Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My Progress #2 - Another Pitum Haketoret

After my first work, I had to write a second Pitum Haketoret because my father needed one. The hand-writing is much nicer and finer than the first one, but I had to correct a few mistakes here and there, so there's minor scrapping. And I commited the capital sin of a Sofer - I accidentaly dropped water on it, which causes irreversable damage. Luckily, it fell in the bottom of the Klaf and I just cut it off.

Like the first, this one is big - 42 lines, just like a Sefer Torah. Most people have pocket-sized Pitum Haketoret today, since it's easier to carry, but I much prefer it big. The rabbis say that it's a very big Segula for Parnassah to say this every day, so I figured that the bigger the Pitum Haketoret is the more $ you will get!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Ktav Ashurit and the Modern Day Siddurim

First a very brief intro: there's a discussion in the Talmud in regards to what font was featured in the original Luchot. We follow the opinion that it was given in Ktav Ashurit, the very same font we use in all holy scrolls.

According to Judaism, just like the Torah was given in Ktav Ashurit, the world was created by God with these letters and therefore every single letter has unspeakable importance. It's no wonder that a large segment of the Kaballa deals exclusively with understanding the Ktav Ashurit letters - this is a mystical font. In fact, Halacha states even a non-holy text that was written in Ktav Ashurit letters should be treated like a holy text, since the font itself is holy. That's how important this Ktav is.

But when it comes to prayer books, it's hard to find Ktav Ashurit fonts. For some reason, the Siddurim we use today are not written in Ktav Ashurit font; rather, every publisher creates a new patented font when it comes to prayer books and Chumashim. The most popular is Artscroll’s, a modern and neat font that is used in everything the company publishes from Siddurim, Tehillim or Chumashim (see pic in the right). But a few communities have pushed for the usage of Siddurim that use the Ktav Ashurit font, most notably the Sefardic communities and some Hassidic (more specifically, Toldos Aharon and Biali) sects and it’s possible to find them with a little effort.

It’s much easier to find Sefardi editions of Ktav Ashurit siddurim, but I’m Ashkenazi and I bought the two editions I managed to find. The first is a modern and computerized version (if you are looking for one online, see here), only for the weekdays, and the second is a copy of a hand-written siddur (which some rabbis favor over the computer version) - see pictures below. Being a Sofer, I use these Siddurim rather than the popular Artscroll version since I prefer to stick to the millennium-old font rather than a modern day invention… but that’s just me.

Computerized Ktav Ashurit Siddur

Hand-written version

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Holy Shem

According to Halacha, when a Sofer writes the Shem in Torah, he must do so with the proper Kavanah, that is, he must recite a verbal santification before the writing of each and every Shem in the Torah. If the sofer fails do so, the Shem has no holiness and the Sefer Torah, Tefillin or Mezuzah is Pasul. That’s why there’s the minhag of going to the Mikve before writing the Shem – it’s part of this santification process.

Additionally, there’s a special kabbalistic way of writing the Shem, as thaught by the Arizal and thus not only the preparation to write the Shem is difficult, but also the actual writing itself.

According to Halacha once the Shem is written it can’t be erased, a prohibition derived from the Pasuk in Devarim Deut. 12-03:04, which states "ואבדתם את שמם מן המקום ההוא לא תעשון כן ליהוה אלהיכם (and you shall destroy the names of pagan gods from their places. You shall not do similarly to G-d your Lord)." Any paper containing the Shem cannot be thrown in garbage, and in fact there’s a glued paper in my Kollel’s door containing Shemot that no one can remove (photo in the right).

Because of this prohibition, the old printed Chumashim do not spell the full Shem but use a peculiar alternative, the Yud-Yud (photo in the right). This way, if a Chumash gets ripped or simple lost there will be no transgression of the aforementioned problem. But why did the publishers chose specifically Yud-Yud?

If you look in even older books, you’ll see a line under or above the Yud-Yud – I saw this in old Ketubot from all sorts (Hebrew University has a great collection).

I’ve heard two explanations for this. If you look in Sefardic and some Chassidic siddurim you’ll see that all the Shemot are written in the form of “Shiluv” (photo in the right), that is, in a combination of the letters of the written Shem and the way we pronounce the Shem (they are not the same). That’s a Kabbalistic custom and you will see that the Shiluv starts with Yud and ends with Yud. That might be the reason why the Yud-Yud was chosen to replace the Shem in the Siddurim.

But I saw in the Darkei Moshe another explanation. As I said, the ancient books have Yud-Yud with an underline. This underline is a Vav, and if you take the Gematria of the Yud (10) Yud (10) and Vav (6) you will get 26, which is the same numerical value as the Shem.
(The same explanation is said about the Aleph, which consists of two Yuds and one Vav. That’s an allusion that G-d (26) is one in this world).

Since some 15 years ago, the seforim publishers stopped using the Yud-Yud by and large, rather using the explicit Shem. I happen to know the owner of one of the most popular publishers of Jerusalem and he told me the Gedolim had asked him to use the Shem because unlike some time ago, the Seforim are much more durable and it’s easier to keep them in good condition. However, I’ve seen one very recent edition of the Chumash that uses a creative solution – they wrote the Shem but disconnected the “foot” of the first Hey (photo in the right). In a first look you may not realize, but it’s there and consequently there will be no problems in case the Chumash gets ripped or something.
(A side point: Why disconnect the first Hey? If they would do it in the second Hey, the first two letters of the Shem would read Yud-Hey, which is another Shem and we would be back to square zero).

All in all, it should be clear now that a very beautiful Sefer Torah or Tefillin or Mezuza can be worthless if the Sofer didn’t follow the rules of the game. Be carefull, and do your due diligence before you buy something so holy. This is just as serious as any other investment and if you fail to do your homework you might be getting yourself in the Safrut version of Maddof’s Ponzi scheme – a worthless piece of parchement. Be aware!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Amazing Megillot #2 - The Agam Meggilla

I saw this one in the website of the Library of Congress. I've seen other works by Agam but never a Holy Book and this Megilla really stands out because of the cool visual effects that Agam's trademark. Here's the Library's official description:
"The Agam Megillah (London and Israel, 1997). A recent addition to the Library's Hebraic collections is a modern decorated megillah by noted Israeli artist Ya'akov Agam. Produced on parchment measuring thirty-two inches high, the limited edition includes a silk-screened border by the artist, with the text handwritten by the scribe. In this megillah, the traditional text is adorned with distinctly modern decorative artwork. (Copyright © 2001 Artists Rights Society [ars], New York/adagp, Paris)"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

My Progress #1 - Pitum Haketoret

This was my very first work, a large one-column Pitum Haketoret. It took me some 17 days to complete it and I managed to avoid any mistakes, so no scraping was needed. I used my own feather quill to write, and I had to do a lot of sharpening and all that messy stuff, but I'm really happy with the result and I use it every day after davening.

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)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Keset Hasofer and my Amazing Find

Countless books were written about Safrut throughout the centuries. The library of a Sofer must surely include the basics: Tur, Shulchan Aruch, Mishnat Sofrim (authored by the Chafetz Haim) and the Talmud passages relating to the writing of Sefer Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot. But anyone trying to get down to the practical Halacha will soon find that the plethora of information in this subject makes it difficult to get the final answer of rather basic questions, like the permissibility of writing with feathers, opposed to reeds. This question is a very telling example. If one will only look at the Tur and Shulchan Aruch he will conclude that it's prohibited
to write with feathers, as stated in these books. But, hey, all Ashkenazi sofrim do write with feathers, so what is going on?

That's when the Keset Hasofer comes into the picture. Authored by same author of the popular Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried, this sefer intended to organize and give a final answer to all Safrut-related questions. Like he did in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Ganzfried compiled this book in a way anyone could understand and the Keset Hasofer was accepted as the last word for all Ashkenazi sofrim. For instance, he writes that the minhag of the scribes is to use feather quills and that there's absolutely nothing wrong with this practice. The final answer.

One of the leading rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Chatam Sofer said that no sofer could start to write a Sefer Torah, Mezuza or Tefillin before mastering the Keset Hasofer. In fact, he wrote the Haskama (letter of aprobation) featured in the beggining of the Keset Hasofer, alongside with the Haskama of the Tzanz Rebbe, also known as the Divrei Chaim.

Besides writing about the Halachot of Safrut, Rabbi Ganzfried decided between conflicting versions of the Torah and Megillat Esther, and that was perhaps his most important contribution to the Safrut world. Although all Jews have virtually the same text of the Torah, there are very few places - actually seven instances - where it's unclear how to write a particular word and the codices we posses have conflicting versions. Rabbi Ganzfried ruled which versions to follow in the latter part of the Keset Hasofer and thanks to him, we all follow the same unified text of the Torah (as I will explain in another post, the Teimanim differ).

Having all this in mind, I knew I had to buy the Keset Hasofer but I couldn't find it anywhere. I tried the usual book shops in Jerusalem, to no avail. So I forgot about it. I started to search for another important work, the Torah Shelema of Rabbi Kasher, and a friend directed me to a used-books shop in Mea Shearim. The smallest bookshop I've ever seen, this shop was specialized in old books but it is almost impossible to find anything there - all books, from the Zohar to Feldheim, are mixed together. So I decided to leave, but in my last look back something got my attention - a very old Keset Hasofer.

Unable to hide my excitement to the shop keeper, I was really happy to see that the book was in mint condition, despite its age. As I opened the front page, I saw the date - 1902. And I could also read the name of the owner in the top - "Aharon Toisig". I was sure this was no coincidence - this book was destined to come to my hands! So after some half hour discussing the price, I got this book for 120 shekels, or 30 dollars, a bargain.

Below are some pictures of this sefer.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Amazing Megillot Series #1

I saw this absolutely fabulous Megilat Esther in a Jerusalem Judaica store. It's not an antique piece - it's actually brand new. I can't find out who's the artist, I only know he's Russian, and this "bargain" has a price tag of U$ 100,000. It's easily the nicest Megilla I've ever seen, since everything is perfect - the writing is spotless, the color drawings make a strong statement and the sketching work is a very original idea.

The Mitzva of Writing Your Own Sefer Torah

The very last commandment of the Torah, number 613, is the obligation of every Jew to write a Sefer Torah to himself. That's right, every Jew. You probably know very few individuals who actually did this and there are many reasons why this Miztva is not so widespread.

First, Maimonides says, quoting the Talmud: "Every Jew must write a Sefer Torah (...). If he writes it himself, it's like he has received the Torah from Mount Sinai; if he however doesn't knows how to write it, others may write on his behalf" (source). In fact the Rambam wrote a Torah for himself, as he states in Hilchot Sefer Torah: " (...) I have relied on it in the Torah Scroll that I wrote according to the Halakha".

The Rambam is not the only well-known personality who fulfilled this Miztva with his own hands. The first person to do it was Moshe Rabbeinu, who according to our tradition wrote thirteen (one for each tribe plus one extra for verification purposes) Sifrei Torah in the day he died. Other famous sofrim include Ezra, (400 b.c.e.), Rabbi Meir, (2nd century), the famous masorete Aharon Ben Asher (9th century), the Meiri, Avraham Sofer (1800's) and many others.

Over the centuries, many Sifrei Torah were written but, expectably, very few survived the test of time. Countless were burnt in the various pogroms and persecutions Jews suffered throughout the ages, but we do have a few scrolls that are almost one thousand years old.

The most notable example is the ספר תורה that the Ran, or Rabbeinu Nissim of Gironda (1320-1380), wrote for himself. One of the most revered Rishonim and the Gadol of his time, the Ran wrote a beautiful scroll in Gvil that is still intact, housed in the National Library of the Hebrew University. This scroll is not displayed in public, although I have a friend who saw it a few years ago in a special exhibition in the National Library. In my visit to Hebrew University just last month, I saw a "duplicate" of this Torah which looks exactly like the original and you can see my snapshots below.

Another famous Rabbi who wrote his own Torah is Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav of Toledo (1300's) and this scroll is still in use today in Tzfat, in the city's famous Kabbalistic Abuhav Synagogue (read the legendary story here).

Today, some Jews write their own Sefer Torah, either via a hired scribe or rarely, by themselves. Most of the Sifrei Torah sold today go to communities who need it for the communal services, but such purchases are "public" and the nature of this Mitzva is that every individual should have a Sefer Torah for himself. The community's scroll for the weekly Torah reading is not part of this Mitzva, to the extent that an individual will lose this Miztva if he writes a Torah for himself but later relinquishes it to the Shul without any explicit condition of retrieving it back.

So why so few Jews fulfill this Mitzva?

Firstly, the reason why 99.9% of the Jews don't write a Sefer Torah by their own hand is simply because is really hard to do it. This requires a great deal of time, will, skill and patience. But why most Jews don't hire scribes to do the work for them?

The most obvious reason a financial one. It's really expensive to hire a good סופר and a Torah could cost up to U$50,000, a figure that is too high for most of us. But there's also an Halachic loophole.

The Rosh (Rabbeinu Asher, 1259 – 1328) writes that a Jew can fulfill this Mitzva by buying a Chumash, Talmud or any other Torah book. According to this, it would seem that you can fulfill this mitzva by buying any Feldheim or Artscroll book, which many of us posses anyways. But there is a discussion on how to interpret this Rosh. Some say go so far to say that there is no Miztva to write a Sefer Torah today (an opinion that is very hard to understand, as no one can annul any Mitzva of the Torah), while some say he was merely saying that in addition to writing your Sefer Torah you can fulfill this Mitzva in another way - by purchasing Torah books.

So if you take the financial issue added to this Halachic loophole, it understandable why most Jews don't write Sefer Torahs - they feel like they do fulfill the Miztva in some way by buying books and learning them.

I also note that in the Rosh's time, there was no printing press and a Chumash was in fact very similar to a Torah Scroll - a person who wanted it had to buy it or commission it from a scribe, who would have written it by hand. So I can understand that in the Rosh's mind there was a lot in common between buying a Torah Scroll or buying a Chumash at that time. The only difference was the Halachot of Stam, which a Sofer must observe when writing a scroll. But I'm not sure the Rosh was comparing writing a Sefer Torah to swiping your credit card in the local Judaica shop and buying the latest Artscroll Chumash in print, so perhaps the Halachic loophole is not as big as people assume it to be.

Other commentators bring the argument that we are not proficient in the exact spelling of the Torah's text (Chaseiros and Yeteirot) and therefore we can't fulfill the Mitzva properly in our days.

However, most authorities are not willing to subscribe to the notion that the Mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah is not applicable anymore, and thet assert that the best way to fulfill this Miztva is indeed by writing a Sefer Torah yourself or via a hired scribe. I'm planning to start writing my own Sefer Torah soon, although this project will likely take a few years. But if the Ran, Rabbi Abuhab had the time to do it, why not me?

The Ran's Sefer Torah

Left: Detail of Shirat Hayam
Right: Steel cover of the scroll, saying "Ani Nissim MiGerundi Katavti Sefer Ze lekehilat (...)"

Left: Account of the whereabout of this scroll, written by the Ran's son in the outer side of the scroll. See transcript of this revealing short story here.
Right: Explanation note from Hebrew University

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I think I should write a little introduction explaining the story behind this blog.

I started blogging a few years ago about Jewish Music, in a time where Jewish Music was a major interest for me. There weren't many blogs about it and I knew I had interesting things to share, so I started YK's Jewish Music Forum.

After these years, my interest has shifted towards different things, although I still like JM. Most importantly, I decided to fulfill a childhood dream and started a Sofer Stam program with a well-known sofer in Jerusalem, just few months ago. Suddenly, Safrut became a major field of interest and I'm spending a large part of my time doing extensive research about it. I can safely say that this is a very fertile subject, with tons of amazing and puzzling finds.

I wanted to develop a database so I would not forget all the cool things I came across and I realized that blogging about it will do just that. Granted, this is a topic much less "in" than Jewish Music and I'm not hoping to attract the masses here, but this is a blog that is really missing in the web. The Safrut blogs out there are few and I haven't found one that is run by a stereotype Sofer - male orthodox Jew; all of them are run by people out of this segment. There are also a few "Soferets" - woman scribes - who have blogs but again, very very few blogs run by the typical Sofer.

I'm not a professional Sofer - I started Safrut as a hobby and I don't sell any of my works. I'm young and have no beard, but I am strictly Orthodox and I think it's vital to have at least one blog that represents the majority of the Sofrim.

But aside from that, I'm starting something grand over here. The real reason why I became a Sofer was my desire to write my own Sefer Torah, in compliance with the Mitzva of Kitvu Lachem et Hashira Hazot - there's a miztva for every Jew to write his own Torah and I'm planning to actually do it myself. This blog will broadcast this major journey and I will hopefully be posting my progress here. This objective is very very challenging, perhaps one of the most arduous Mitzvot out there, but I will try my best. May G-d Help Me!

To those of you who know my music blog, I favor quality over quantity when it comes to blog posts. I will not post daily, rather, I tend to write longer and more detailed posts, which are pretty much small articles on a specific topic. For the basics of Stam you can find other resources in the web; here I will go a little deeper and write about things you most probably never heard before. So stay tuned, add me to your RSS list (that will be the best way to follow this) and wish me luck.