Sunday, December 19, 2010

Using the Magnifying Lense in Safrut


One of the most important concepts of Safrut is that every word should be "Mukaf Gevil" - which means that it should be surrounded by white. For instance, when two letters touch each other there's a no Mukaf Gevil - the letters don't have their own place in the Klaf. That renders a scroll Pasul.

Often times it's difficult to know if the letters are touching only with the naked eye. "Take the magnifying lense" you think. Well, it's not that simple. Let's go step by step.

Let's say there's a letter Taf which seems to be 100% ok. But when looking with a magnifying lense you see that there's a tiny white lines separating the letter in two (Hefsek Dak). This is a case of using the magnifying class Lechumra, for a stringency, and the Mishna Berura undoubtedly says (see Biur Halacha "ot achat" here) that Sefer Torah will not be rendered Pasul because of the magnifying lense.

But what about a case of using the magnifying lense Lekula, for a leniency? For instance, a case when looking with the naked eye there's a Negia - the letters seem to be touching, but when using the magnifying lense you can see a tiny space between the letters. That assessment would bring a leniency - the Sefer Torah would be rendered kosher if you accept the use of the magnifying lense!

In this case there seems to be substantial backing for the use of the magnifying lense (Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank and Shut Sheerit Yisrael) Lekula and that this seems to be the "widespread Minhag amongst the Sofrim of Jerusalem". This seems to be the accepted custom to this day.

However some disagree and hold that the magnifying lense shouldn't be taken to account at all, be it for a Kula, be it for a Chumra. The Shut Tuv Taam Vadaat says that if we were to employ the magnifying glass, we wouldn't be able to drink from most waters as they have tiny insects that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

Yes, we all remember the huge controversy surrounding the New York water filters Psak.

Be it as it may, if you hold that water bugs are ok because they can't be seen with the naked eye, the same should be said in Safrut - a Negia that can't be seen with the naked eye will not be considered a Negia.

In my opinion the logic of the Shut Tuv Taam is flawless - either you take the magnifying lense to account either you don't. To use it only Lekula sounds a little odd. But in practice, all Sofrim use the magnifying lense when inspecting Torah, Mezuzot and Tefillin.

UPDATE: I did some further research into this and it turns out that Rabbi Vozner - one of the leading poskim today - says that Sofrim can and should use a 6x magnification lense. He says that a 6x magnification is what a person would normally see when paying very much attention to something. In other words, 6x magnification doesn't reveal anything "new"; it only aids the sofer to see something that he could see if he would be very attentive. And Rabbi Vozner says you can use 6x lense for both Kula and Chumra. That conforms with the position of the Shut Tuv Taam, which made most sense anyways.

Monday, December 13, 2010

2nd Mezuza Ready


I just finished my second Mezuza and I welcome any feedback. It still needs to be checked, so you might find a mistake (I hope not).
My only real troublr was with the word Veshinantam in the second line but I managed to fit in. Otherwise, it was a smooth ride with no mistakes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

White Fire and Black Fire

The Ashkenazi sofrim have a custom of writing the Peh in a way that there's also a Bet inside it.
Until the Second World War, the Sofrim accomplished this effect by writing the famous "broken Peh", which ensures that the inner Bet is always visible (click here for my post on the Broken Peh). You can see it here in one of my manuscripts:

Nowadays, the Ashkenazi sofrim use a more "modern" Peh that also has the inner Bet:
What's this mysterious inner Bet?

The Talmud says that the Torah was given with Black Fire and White Fire, and the Kabalists give many different explanations to this concept.

Rabbi Menachem MiPanu, one of the leading Kabbalists of the 16th century explains that the letters of the Torah are the Black Fire, which is easily visible. The White Fire is more difficult to see - it's the empty parchement of the Torah, which includes the gaps (open and closed Parshiot), the Sirtut (guiding lines) and contour of the black letters, like the Peh's inner Bet.

The letter Peh has "heavy" connotation - it's symbolizes "din", judgment. In Hebrew, the Peh is written like this: פא, which can also be read as אף, a symbol of G-d's wrath in Jewish tradition.
That's the reason why the Kabbalists introduced the inner Bet; Bet is the symbol of kindness and blessing (see previous post - that's why G-d created the world with the letter Bet) and it is a counterweight to the "strictness" of the letter Peh.

Other letters (shin, aleph to name a few) also have this interplay between the "White" and "Black" fires but the Peh is the most famous example.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Stam Stories #4: The letters and the creation

This story is found in the Introduction to the Zohar, Ot 23. While it's well known that the world was created by G-d with the letter Bet, few people know about the whole story - all the letters fought to get this honor, and the Bet was chosen. I couldn't find this story in English so I will post it in Hebrew - but it's an easy read and a must read.

כשרצה הקב"ה לברוא את העולם, באו כל האותיות לפניו מסופן לראשן, והתחילה אות ת' להכנס בתחילה. אמרה רבון העולמים: טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי אני חותמת הטבעת שלך שהיא אמת, ואתה נקרא בשם אמת. יפה למלך להתחיל באות אמת, ולברוא בי את העולם. אמר לה הקב"ה: יפה את, וישרה את, אבל אין את ראויה לברוא בך את העולם, משום שאת עתידה להיות חותם המוות, ומשום שאת כך, אין את ראויה לברוא בך את העולם. מיד יצאה.

נכנסה לפניו אות ש', אמרה לפניו, רבון העולמים, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי בי נקרא שמך שדי, ויפה לברוא את העולם בשם קדוש. אמר לה, יפה את, וטובה את ואמיתית את, אבל משום שאותיות שקר לקחו אותך להיות עמהן, איני רוצה לברוא את העולם בך, כי לא יתקיים שקר, אלר אם אותיות ק' ר' יקחו אותך מכאן נשמע, שכל מי שרוצה לומר שקר, יקח בתחילתו יסוד אמת, ואחר כך יקיים לו השקר. כי אות ש' אות אמת היא, אות אמת שבה נתייחדו האבות, וק' ור' הן אותיות הנראות על צד הרע, כי הס"א היא קר, בלי חום שהיא חיות...וכדי שיתקיימו, הן לוקחות אות ש' בתוכן,

נכנסה אות צ', אמרה לפניו ריבון העולמים, טוב לך לברוא בי את העולם, שבי חתומים צדיקים, ואתה שנקרא צדיק, אתה רשום בי אמר לה, צדי, צדי את וצדיק את, אבל את צריכה להיות נסתרת, אין את צריכה להתגלות כל כך, להתחיל בך בריאת העולם, בשביל שלא לתת פתחון פה לעולם

נכנסה אות פ' אמרה לפניו: רבון העולמים, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי הגאולה שאתה עתיד לעשות בעולם רשומה בי, כי זה הוא פדות. וע"כ בי ראוי לברוא את העולם. אמר לה: יפה את, אבל בך נרשם פשע שבסתר, כעין הנחש שמכה ומביא ראשו לתוך גופו. כך, מי שחוטא כופף ראשו. וכן, אמר, לאות ע', שבה נרשם עון. ואע"פ שאמרה, שיש בי ענוה. אמר לה הקב"ה, לא אברא בך את העולם. יצאה מלפניו.

נכנסה אות ס', אמרה לפניו: רבון העולמים, טוב לפניך לברוא בי העולם. כי יש בי סמיכה לנופלים, שכתוב, סומך ה' לכל הנופלים. אמר לה: משום זה את צריכה למקומך, ואל תזוזי ממנו, שאם את יוצאת ממקומך, אלו הנופלים, מה יהיה עליהם, שהם סמוכים עליך. מיד יצאה מלפניו.

נכנסה אות נ', אמרה לפניו, רבונו העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, שבי כתוב נורא תהלות וכן בתהלה של צדיקים כתוב נאוה תהלה, אמר לה נון, שובי למקומך, כי בשבילך חזרה האות ס' למקומה, והיי סמוכה עליה.

נכנסה אות מ', אמרה לפניו: רבון העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי בי נקראת מלך, אמר לה, כך הוא ודאי, אבל לא אברא בך את העולם, משום שהעולם צריך למלך. שובי למקומך, את, והל' והכ', כי לא יפה לעולם לעמוד בלא מלך... באותה השעה ירדה מלפניו אות כ' מעל כסא כבודו. נזדעזעה ואמרה לפניו: רבון העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי כבודך אני. כשירדה אות כ' מעל כסא כבודו, נזדעזעו מאתים אלף עולמות ונזדעזע הכסא, וכל העולמות נזדעזו לנפול. אמר לה הקב"ה, כף, כף, מה את עושה כאן, לא אברא בך את העולם, שובי למקומך, כי בך כליה, שובי לכסאך והיי שם.

...נכנסה אות י'. אמרה לפניו: רבון העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי אני התחלת השם הקדוש, ויפה לך לברוא בי את העולם. אמר לה: די לך שאת חקוקה בי ואת רשומה בי וכל חפצי בך, עלי, לא יפה לך להיות נעקרת משמי.

... נכנסה אות ט' אמרה לפניו: רבון העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי בי אתה נקרא טוב וישר. אמר לה: לא אברא בך את העולם, כי טובך סתום בתוכך, וגנוז בתוכך. ז"ש, מה רב טובך אשר צפנת ליראך. וכיון שהטוב גנוז בתוכך הרי אין בו חלק לעולם הזה שאני רוצה לברוא, אלא בעולם הבא. ועוד, משום שטובך גנוז בתוכך, יטבעו שערי ההיכל. ועוד, כי הח' כנגדך, כשתתחברנה יחד, תהיינה ח"ט. דהיינו חטא. וע"כ לא נרשמו אותיות אלו בשבטים הקדושים. מיד יצאה מלפניו.

... נכנסה אות ז', אמרה לפניו: רבון העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי בי ישמרו בניך שבת, שכתוב זכור את יום השבת לקדשו. אמר לה: לא ארברא בך את העולם. כי יש בך מלחמה, חרב שנונה ורומח מלחמה, כלי זיין, ואת כעין הנ', שלא נברא בה העולם, משום שיש בה נפילה, מיד יצאה מלפניו.

נכנסה אות ו', אמרה לפניו: רבון העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, שאני אות משמך הויה. אמר לה: ואו, את וה' די לכן, שאתן אותיות משמי, שאתן בסוד שמי, וחקוקות ומפותחות בשמי, לא אברא בכן את העולם.

נכנסו אות ד' ואות ג'. אמרו אף הן כך. אמר גם להן, די לכן להיות זו עם זו, שהרי לא יחדלו אביונים מן הארץ, וצריכים לגמול עמהם חסד. הד' היא עניה, כי נקראת דלת מלשון דלות. הג', גומלת לה חסד, וע"כ אל תתפרדנה זו מזו. ודי לכן לזון זו את זו.

נכנסה אות ב'. אמרה לו: רבון העולם, טוב לפניך לברוא בי את העולם, כי בי מברכים אותך למעלה ולמטה. כי ב' היא ברכה. אמר לה הקב"ה: ודאי בך אברא את העולם, ואת תהיי ההתחלה, לברוא בך את העולם.

עמדה אות א' ולא נכנסה. אמר לה הקב"ה: אלף אלף, למה אין את נכנסת לפני כשאר כל האותיות. אמרה לפניו: רבון העולם, כי ראיתי שכל האותיות יצאו מלפניך בלי תועלת, מה אעשה שם אני. ועוד, כי כבר נתת לאות ב' את המתנה הגדולה הזו, ואין ראוי למלך העליון, שיעביר את המתנה שנתן לעבדו, ולתת אותה לאחר. אמר לה הקב"ה, אלף אלף, אע"פ שבאות ב', נברא העולם, את תהי ראש לכל האותיות, אין בי יחוד אלא בך, בך יתחילו כל החשבונות, וכל מעשי בני העולם. וכל היחוד אינו אלא באות א'.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

My Progress #6: 2nd Mezuza


Here's snap of my new project, my second Mezuza. I did have some problem to fit in the word Veshinantam but I managed..!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Mark of Cain and the Mezuza of Egypt

In last week's Parsha the Torah talks about the "אות" Cain received after he complained that his sin (killing his brother Hevel) was too much too bare and that he was afraid of being victim of revenge:

יג ויאמר קין אל יהוה גדול עוני מנשא יד הן גרשת אתי היום מעל פני האדמה ומפניך אסתר והייתי נע ונד בארץ והיה כל מצאי יהרגני טו ויאמר לו יהוה לכן כל הרג קין שבעתים יקם וישם יהוה לקין אות לבלתי הכות אתו כל מצאו

The Midrashim speak about this Ot / אות and there a few possibilities mentioned:
  1. Hashem gave Cain the gift of Shabbos, also called an "Ot" - [אות היא לעולם [שמות לא: יז., and by keeping the Shabbat Cain was guaranteed to survive.
  2. Hashem gave Cain a dog to protect him from the other creatures.
  3. Hashem marked his forehead with one of the Hebrew Alphabet's 22 letters (Rashi)
The Zohar also mentions this last Pshat and the Peirush Hasulam, written by Rabbi Yehuda Ashleg in 1945, says that the letter is the Vav, albeit without quoting a source.

So it seems to me that there's room for interpretation here and I have an alternative option, based on the Torah Shelema's take on an old Minhag on Hilchot Mezuza. Please bare with me as I lay the background story before I move forward.

In the times of the Geonim there was a Minhag of writing additional mystical names in the Mezuza alongside the Mezuza's Parshiot. The ספר יראים brings it down here and you can see this odd Mezuza below:


The Rambam and others strongly opposed this practice and today this Minhag fell in disuse. But if you look carefully, you will see five letters written in an odd font. These are Ktav Ivri letters and the Torah Shelema asks how these Ktav Ivri letters found their way in the Mezuza, always written in Ktav Ashuri.

The answer is unique and extremely interesting. In the last Makah of Egypt, the angels came down to kill the Egyptian firstborns. Hashem told Am Israel to mark their door so the angels would not enter their door (exodus 12:13):
והיה הדם לכם לאות, על הבתים אשר אתם שם, וראיתי את-הדם, ופסחתי עלכם; ולא-יהיה בכם נגף למשחית, בהכתי בארץ מצרים
The simple reading is that the blood will be a sign, but here again some commentators say that the sign was a letter. More precisely, an X which is the Ktav Ivri letter for Tav, which symbolizes life (תחיה) [The Jews at that time only used Ktav Ivri and that's why they marked it like an X and not Tav].

Rabbi Kasher says that because the X protected the Jews in Egypt many started to add it to their actual Mezuzot for an "enhanced protection" - after all, the Mitzva of Mezuza is a remembrance to the Mezuza of Mitzraim, which was simply an X.

The five Ktav Ivri letters in the Mezuza are equivalent to תחאחא in our script and they mean תחיה אמן חיים אמן - a prayer for life. But the point is, that the X is the letter identified by the name "Ot" in the Torah.

If so, perhaps the unidentified "Ot" given to Cain is the same unidentified "Ot" that is mentioned by Yetziat Mitzraim - the X, or Tav. But why would Hashem give out of all letters the Tav?

The explanation is the same as in Yetziat Mitzraim: Tav is the initial of תחיה, "you shall live", and it was Hashem's guarantee to Cain that he would not be murdered - that he would live. I don't give a source to this connection between the Mark of Cain and Mezuza because it's my own Pshat!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Haazinu and Bnei Haman

Last year I wrote about Shirat Haazinu's differing Mesorah in regards to the quantity of lines this song should have (link here). Since then, I came across a related question - should the Sofrim stretch the lines so they all look exactly symmetrical? Look below and you will understand the two options:

In my earlier post I wrote that the Ashkenazi Sofrim stretched the lines possibly because of Zeh Keili VeanVeihu, that is, because it looks nicer.

I did some further research into this and in turns out that this is already suggested by the Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim, 990–1062), who seem to say that the two columns of Haazinu and also Bnei Haman in Megilat Esther should be perfectly symmetrical (click here for full commentary):

פירוש כשהחומה שוה בשני ראשיה ואין בה בליטות אין להוסיף עליה כמו אם היו שם בליטות
ושיני החומה שאז יוכלו להוסיף על הבנין
The Noda BiYuda [18th century] quotes the Ran and is even more insistent about this, suggesting a change in the lines' structure in order to make the columns more symmetrical (here's in full):

ודאי שהיה בזה קפידא ומהראוי לתקן ולמשוך השורות
ועלה בדעתי להעמיד מלת הצור שבשיטה שאחריו למעלה להשוות השיטות

The Maharam DiLuzanu however disagrees and claims that the Ran was not implying that all sides should be symmetrical - the Ran was solely referring to the column of Bnei Haman to the left, which is always perfectly symmetrical:


The Minchat Yitzhak [1902-1989] has a Teshuva about this and brings more sources, finally concluding that for Hiddur Mitzva, the columns in both Haazinu and Bnei Haman should be symmetrical, but he strongly disagrees with other commentators who raised the possibility of this being Leicuva, mandatory. It's a pity I only came across this now, as I already wrote my Megillat Esther not symmetrically(see here)..

But this conclusion is only valid for Ashkenazi Jews, as the Ran wasn't categorical about this and both the Noda BiYuda and Minchat Yitzhak are Ashkenazi. The Yemenite Jews evidently disagree with this idea, as their Torah have completely asymmetric Hazinu columns. And as noted in my other post, they are supported by the Aleppo Codex, which means that their version is most certainly the correct one. So my Megillat Esther could have been written symmetrically, but perhaps through my mistake, I actually wrote the very best pattern after all?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Havchanat Tinok in Holy Names

A few months ago I saw M. Pinchas' post about Havchanat Tinok in regards to Shem Hashem. He was confronted with the following problematic Yud from "Elokim" :
The Yud is too long and it resembles a Vav, causing a paradox: if it's a Vav, this is a clean-cut Psul in the Sefer Torah and it must be fixed. However, if it's a Yud, it's forbidden to touch it since the word is already Holy (Elokim is one of Gd's names) and warrants no fix. In other words, both options are quite dramatic - a potential psul vs. the issur of fixing a proper Shem Hashem.

M. Pinchas, based in the Or Hamelech, invoked the Havchanat Tinok solution to figure out which way to go. It has been some 4 months since I read this but it stayed in my mind since then, as this is a quite puzzling and delicate situation.

Last week I saw in the Ot Yatziv from Zanz (a great new sefer on Stam) a discussion about this and he concludes that in the case of Shem Hashem we should consider this letter to be a Yud, even though it's too long, because according to many opinions even a long Yud is still a Yud if it has a "Kefifa", curve, and I think the Yud of Elokim seen above has a slight kefifa.

According to this view, the Elokim should be considered kasher and therefore holy, and shouldn't be fixed. See the text below:


The author goes on to explain that many Sofrim write a long Yud purportedly, because of Kabalistic motives, and that there's no reason to render them Pasul.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Stolen Torah Scrolls

"Torah scrolls stolen from Antwerp synagogue
May 31, 2010
(JTA) -- Several Torah scrolls were stolen from Antwerp's main synagogue in
what may be the largest such theft ever reported in Belgium. Congregation
members arrived for morning services on Saturday to find that four to six Torah
scrolls had been taken overnight Friday from the synagogue on Oostenstraat.
One of the missing scrolls is more than 200 years old and was hidden by a
Jewish woman held in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.
Experts have suggested that the thieves are more likely to demand a
ransom for the Torah scrolls rather than try to sell them, as buyers want to
know the origin of a scroll and the stolen scrolls are easily identifiable,
Joods Aktueel reported.
During World War II, 10 Torah scrolls and hundreds of prayer books
were thrown out of the synagogue into the street and burned. "

There's a discussion about the implicance of a stolen Sefer Torah for a person who wrote it for the Miztva of Kitvu Lachem. If the Torah is stolen, is his Miztva "void" and he is urged to write another Sefer Torah? Or pehaps the fact the Sefer Torah is still somewhere in world suffices to fulfill the Mitzva of Kitvu Lachem?

The Torat Chaim in Sanhedrin speaks about the common minhag of giving one's Torah to the Shul and how that affects the Miztva of Kitvu Lachem. I will quote him in full because this is a classic in Safrut literature:

ונראה דיחיד הכותב ס"ת לעצמו ונתנה לביהכ"נ לקרות בה בציבור ומקדישה, לאו שפיר עביד, דכיון שמקדישה הריהי של הקדש ולאו שלו היא ואינו יוצא בה יד"ח, וליכא למימר דבכתיבה לחוד תליא, זה אינו, דיחיד שכתב ס"ת לעצמו ואח"כ נאבדה פשיטא שצריך לכתוב לו ספר תורה אחרת, ולכן נראה שאין להקדיש ס"ת אלא אם כן כותב לעצמו אחרת

In other words, the Torat Chaim says that a person should NOT give over his Sefer Torah to the community because that will void his Mitzva of Kitvu Lachem. And he links this to a Sefer Torah that is lost, which allegedly has the same Halachic outcome: it voids his Miztva of Kitvu Lachem.

This position is well-known but a few commentators disagree (Bnei Yonah, Pardes David)and hold that if the lost Sefer Torah ends up being used by another community, the original owner's Miztva is not void. The same would be true to a person who gives over his Torah to his community - his Mitzva is still standing.

It's common practice today to avoid giving over one's Sefer Torah to community services. Most Rabbis will advise you to lend it to the Shul rather than giving it as a gift, ensuring that the owner still retains the "Mitzva Rights". I guess that the same would apply to stolen Sifrei Torah but you must ask your Rabbi for a definitive position.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Chesed,Gevurah and the Tagim

I sent my Mezuza to be checked by an expert sofer and the first thing he pointed out to me concerns the Tagim of the Shaatnez Getz letters. He told me that the Tag on the right should be higher that the Tag on the left, something I never heard before. In the picture below you can see that in my Shin, the taguim in the left and in the right are as tall - according to this Minhag, the one in the right should be higher.


This expert sofer noted that today many Rabbis require the sofrim to write all Tagim like this, much like the widespread Minhag of making the right-hand Tag of the Lamed higher than the left-side Tag (see pic in the right).

But what's the reason?

According to the Kaballa, the right symbolizes Chesed, kindness, while the left symbolizes Gevurah, austerity, and this concept is often times mentioned by Chassidic Rebbes. That's the same underlying reason why the strings of the Tefillin Shel Rosh should be longer on the right side than in the left side - we always try to ensure that Chesed is in more evidence.

Not long ago, a Chassidic Rabbi was in my parents house and they asked him for a Bracha for Parnassa. The Rebbe asked them to check if the Mezuzas of the house had the right-hand Tagim higher than the left-side ones, since Parnassa is connected to Chesed and therefore having the high right Tag is a Bracha for Parnasa.

I often times do a "rainbow" Tag (see below) when two or three Shaatnez Getz letters appear together, but it seems that I will have to stop it if I am to comply with this Minhag - in the rainbow Tag the Tag of the right is the smallest.

Monday, April 19, 2010

My Progress #5: My First Mezuza


Today I finished writing my very first Mezuza, which means that I'm a step closer towards my goal of writing a Sefer Torah. This time the stakes were much higher - unlike in Megilat Esther and Shir Hashirim I had to write the Shem Hashem and I had to write everything "Kesidran", chronologically. And of course, going to the Mikva became part of my daily schedule, as I can only write the Shem after a proper immersion.

I will give this Mezuza to be checked by a very skilled Sofer here in my town and considering that he is a master in finding unexpected problems, I must say I'm afraid of what he will say. But as far as I can see all is ok. Actually, there's one "mistake" which I deliberately didn't correct because of a problem with the Klaf. Like in my Megillat Shir Hashirim, I made a small hole in klaf while trying to fix a letter, and for that reason I didn't manage to correct this mistake. Can you find it?

Like all my other Safrut items, this Mezuza was written in Ktav Beit Yosef. And like all Ashkenazi Jews, I followed the Tur's opinion of how the Parsha Setuma should be. Read more about this topic here.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Stam Stories #3: Alter Rebbe's Mezuzot

I'm reposting this story I read in Mezuzah.net. I was actually looking for a similar story but this one is another good example of how meticulous the Alter Rebbe was in regards to Safrut:

It has been told that the Alter Rebbe (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe) was once visited by a melamed (teacher of Jewish topics) from Klimowitz.

“I have a small favor to ask of you,” the Alter Rebbe said. “Will you please go to the town of Yanowitz and purchase some Mezuzos from Reb Reuven, the sofer [scribe], for me?” he asked.

“It would be my pleasure,” the melamed answered without a second thought.

“Excellent,” answered the Rebbe. “In that case, please hand Reb Reuven this letter.”

Delighted with the opportunity to fulfill his Rebbe's request, the Chosid departed immediately. Along the way, the melamed thought "I think I'll ask Reb Reuven to write some Mezuzos for me as well. Yes, despite their high price, I'll get just as many as the Rebbe. After all, is there any greater proof of their quality than the Rebbe himself buying Reb Reuven's Mezuzos?"

When the melamed arrived at the house of the scribe, he handed Reb Reuven the letter from the Rebbe and ordered the same number of mezuzos for both the Alter Rebbe and himself. Reb Reuven told him he would have to wait several days. True to his word, a few days later the Mezuzos were ready.

“Be careful not to mix up your Mezuzos with the Rebbe's Mezuzos,” Reb Reuven cautioned, the melammed as he handed them over, carefully indicating which package was which.

“These are the ones written especially for the Rebbe,” he said, pointing to one of the small bundles.

On the way home, our melamed began to think: "What possible harm could come from substituting one batch of Mezuzos for the other?"

The melamed decided to intentionally give the Alter Rebbe the wrong ones, and take the Rebbe's Mezuzos for himself. He rationalized "If the Rebbe noticed the change, he would claim to have accidently mixed them up.

As soon as the melamed arrived in Lubavitch, he rushed to the Rebbe's office to give him the Mezuzos.

The Rebbe carefully examined the package and looked intently at each of the Mezuzos.

Then the Rebbe said, “Are these the ones Reb Reuven sent to me?”

The melamed became nervous and reluctantly answered, “Perhaps I made a mistake and confused yours with the ones I bought for myself.”

So he took out the second parcel and handed them to the Alter Rebbe.

The Alter Rebbe scrutinized them closely.

Then he happily said, “Ah, yes. These are the Mezuzos I ordered.”

Angry and confused, the melamed went back to Yanowitz to confront the sofer Reb Reuven.

“Why did you sell me Mezuzos that were posul [not kosher]?” he demanded in a loud voice.

He recounted to the scribe how he had mistakenly given the Rebbe the wrong package. Then he described in detail the Rebbe's reaction to the first Package (the one designated by Reb Reuven as the melammed's Mezuzos) and then to the second package (the one designated by Reb Reuven as the Rebbe's Mezuzos).

"It's obvious", he yelled, "that the first Mezuzos were no good."

Reb Reuven answered in a gentle voice, “Rest assured that your mezuzos were also written, as with the Alter Rebbe's, to the most stringent specifications, with the same concentration of thought, and with all the requirements set forth by the holy Arizal of Safed. The only difference between yours and the ones I wrote for the Rebbe is that I had instructions in the letter from the Rebbe to write his only when the moon is full. That is why you had to wait several days in Yanowitz. I could not begin to write the Rebbe's Mezuzos until the full moon. The Rebbe obviously saw that the Mezuzos you gave him were the wrong ones because they were written before the full moon.”

And so it was.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mezuza

The Mezuza is one of Safrut's most interesting items. It must be written Kesidran, in order, and Chazal say that it provides a special heavenly protection to your house, something we don't see by any other Miztva. Last week I started to write my first Mezuza and this is the first time I write a piece of Safrut containing the Shem, so going to the Mikva became part of my daily schedule for the first time in my life.

But is the writing of the Mezuza part of the Mitzva? After all, if you read this pasuk literally it says "וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך ובשעריך", that you should write it.

Incidently, the Samaritans interpret this last Pasuk literally and go even further - they write the Parshiot not in Klaf but in the actual wall just over the door (see picture). They understand that the commandment is that "You shall write on top of your doors".

But most commentators understand that although it's written וכתבתם , "you shall write", the Miztva of Mezuza is fulfilled when you affix the Mezuza scroll in the doorpost.

The Sefer Alei Desheh, authored by the brother-in-law of the Zanz Rebbe, has a lengthy discussion on this question and is of the opinion that the writing of the Mezuza IS part of the Mitzva, and goes so far to say that because of this you should hire a sofer to write the Mezuza specially for you, a principle that is applied to Hilchot Sefer Torah (if you don't hire a Sofer and buy a ready Sefer Torah you don't fulfill the Mitzva).

The Talmud Yerushalmi goes a step ahead and says that you should say a Brocho not only when affixing the Mezuza but also when writing it, and the Bracha is:
ברוך אתה
ה' א‑לוהינו מלך העולם, אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על כתיבת מזוזה

The Halacha is not like the Yerushalmi and, furthermore, Minhag Israel is not to hire a sofer for the writing of the Mezuza, but rather to just buy the Mezuza off the shelf. But I have nothing to lose and whenever I write my Mezuza I have the Kavana to fulfill the Mitzva of Mezuza according to the abovementioned opinions.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Amazing Megillot #8: Avraham Borshevski

Avaraham Borshevski has one of the nicest Ktavim I know and among his projects is this nice Megillat Esther, which was illustrated by Irina Golub. She did a fantastic job and this Megilla is really cheerful and modern. Click in the image to see the full-size picture.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The New and Old Peh

If you look at old Ashkenazi Torah Scrolls, Tefillin and Mezuzot, you will always note a very distinctive Peh. This old Peh has a "hunchback" and almost looks like something is wrong with it.

This Peh is referred to as the "Peh Shavur", or "Broken Peh". You can see the Peh Shavur in this old Yeriah I own:
What happened? Why and how the Peh suddenly "changed"?

Let's use reverse chronological order, that is, first understand the modern Peh. The source to the modern Peh is the Mishna Berura, who clearly rules that you should avoid using the broken Peh:
הג"ה ולא כמה שנהגו איזה סופרים לעשות עקב מבחוץ בצדה ... כי הוא ממש אות שבור. ובאמת צריך להיות עגול מבחוץ כמו שכתבנו ... ומה שנהגו כך מפני שאינם יודעים ההרגל לעשות לתפוס הקולמוס באלכסון ולהמשיכה מעט לאחוריה הקולמוס בפנים ... עכ"ל ספר כתיבה תמה בקיצור לענינינו
The Mishna Berura quotes the Sefer Ketiva Tama as the source of this ruling, claiming that the broken Peh is a mistake that should be avoided. When the Mishna Berura was first printed in the late 19th century, this ruling created a big controversy and debates in communities that had a long-standing tradition of using the broken Peh, and many Sofrim continued to write it in their old way for many years.

Then it came the First and Second World Wars, and many of the old scribal traditions were forgotten - including the old Peh. Following the wars, the rulings of the Mishna Berura became even more influential in communities around the world and the next generation of Sofrim relied heavily in the Mishna Berura's take on the Hebrew letters, effectively ignoring the controversies surrounding this ruling. That's how the modern Peh became the standard Peh in all subsequent holy scrolls.

But if you look at pre-war Torahs and Tefillins, you will often find the old Peh, specially in scrolls of eastern Europe and Russia.

For almost all readers, this is just a history lesson. But for the Chabad readers, this post is a eye-opener. The Alter Rebbe, author of the Tania, clearly writes that the broken Peh is a must and all Chabad sofrim have kept this tradition even after the wars. Thus, the Chabad communities have their own version of the Ktav Ashurit, which is different than the Ashkenazi, Chassidic and Sephardic scripts. This is known as the ktav Chabad, and the broken Peh is one of its signature characteristics. See the full Aleph Bet Chabad below:
You can also see the special Kuf, Mem Sofit and Tet prsent in this Ktav.

The Ktav Chabad is exactly the same Ktav used by the communities of Eastern Europe and Russia before the war. So the Ktav Chabad has survived the war to become one of the last standing old-European scripts in use, remarkably. Now you understand the tradition among the Chabad Chassidim that their Ktav is the most accurate and that when Moshiach comes it will become the standard script for all Jews. Perhaps it will.

UPDATE: In reponse to the questions raised in the comments thread, I did some further research and here's what I came up with. My source is Sofer Lipshitz, one of the most knowledgeble Sofrim I know, who happens to be Chabad. The real Old Peh, which is the modern-day Chabad Peh, ideally should have a smooth hunchback and not a real step - see this picture (note that the Chabad Aleph Bet picture above is not very precise):

However, there are many different versions of this hunchback Peh and some of them are a bit less precise then others. The Peh of my manuscript is one of these less precise Pehs - it's more than a slight hunchback and it really looks "Shavur", and perhaps this imprecise version of the Peh prompted the Ktiva Tama to protest against what he considered to be a "broken Peh/ Peh Shavur" and the Mishna Berura agreed with his claim. But as Zalman and Jskarf mentioned, it's very likely that the Mishna Berura didn't have any complaints against the precise version of the original Peh, which is roundish in the outside. Still, the "new and improved" Peh became extremely popular and it now our generation's standard Peh. In regards to the Chabad Sefer Torah of my Shul, it turns out to be that it is also an imprecise old Peh - not a slight hunchback but a very clear broken Peh. This is a small imprecision of the author of this Torah; the Chabad Peh should be roundsish in the outside. Yudi sent me the Peh of his shul's 120 years-old Sefer Torah and it seems to me that this is a perfect old Peh; not broken and round in the outside (click to enlarge):

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Amazing Megillot #7: Iraqi Esther Scroll

I came across this beautiful Esther Scroll from Iraq. It's a very special piece, with symmetric motifs and splendid coloring. Written in Veilish, the Sephardi version of Ktav Ashurit.
Full disclosure:

Esther Scroll

Published References: The Jewish Museum. THE JEWISH MUSEUM AT 75. Commemorative album. New York: The Jewish Museum, New York, 1980, Color ill.



Sunday, January 3, 2010

Good Hand or a Good Heart?

"Ze Keili Veanveihu", roughly translated as ”this is my G-d and I will glorify him", is the source of Chazal's concept of beautifying and adorning the Torah and Mitzvot.

This concept is specially relevant when writing a Sefer Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot - it's good to have a nice hand writing and a nice klaf. But what should you do if you are confronted with the following dilemma:
  1. buying Tefillin-parshiot from a sofer who has an amazing hand-writing or;
  2. buying them from another sofer who has a writing that is less nice but he is known to be a very pious person.
This is a great "Hakira" (paradox) and there are arguments for both sides.

The Kaf Hachaim, a very proeminent Sephardic codifier, writes in Hilchot Tefillin that you should choose option #1 because "people look at eyes, but G-d looks at the heart", meaning that G-d favors a good heart over aestetics. But why?

The Kaf Hachaim doesn't go this far but I've heard a very good explanation for choosing option #2: the concept of Zeh Keili Veanveihu only applies to something that is displayed in public, to everyone's eyes. The Tefillin's parshiot are sealed and never displayed in public, so there's no reason to favor aesthetics over a good pious sofer. The Kaf Hachaim doesn't necessarily subscribes to this explanation but the bottom line is the same - choose option #2.

In the other hand, the Machane Ephraim says that it's impossible to know who's really pious and who's not - we can only speculate, and appearances can be deceiving. If so, the only fact-based analysis that can be made is the quality of the ktav and that alone should be the deciding factor. This would lead you to favor option #1.

This leads us to the next question - what would be the answer in regards to Sefer Torah, which is always displayed in public? Should you choose a better hand or sofer that is known to be a special person?

The answer is option #1, that is, choose a sofer with the best handwriting. The Poskim also say that if you write a Sefer Torah to yourself and later find that a specific yeriah (section) is not written nicely, you may rewrite a new, more beautiful yeriah. That's because of the concept of Zeh Keili, which is critically important in Hilchot Sefer Torah.

Finally, the last branch of this topic. Joe knows how to write Sta"m but he isn't a pro; his handwriting is just ok. Now Joe wants to write a Sefer Torah, in accordance to the Torah's commandment of "Kitvu Lachem", but he is thinking if it's better to hire a professional sofer who has a better hand. What should he do?

The uber-popular Nitei Gavriel says that you should hire a sofer with a better hand-writing and he brings numerous sources for this, but I have strong objections to this claim. They are summarized in the small-case text below, but this is only for the readers who like in-depth discussions:

(Firstly, the Talmud in Sukka says that a person should only spend a 33% (or 20% according to others) premium for a Hiddur Miztva and not more. For instance, if a regular Etrog/Lulav set costs U$70, you don't have to pay more than U$93 if you want to do Hiddur Miztva. Zeh Keili Venveihu is a Hiddur Miztva and if Joe hires a Sofer who has a better hand this will surely incur a cost of more than 33% of the cost of this Miztva, so having a nicer hand writing in this case is not a compelling argument. I would rather say that Joe should write it himself even if his hand writing is not as nice as the Sofer's since there's no Chiyuv of Zeh Keili Veanveihu here.

Secondly, I have a practical problem with this approach. So let's say we do require Joe to hire a Sofer who has a nice ktav - who should he hire? Let's say he hires David, who has a nice ktav, but if you look around you will always find someone better. Will we also tell Joe to go necessarily to the best Sofer in the world in order to conform with Zeh Keili? I don't think so - there's no end to this. I rather think Zeh Keili only applies to a case where the hand writing is ugly, in which Ze Keili urges you to choose a better hand. But if Joe has a decent Ktav - not ugly, but ok - there's no concept of Zeh Keili forcing him to hire the world's best sofer.)
This discussion has special appeal to me since I plan to write my own Sefer Torah. I don't have the world's best Ktav but I think my hand-writing is quite nice, and although the Nitei Gavriel says I should hire a Sofer I will not heed to his advice so quickly. If I do this, I will do it myself!

(full disclosure: the Nitei Gavriel is not a Posek, just a researcher (melaket) so his words are not final, hence my opposition to his claim)


See my follow up post here