Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Jewish Week Article

Here's a great article from the Jewish Week, pointed out by Lion of Zion (don't miss the post discussion there).

"A Safer Torah

At the Plainview Jewish Center, the congregation’s 14 Torah scrolls were recently unrolled and examined by three Torah scribes while congregants milled around.

We were evaluating the Torahs, repairing some and registering those that had not been previously registered,” explained Zerach Greenfield, executive director of Machon Ot, a nonprofit Torah registry organization with offices in College Point, Queens, and Jerusalem.

The organization was created nearly 20 years ago at the behest of Interpol and the Israeli police department after the discovery of 65 stolen Torahs hidden behind a false wall in Rosh Ha’ayin, Israel, Greenfield said.

Since then, registration of sifrei Torah has gained increased acceptance. Greenfield pointed out that the eight Torahs in the main sanctuary of the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills were stolen last year. The custodian was later arrested and charged with the theft, and the scrolls were recovered.

Greenfield said those Torahs were registered with Machon Ot (Institute of the Letter) and could have easily been identified if a question had arisen about their ownership.

The International Torah Registry uses pin marks to identify Torahs, but Greenfield said Machon Ot developed two other “far more sophisticated” methods of identification.

The first involves making a transparency of a randomly chosen column of the Torah; because each Torah is written by hand, no two columns are identical. Transparencies can be placed over the column to see if the letters line up. The second method involves scanning a column and drawing an invisible vertical line on a template to see which letters cross that line when measured from the end of the line, creating a unique pattern.

Lacking identification marks, there is no way to identify stolen Torahs and return them to their owners.

Greenfield said sofrim, or scribes, are often the very people who steal and try to resell the scrolls. Therefore, he said, an identification method that these men could not circumvent was needed. That ruled out invisible ink, embossed stamps and code markings.

Rabbi Ronald Androphy, spiritual leader of the East Meadow Jewish Center, said Machon Ot registered his congregation’s nine Torahs, evaluated them to check for discoloration, and repaired letters that had become difficult to read. The registration, evaluation and repair cost a total of $30,000, he said.

In the past, Rabbi Androphy said he would call a sofer when there was a problem with a Torah. And he said that more than 20 years ago he sought to register the Torahs with the Universal registration with its pin code but found the kit he was sent “very difficult to do.”

“We never followed through with it,” he said.

Now, his Torahs are not only registered with Machon Ot but repaired by it, Rabbi Androphy said, noting that Machon Ot once took two of his congregation’s Torahs to its Jerusalem office for repair.

“Torahs deteriorate naturally,” he said, adding that Machon Ot scribes have returned at no additional charge to fix letters in those Torahs when the ink later cracked.

Although Machon Ot helps synagogues interested in commissioning the writing of a new Torah as a fundraising project, Greenfield said the economic downturn has caused more synagogues to hold fundraisers to repair their Torahs.

Machon Ot began registering Torahs worldwide in 1990. It now has a database of 14,000 registered Torahs and registers about 400 to 500 each year.

“The goal is 30,000 because that would be a critical mass that would make someone believe he would get caught if he tried stealing a Torah and then selling it,” Greenfield said.

As part of its evaluation of each Torah, he said, Machon Ot scribes determine what it would cost to replace it. Such an appraisal is required by major insurance companies in Israel and is helpful for synagogues and others in the United States so that they don’t over insure their Torahs.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Rashi Vs. Rabbeinu Tam - Round II

There are two major discussions between Rashi and Rabeinu Tam that relate to Safrut and in this post I will talk about the second. My first post can be found here.

You've probably noticed that in some houses the Mezuza is set in the doorpost in a complete vertical position, while in other households it is slightly bent. Why? Which is the correct way?

The two possibilities I just mentioned are not the opinions of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, so please bear with me.

The Discussion

Rashi and Tosafos dispute what is the proper way of storing holy items. Rashi understands that Mezuzot and Torah Scrolls must be stored in the vertical position. Rabeinu Tam goes the opposite way and holds that the proper way to store a holy item is in the horizontal position, and according to him to store it in a vertical way it's improper. So what's good for Rashi - vertical - is bad (yes, Pasul) for Tosafos and vice-versa.

As a side note, some of the Tefillin found in the Qumran excavations had the scrolls arranged horizontally, like Rabeinu Tam
(see picture in the right - The Qumran tefillin: the open capsule with the inscribed parchment slips in it. See more here), indicating that this discussion preceded the times of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam (who lived 1000 years ago, opposed to the 2000 year old Qumran scrolls).

Practical Halacha

The Shulchan Aruch decided like Rashi and thus all Sephardic Jews affix their Mezuzas in the vertical way. Also, the Sephardic Sefer Torah is stored in a "box" and always stays in the vertical position, even when being read in public - another ramification of Rashi's opinion that holy items must be stored vertically.

The Rema however mentions Rabeinu Tam's position and introduces a compromise: not vertical nor horizontal but in a diagonal position. That is a classical Jewish solution - in face of two opposing opinions we do like a third one, but jokes aside, this proposition was universally accepted by all Ashkenazi Jews to this day. That explains why the Bima in the Ashkenazi Shuls is slightly bented and also why they store their Torah Scrolls in a slightly diagonal position in the Aron Kodesh - they follow the Rema's solution in every situation.

(Incidentally, the Tur offers another solution, to bend the Mezuza's parchment like an L in order to follow both Rashi and Rabeinu Tam in one go but no one follows this view, most likely because it would damage the Mezuza's Klaf (parchement), a far larger problem.)

The Belz Minhag

But there's an interesting exception to this rule in the Ashkenazi world - the exquisite Minhag (custom) of the Belz Rebbe's family of storing the Sefer Torah horizontally. When I heard about this I was open-mouthed and I did a little research about this.

It turns out that the Belz Shuls and yeshivot around the world store their Torah's in the usual way - vertically. Only the Rebbe's Torah Scroll is stored according to Rabeinu Tam's opinion, horizontally, and this Torah is currently stored in the famous Belz Great Synagogue
(picture in the right). Why?

Reb Meir of Primishlan, a famous Hassidic Rabbi, once said that the first Rebbe of Belz, Reb Shalom Rokeach, had "sparkles of the soul of Rabbeinu Tam" and this had so much impact in the Rebbe that he decided that if he would one day build a Synagogue he would store the Torah according to his "soul-mate", Rabbeinu Tam. He did eventually build a synagogue and stored the Torah horizontally, and this custom was kept by the subsequent Belz Rebbes. If you find this hard to accept, take a look in Rabbeinu Tam's original piece:

וכן אני מורה הלכה למעשה, לעשות נקב במקדח ולתתה [את המזוזה] ברוחב המזוזה, ואם נתנה לאורך המזוזה – פסולה, וכן פרשיות של תפלין לרוחב הבתים, ולא לגובה, כמו מזוזה. וכשאבנה ארון [בבית-כנסת], אם אזכה, ארחיבו לפי העמדת ספר-תורה מיושב, כספר-תורה שהיה מונח בארון
"When I build a Synagogue, if I will merit, I will store the Torah Scroll horizontaly (...)", said Rabennu Tam. So the Belz Rebbe felt compelled to follow Rabeinu Tam's dream when he built his synagogue. However, his Mezuzot and Tefillin were all vertical - only the Sefer Torah, which was specially highlighted in abovementioned passage, was stored according to Rabbeinu Tam.

(By the way, it took him 15 years to build his Synagogue and he was part of the construction crew, highlighting how important this was for him. It also took 15 years to build the new Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, pictured above, and the current Belz Rebbe was also actively involved in the building process, along with his Hassidim)

So as you see, this ancient discussion between Rashi and his grandson is still relevant, 1000 years later!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

About the Name of This Blog

You probably noticed that the web url of this blog is kind of weird - "Lavlor". What's that?

A scribe is usually called a "sofer" in Hebrew but it turns out that "sofer" is a word with multiple meanings and although I'm not a fan of ethimology I conducted a thourough research about this word. The root of sofer is S-F-R and the Aruch, an authoritative dictionary written over 1000 years ago, mentions five different possible meanings:
  1. A "sefer" (book).
  2. To count ("lispor" in Hebrew)
  3. A barber ("sapar", still used in Modern Hebrew)
  4. A small town ("sfar")
  5. Rabbis ("sofrim")
Mind you that a scribe is not among the possibilties, a striking fact. What's the Aruch's word for a scribe? You guessed right - lavlor.

Coming back to the word "sofer", Hebrew words that share the same root are almost always connected in some way but in this case, "sofer" has way too many meanings and it's quite impossible to find common ground between a barber and a Rabbi. So what's going on?

It turns out that we are talking about two different languages. The Torah's language is a mix of two distinct but similar languages, and while the Tanach is written in Lashon Hakodesh (old Hebrew), the Talmud is written in Aramaic. Occasianally a word can have different meanings in these two languages and the word "sofer" is a telling example.

Exclusively in Lashon Hakodesh, a "sofer" has only four meanings:
  1. To count ("lispor")
  2. To tell something ("lesaper")
  3. To write
  4. A book
These four things are connected - a book is a story, a writer is a storyteller and "counting" is closely connected to "telling" in many other languages, including Latin, French and English.

But in Aramaic a "sofer" has other meanings and Aruch, a work on the Talmud and Midrashim, approprietly identifies alternative possibilities which include barber, Rabbis or a small city.

So what's the correct word for scribe? In Hebrew it's "Sofer" and in Aramaic it's "Lavlor". I decided to use both - lavlor.blogspot.com, home to YK's Sofer Blog!

Some sources:

Avot Chapter 6 (written in Lashon Hakodesh):
אמר רבי יוסי בן קסמא, פעם אחת הייתי מהלך בדרך ופגע בי אדם אחד, ונתן לי שלום, והחזרתי לו שלום, אמר לי, רבי, מאיזה מקום אתה, אמרתי לו, מעיר גדולה של חכמים ושל סופרים אני, אמר לי, רבי רצונך שתדור עמנו במקומנו ואני אתן לך אלף אלפים דנרי זהב ואבנים טובות ומרגליות, אמרתי לו אם אתה נותן לי כל כסף וזהב ואבנים טובות ומרגליות שבעולם, איני דר אלא במקום תורה, וכן כתוב בספר תהלים על ידי דוד מלך ישראל, טוב לי תורת פיך מאלפי זהב וכסף.
Talmud (Eiruvin 13:A), in Aramaic:
אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל משום ר' מאיר כשהייתי לומד אצל ר' עקיבא הייתי מטיל קנקנתום לתוך הדיו ולא אמר לי דבר וכשבאתי אצל ר' ישמעאל אמר לי בני מה מלאכתך אמרתי לו לבלר אני אמר לי בני הוי זהיר במלאכתך שמלאכתך מלאכת שמים היא
Jastrow's Talmudic Dictionary: