 BCE were written with feather quills rather than reeds (source). That explains why the Ashkenazi scribes stopped using reeds, rather favoring the popular and "new" feather quills. I've also heard that the reeds in Europe were not as good and sturdy as the reeds found in the Middle East, and if true, this is another piece of this puzzle.

The main pro of using feathers is the fact that it stays sharp for longer than a reed – at least twice as long. Reeds are wood-pencils and wood wears out very quickly, forcing a scribe to constantly cut it sharp (it’s critical for a Sofer to have a sharp Kulmus, otherwise the Taguim will not come out properly).

The Sefardim however kept the original tradition of reed kulmusim by and large and until this day Safrut stores sell reeds alongside with feathers in their shelves. Because of the sharpening issues the Sefardic scribes usually don’t do the Taguim themselves, they will rather finish the Parsha and hand it over to a Metaieg, a Sofer who specializes in writing the Taguim.

The Poskim have subscribed to the feather quills and will allow the Sofer to use any instrument to write, even though it’s clear that the original Kulmus was from reeds.

In fact, a few other alternatives have appeared now that we are living in a technology-intensive world:
  • Plastic kulmus, which is sold already sharpened, that is available for cheap and it’s quite good. I’ve used it in my first Meguila.
  • Steel kulmus, which is pretty much a fountain pen made in the shape of a feather quill. I’ve tested it but it didn’t work well for me. And it’s expensive.
  • Gold-dipped feather Kulmus. This is one really expensive, but you can write a whole Sefer Torah without having to sharpen your quill.

Aside from the obvious advantage of not needing any sharpening, the plastic/steel/gold kulmus hve another great pro. When writing with a feather, you will have to always cut it in the same size, in order to ensure that all the lines are written uniformly. But in practice that’s very hard to accomplish and, unless you are a master scribe, the letters will come out different in every column - sometimes thinner, sometimes a little thicker and that's not aesthetically good. With a plastic/steel/gold kulmus all the letters will be the same, effortlessly, since you don’t have to sharpen it.

So next time you see a Sofer writing with a (special) fountain pen, don’t shoot him. It’s permissible to write with other instruments besides feather quills.

Feather Quills (sharpened/ unsharpened)
Plastic Kulmus

Reed Kulmus (sharpened/ unsharpened)


zalman said...

Two questions:
1) Are the plastic et al kulmusim approved of by the majority of todays poskim?
2)Do you know anywhere where one be able to purchase a plastic kulmus in the U.S.?

YK said...

Hi Zalman,

If you are Sephardi you shouldn't write with plastic kulmus, only reeds.

Ashkenazi sofrim can use plastic without any problem. People might look down at that since they think feathers are "halacha lemoshe misinai" but as I explained in the post, that's pure ignorance. I write with plastic.

I don't know how you can get it in the US. In Israel you can get it anywhere.


Anonymous said...

Plastic kulmus tips can be bought in the US at look under inks and pigments. They also sell sofer ink, and klaf, although I'm not sure if it's kosher. The ink is Nahari and it certainly is.

Torah Scribe said...

Great post. A few thoughts:

I think the feather kulmus was actually only used from around the 6th century CE, and not at all BCE. In fact the word kulmus itself seems to come from the Latin Calamus meaning 'a reed.'

Do you have a source for thinking feather kulmusim were in use earlier? The source link in this section didn't give any indication of earlier use. But it's significant if there was, and I'd like to hear of it.

YK said...


As seen in the source link:
"The writing instrument that dominated for the longest period in history (over one-thousand years) was the quill pen. Introduced around 700 A.D., the quill is a pen made from a bird feather. "
That's my source.


Torah Scribe said...

Thank you for your response. The source does say 700 CE, but in your post you say 700 BCE and then go on to say that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls (dating from say 470 BCE to early 1st century CE) were written with quills not reeds. This seems impossible if quills weren't used until 700 CE. That's what occasioned the confusion.

YK said...


You are right, thanks for noting. But since I wrote this post a long time ago, I can't remember my source for the Dead Sea Scrolls...


Hatam Soferet said...

Some of Talas' klaf is kosher. You have to ask them for the kosher Israeli parchment, and then they'll give you the right stuff. Comes with a klafmacher's sticker on it, quite often, and anyway I think they can be relied on: a) one of the owners is (used to be?) a frum Yid b) they don't have any interest in supplying their customers with the wrong kinds of parchment; their reputation is partly maintained by being experts in what they're supplying.

mekubal said...

Just as a note(being a Sephardi sofer) Sephardim have "solved" the sharpening problem long ago. The kulmusim that you have demonstrated are made from fairly thing pieces of bamboo, and thus will dull quite quickly.
However my teacher(he was the personal sofer of Rav Abba Shaul and Rav M. Sharabi) said to use the largest piece of bamboo that one can acquire. Then to cut pieces from that.
In using a reed it is the very outside layer(he calls it formica, but then he doesn't speak English so I don't know how to translate) that becomes the part that we actually write with. In larger(and thus older) pieces of bamboo, this becomes relatively more sturdy.
As such with a properly crafted kulmus, I can write(and metayeg) an entire Megillat Esther without the need to sharpen.

OneDay said...

YK, since i have noticed that you admire the Zanz rebbe i just thought it was interesting that in Ot Yatziv he writes not to write OR FIX stam with metal kulmus because of minhag avos.

He says one reason is that metal is Hokek, and that metal shortens life and Torah prolongs it. I also saw this being used for the Alter in the Mikdash as to why it cannot be made out of stones that were touched by metal, and if metal touches the Alter in is Posul.

YK said...

I only saw your comment now - sorry for the lateness.
I've heard that the Sephardim and Teimanim have unique tricks to prolong the sharpness of the reed, and I'm sure it writes well.
However I must follow what I learned from my tutor, and I write only with reed and also plastic kulmusim.

YK said...

Thanks for your comment.
The Ot Ytaziv is really a must-read, isn't it? I'm not Chasidic per se, but I do appreciate very much what the Zanz Rebbe had to say about Sofrut.
About the iron kulmus, I do remember that. And I used this logic to rule against the use of Gold-dipped kulmus, which I've seen for sale a few times. I think gold, like iron, is not a good thing to use because of the Chet Haegel. Would be funny to write with gold.
What you think?

OneDay said...

Interesting, when I read this about the Gold dipped kulmes, something felt not right, not Jewish but I didn't know what was bothering me, definitely makes perfect sense what you say.

Quick question, in your comment to Mekubal above, did you mean to write feather and plastic? Just curious, sorry don't mean to be medakdek.

YK said...

Yes - it was a typo..!
Feather and plastic.


Rafi Hecht said...

From what I was told, the writing medium should be able to stand up on its own, and when the wind moves to the right or the left, that that medium bends along with the wind in that direction. This is to teach us a major lesson about humility in that when situations change we should "bend" with them rather than stand upright. Using that logic how can we say that plastic or metal works?

YK said...


It sounds to me you are referring to a Gemara that says that the Kane, reed, was chosen among all writing materials as the kulmus because it has a connotation of humility (you have to see the source, i dont remember verbatim).

That itself is a question not only for using plastic and metal but also for using feather! So i guess your question backfired.

In practice, Halacha says that although theres a Maala of writing with reeds, any writing instrument is good for Stam bedieved. The Keset says that today is even used lekatchila and that's the halacha lemaase. In other words, feather, plastic and metal all fall in same category, except that some people dont approve metal because it's a mekatreg (instrument of violence).