Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Aleppo Codex: Book Review from a Scribe's Perspective

I've been meaning to write about the Aleppo/Ben Asher Codex for a long time. Now that Matti Friedman came out with a masterpiece book on this topic, I will try my best to write about how this Codex is very relevant for Safrut enthusiasts and scribes in particular.


Until now I had only seen books on this subject from scholars, aimed for the academic audience. Matti's book is a mainstream book written like a thriller, so it's a very enjoyable and easy read. Matti is careful to create an interesting story line while sticking to the facts and stating his sources in the appendix, chapter by chapter. He successfully provides the full context in which the fabulous story of the Codex took place and goes back and forth in time delving into the historical relevance of the book and also how it affected so many different people and communities throughout its existence.

The Story (short version + spoliers)

The Ben Asher Codex was written sometime in the 10th century c.e., in Tiberias while the  Masoretes were focusing in gathering and establishing the Mesora of vowels, words and missing letters of the Torah. Aaron Ben Asher was the prince of the Masoretes and his codex was widely believed to be the most accurate ever produced, an opinion shared by Maimonides when he saw this book in his own desk in Fustat some centuries later.

The Codex eventually was brought to the Aleppo community, where it was guarded for many centuries until the Arab riots following the creation of the State of Israel. That's when Matti's book gets more interesting.

In 1958, the Aleppo Rabbis sent the Codex with Faham, who was fleeing to Israel via Alexandretta (Turkey). Faham was supposed to give the Codex to the head of the Syrian community in Israel but instead, he gave it to the head of the Aliya Department, Shragai, who gave it to the then President of Israel, Ben Tzvi, a turn of events that triggered a court case a few years later.

The big question discussed in Matti's book is the fact the only about 65% of the Aleppo Codex is in possession of the Ben Zvi Institute in Israel today. What happened to the rest? Interesting to note that the missing pages pretty much cover the whole Bible part of the Codex - the most important section. What we have today is pretty much most of Book of Prophets (Neviim) and Book of Writings (Ketuvim).

To summarize Matti's research, all the possibilities are narrowed down to two options. Either the agent of the Aliya Department in Alexandretta stole the missing parts from Faham, who publicly complained he had been robbed there. Or the Codex was received by President Itzhak Ben Zvi in its entirety but after it was stored in the Institute, someone stole it - other very important manuscripts were reported missing in the early days of the Institute. These two possibilities were and still are potentially very embarrassing for the Israeli authorities so the Institute did their best to cover-up and have always adopted the version that the missing parts were lost in the mob of the Aleppo synagogue, a version that is conclusively not true according to Matti. He also brings good evidence that the missing parts were actually in the manuscript black market as late as 1985, in a colorful story featuring the Bukharian jeweler Shlomo Moussaief (see here a NYT Magazine article based on Matti's book with some additional reporting)

sample page of the Codex with Ben Asher's Masoretic notes
Halachic Status of the Aleppo Codex

The Rambam (Maimonides) explicitly pushed for the usage of the Aleppo/Ben Asher Codex, and here you can see verbatim:

:(משנה תורה" (הלכות ספר תורה פרק ח הלכה ד"
וספר שסמכנו עליו בדברים אלו הוא הספר הידוע במצרים שהוא כולל ארבעה ועשרים ספרים שהיה בירושלים מכמה שנים להגיה ממנו הספרים ועליו היו הכל סומכין לפי שהגיהו בן אשר ודקדק בו שנים הרבה והגיהו פעמים רבות כמו שהעתיקוּ ועליו סמכתי בספר התורה שכתבתי כהלכתו

Although the Rosh argues on the Rambam in regards to the layout of the "open" and "closed" Parshiot (see my post about this here), the Shulchan Aruch ruled that if it's impossible to write it in a universal layout, which both Rambam and Rosh will agree, one should follow the Rambam because he had the Aleppo/Ben Asher Codex in his possession and based his opinion on this Codex, which is superior to all others. Therefore the opinion of the Rosh is "overruled" by the Ben Asher Codex.

After the Ben Asher Codex found its way to Aleppo, the community safeguarded it as a holy relic and effectively made it impossible for other communities to fully study it, so its unique features remained unnacessible for the Ashkenazi scribes by and large throughout the centuries.

Halachic Implications of the Codex

As the years passed, the Ben Zvi Institute made the Aleppo Codex available for the public and recently many groups started to push its adoption for the scrolls of the Na"ch. The Aleppo Codex differs from the traditional layout used in Megillat Esther, for instance, and that alone would be a significant controversy since all Jewish communities use this scroll in Purim for public readings, and any change would no doubt bring disputes.

But aside from the Megillat Esther issue, some communities have custom of reading the Shabbat's Haftarot from scrolls and adopting the Aleppo Codex would also bring disputes. This custom was instituted by the Gr"a, one of Judaism's brightest minds, and anybody living in Jerusalem has seen this numerous times - many of the early settlers of Jerusalem were disciples of the Gr"a and in general, the holy city follows his customs. The Gr"a instructed the scribes to use what is known in the field as the Berditchev tikkun layout, a puzzling book that doesn't conform with the Aleppo Codex layout in the Neviim and Ketuvim.

So in no time, there was a battle between the Jerusalem-based disciples of the Gr"a, who always wrote their Na"ch scrolls according to the Gr"a's Berdichev tikkun versus Bnei Brak, one of Israel centers of Torah learning and a city who generally doesn't follow the Gr"a customs. The Bnei Brak-based groups favored the use of the Aleppo Codex, as it is undeniably the most accurate one.

So any scribe trying to buy a Tikkun, his personal codice to guide him in layout and spelling, will find different options depending where he goes. In Jerusalem, the shops will usually sell Tikunim following the instructions of the Gr"a while in Bnei Brak you will see some Aleppo Codex options too. But even more than that, there's a war of words betweeen the two camps, and when I got my Tikkunim, I snapped some pictures from both sides' claims. See below, the first two are from Talmidei HaGra and the last is from the Aleppo Codex backers.

So as you see, the 65% of what we have from the Crown already brought considerate challenges and disputes in the Safrut world and not all have backed its adoption. You can only begin to imagine what would've happened if we had all the Codex, more specifically , the Bible part. While the usage of scrolls for Na"ch is limited, all Jewish communities and synagogues have numerous Torah scrolls and continue to write new ones every day. If the Aleppo Codex for the Bible would be available, I anticipate that we would have a similar, but much more heated war of words and I wonder how many communities would start adopting the Aleppo Codex for their own scrolls.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stam Stories #7: Pasul Tefillin

This cute story is also from this wednesday's "DafDigest"

There once was an elderly man, one of the chassidim of Pzhisha, who was exceptionally proud of his special tefillin which he had worn all the years, from his youth.  He had received this expensive pair of tefillin from an expert sofer at that time, and he had the tefillin checked regularly to ensure that the letters and parchment remained in perfect condition.  Now, in his old age, he once again arranged for them to be looked over by an expert sofer.  As he scanned the parchment to verify its condition, the sofer was shocked and horrified as he suddenly noticed that one of the words was misspelled, in a manner which had clearly existed from the time the tefillin were originally written, many years earlier.  He sadly informed the old man of his finding, and that unfortunately, this special pair of tefillin was never kosher.  The owner, who had prided himself in his fulfillment of the mitzvah of tefillin in such a beautiful manner had, in fact, never fulfilled the mitzvah even once in his entire life!

Upon hearing this devastating news, the old and frail man began to dance and sing.  The family was flabbergasted in noticing this strange response to what should have been bad news.  Had he gone mad due to the shock?  Why was he dancing?  The elderly man realized that his family was wondering about his reaction, and he reassured them that he was still in control of his faculties.  He explained, "Of course, I am very disappointed and heartbroken about what I have now heard.  I have to think hard about why
this has happened to me, and I must make certain conclusions about why Hashem has led me until this point to not have fulfilled the mitzvah of tefillin until now, although I have always treasured this mitzvah.  Yet, I am
comforted that a miracle has occurred, and that I still have an opportunity to do something about it now.  I will still merit to put on kosher tefillin before I leave this world, and for this I am appreciative.

Talmud Gems #1 - Elisha Ba’al Kenafayim

Article by "DafYomi Digest"

תפילין צריכין גוף נקי כאלישע בעל כנפים  - מט.

Wearing tefillin requires a “clean body” as we find regarding Elisha Ba’al 
Kenafayim   - 49a 

The Gemara says that tefillin can only be worn by someone who has a clean body, like Elisha Bal Kenafayim. The Gemara proceeds to relate how Elisha wore tefillin despite the decree that Jews were not
allowed to wear tefillin. When an officer suspected that he was wearing tefillin and pursued him, Elisha quickly put them into his hands, finding that they had miraculously turned into the wings of a dove.
Upon questioning, he said that he was merely carrying dove wings.

When his claim was verified, he was released. How is this story a proof that tefillin need to be worn with a clean body?  What does it have to do with having a clean body?

The Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l (quoted in Margaliyos Hashas) prefaced his answer by quoting the opinion of Rabeinu Yonah.  Rabeinu Yonah understands that someone who is known to be an extremely pious person must sacrifice his life to keep even seemingly minor mitzvos at a time when there is persecution against those who keep mitzvos. Elisha was such a person, and he therefore continued wearing tefillin. Why, then, did he not give up his life when the officer saw him?
The Klausenberger Rebbe answers that when Elisha saw the officer, he was so scared that he felt his body was going to become unfit to wear tefillin. He immediately realized that in such a situation it was
now prohibited for him to wear tefillin. Being that it was now prohibited for him to wear tefillin, he was no longer allowed to give up his life at this time for the mitvza of tefillin.  He therefore started to run
away from the officer. While Elisha had these thoughts, Hashem performed a miracle that the tefillin on Elisha’s head should immediately become dove wings.  Why was the miracle performed in such a fashion?  It must be, the Klausenberger Rebbe answered, because it was forbidden for the Tzadik to wear tefillin with an unclean body.  Hashem therefore turned the tefillin into dove wings, in order that Elisha should not
wear tefillin while having an unclean body.  This is the Gemara’s proof from Elisha that one is not supposed to wear tefillin while having an unclean body.

[In order to illustrate the profound seriousness and holiness associated with the donning of tefillin as it was practiced in times of old, mention should be made of a remarkable and intriguing statement written by
Rav Meir HaMi’eli of Narbonne. He references a Yerushalmi that there were Amoraim that refrained from donning tefillin each day due to the great care and attention that tefillin require. These Rabbis held that the
concept of a clean body did not apply solely to the physical body, but also to the spirit, such that the soul had to be clean of sins! According to this approach, Rav Meir HaMi’eli interprets our Gemara to teach
that physical uncleanliness, although a necessity, is unacceptable while wearing tefillin, all the more so spiritual uncleanliness can not be accepted. It must be said that this was written in regard to previous generations and has no application today.]

Friday, November 16, 2012

Classic Mistake and Fix

One of my very first works was this 11 lines Megillat Esther. Last Purim I noticed this classic mistake - Lamed that invades de Chaf Sofit, so I now took the time to fix it. I was not in a rush as a Megillat Esther is technically kosher even if it has small mistakes, as long as most of it is Kosher. However our sages teach us that one should avoid keeping scroll with mistakes, so here is how I fix it. The Klaf was really really poor in this part so I had a tough time scrapping and writing again over it, but the result was satisfactory to me.

Update: Aaron Shaffier pointed out in the comment section that it's not enough to fix the Lamed; the Chaf should also be re-written to avoid Chok Tochos. I rechecked this in the Keset Hasofer, which has a Chakira on this topic at the end of the Sefer and concludes indeed that the Chaf should also be fixed. My thanks to Aaron and I will try to post a new picture after the Chaf is fixed. See Keset below:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Why we write Shakai in the Mezuza?

 I'm out on vacation and before leaving, I loaded my iPad with some new Torah apps that are really unbelievable. 

The first is the new Artscroll Talmud app, complete with its classic English elucidation and really handy for keeping up with the daf yomi, which I hope to follow at least for Brachot (this study already brought me an idea for another post - in Brachot 6a the Talmud says that God also dons a pair of Tefillin, more on that soon).

The second is simpler but also handy - Chok L'Israel, a daily limmud of Chumash, Nach,Mishma,Talmud and Zohar very popular among the Sephardi communities. In my very first usage, i came across something I had been looking for a long time: the source for writing Sha-dai in the verse of the Mezuza.  It's the Zohar brought in the first day of this week! I will quote the Hebrew translation because the original is quite difficult to understand:

זוהר ואתחנן דף רס''ו ע''א.
 בֹּא וּרְאֵה מִצַד שִׁפְחָה זוֹ יָצְאוּ כַּמָּה רוּחוֹת חוֹקְרֵי דִּין שֶׁמְּקַטְרְגִים כְּנֶגֶד יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּבָאִים  לְקַטְרֵג עֲלֵיהֶם. וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עָשָׂה שְׁמִירָה לְיִשְׂרָאֵל כְּמוֹ אָב הָרוֹצֶה לִשְׁמֹר אֶת בְּנוֹ מִכָּל מִקְרֶה. אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, כַּמָּה מְקַטְרְגִים מוּכָנִים כְּנֶגְדְּכֶם, עִסְקוּ בַּעֲבוֹדָתִי, וַאֲנִי אֶהֱיֶה שׁוֹמֵר אֶתְכֶם מִבַחוּץ. אַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ נְתוּנִים בְּבָתֵּיכֶם מִבִּפְנִים וְתִהְיוּ יְשֵׁנִים בְּמִטָּתְכֶם, וַאֲנִי אֶהֱיֶה שׁוֹמֵר עֲלֵיכֶם מִבַּחוּץ, וּמִסָּבִיב מִטּוֹתֵיכֶם. וּבֹא וּרְאֵה, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁאֵלּוּ מִינִים הָרָעִים קְרֵבִים לְפִתְחוֹ שֶׁל אָדָם, נוֹשְׂאִים רֹאשָׁם וּמִסְתַּכְּלִים בְּהַשֵּׁם הַקָּדוֹשׁ הַנִּרְאֶה מִבַּחוּץ, שֶׁהוּא שַׁדַּי, שֵׁם הַזֶּה שׁוֹלֵט עַל כֻּלָּם, מִמֶּנּוּ יְרֵאִים וּבוֹרְחִים, וְאֵינָם קְרֵבִים לְפִתְחוֹ שֶׁל הָאָדָם. אָמַר לֵיהּ רַבִּי יִצְחָק: אִם כֵּן, יִרְשֹׁם הָאָדָם שֵׁם הַזֶּה, שַׁדַּי, בְּפֶתַח הַבַּיִת, וְלֹא יוֹתֵר, לָמָּה צְרִיכִים כָּל הַפָּרָשָׁה שֶׁבַּמְּזוּזָה, אָמַר לוֹ, יָפֶה הוּא, כִּי שֵׁם הַזֶּה, שַׁדַּי, אֵינוֹ מִתְעַטֵּר, אֶלָּא בְּאֵלּוּ הָאוֹתִיּוֹת כֻּלָּם הָרְשׁוּמִים בִּרְשִׁימַת הַמֶּלֶךְ, וּכְשֶׁנִּכְתֶּבֶת כָּל הַפָּרָשָׁה, אָז מִתְעַטֵּר שֵׁם הַזֶּה בְּעִטְּרוֹתָיו. וְהַמֶּלֶךְ, יוֹצֵא בְּכָל צִבְאוֹתָיו, כֻּלָּם רְשׁוּמִים בִּרְשִׁימַת הַמֶּלֶךְ, שֶׁהִיא הַמַּלְכוּת, אָז מְפַחֲדִים מִפָּנָיו, וּבוֹרְחִים מִפָּנָיו. בֹּא וּרְאֵה וְהָיָה, שֶׁל וְהָיָה אִם שָׁמוֹעַ, הוּא שֵׁם קָדוֹשׁ, הַוָּיָה, מִמַּטָּה לְמַעְלָה. כִּי כָּתוּב תְּחִלָּה ו''ה וְאַחַר כָּךְ י''ה. וְעַל כֵּן, נִרְשָׁם הַשֵּׁם שַׁדַּי מִבַּחוּץ כְּנֶגֶד הַשֵּׁם הַזֶּה. הַשֵּׁם וְהָיָ''ה מִבִּפְנִים, וְשַׁדַּי מִבַּחוּץ. כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּהְיֶה הָאָדָם נִשְׁמָר מִכָּל הַצְדָדִים מִבִּפְנִים וּמִבַּחוּץ

It seems clear from this Zohar that what really protects the house is not the Parshiot per se, but the word Sha-kai written upon the Parshiot. That's extremely interesting and it's evident from here that ommiting Sha-kai nullifies the protection. 

But i would like to focus in another interesting point.  The Zohar explains that Sha-kai must be written in the verse of the word Vehaia, because Vehaia can be re-arranged as the Tetragamon Name of God. My question is why not write it in the verse of the actual Tetragamon which is written so many times in the Mezuza? 

Perhaps the answer is that the Sha-kai is written in the verse of the Mezuza parchment, and when looking in the verse you can see the words of the Parshiot reversed (because they are written in the other side of the parchement). Thus, it makes more sense to write Sha-kai over a word that is a "reversed" Shem, like Vehaia, because in that side of the parchement it resembles more the Shem if compared to the other standard Shemot. 

Altenatively, I've seen that we writing Shakai in the verse of Vehaia is a kiyum of the pasuk יושב בסתר עליון בצל שדי יתלונן / He who dwells in the shelter of the Supreme shall abide in the shadow of Shakai. There was no further elucidation but my understanding is that בסתר here is an allusion to Vehaia, which is a hidden Name of God, and the pasuk says that this should be in the shadow of Shakai - in this case the pasuk makes perfect sense because you can see the shadow of Vehaia when writing Shakai on it!

I should mention that although Ashkenazim do follow this Zohar and write Shakai, they do so not in the verse of Vehaia but in the verse of the Parshiot gap which is right before he word Vehaia. The Rambam records this practice but I'm unsure why they - Ashkenazim and Rambam - don't follow the Zohar all the way. 

Here's how its brought in the Shulchan Aruch:

בש"ע יו"ד (סי' רפ"ח סעיף ט"ו) כתב וז"ל: אסור להוסיף בה מאומה אלא שמבחוץ כותבין שדי כנגד תיבת והיה שבפנים. וכתב הרמ"א: ויש אומרים נגד הריווח שבין הפרשיות (טור בשם הרא"ש ועוד), וכן נוהגין. ומניתין נקב בקנה נגד שם שדי שיהא נראה מבחוץ

Monday, June 11, 2012

Inverted Nuns - Rabbi Frand's Video

Last Thursday, Rabbi Frand spoke about the inverted Nuns of Parshat Behalotcha in his popular weekly shiur.

This is a very important topic for all sofrim and I got his permission to put up his shiur on this blog for one week (you must pay to get his weekly shiurim so this was a very big favour), so us sofrim can get a taste of this.

I will eventually put everything he said in writing so I can keep it available here in the blog but I would not miss this chance to hear a Safrut shiur from one of the very best orators out there.

UPDATE: the week has passed and I had to take down the video. But I transcripted the shiur for those who arrived too late:

The Anglo Jewish Press reports that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s son, Yaakov Yosef, ruled that most of the Torah Scrolls used by the Israel Defense Forces are pasul, for many reasons. Among them, the brings the argument that there’s a stamp/watermark stating that the scroll is property of the IDF and this sign invalidates the scroll, as it adds words to the bible.

The Tshuvot Beit Avi, from Rabbi Isaac Liebes of the Bronx brings that someone from his city testified that there were numerous robberies of Torah Scrolls and the person asked him if it’s permissible to inprint in the Torah the name of the owner in the back of the scroll, as an Horaat Shaa (temporary permission) since there was no other solution to this problem.

This topic relates to Parshat Behalotcha because in this Parsha, there’s the famous verse “Vayehi Binsoa Aron (...)” and the Talmud in Shabbos 115b says that Hashem made signs (simaniot) before and after this segment and there’s a discussion pertaining the reason behind this unusual anomaly.

Tanna Kama says that this is to show that Veyahi Binsoa wasn’t supposed to be written here in Parshat Bealotcha. It should be rather placed in Parshat Bamidbar, when the Torah discusses how the Jews camped in the desert.

Rebi says that the reason is rather because these segment is a “sefer bifnei atzmo”, a seperate book within the Five Books of Moses. According to this view there are rather Seven Books of Moses! Genesis, Exodus, Vayikra, Bamidbar 1 (before Vayehi), Bamidbar 2 (the segment of Vayehi), Bamidar 3 (after Vayehi) and Devarim.

Says the Talmud, who is Tanna Kama? It’s Rabbi Shimon Ben Gamliel, who says that this segment of Vayehi will in the future come back to its proper place. It is placed here in Bealotcha to separate between two clamities, the first is Vayehi Kemisonenim (the verse following Vayehi) and the second clamity is Vayisu Mehar Hashem, the verse preceding the Vayehi Binsoa Aron segment.

Until here is the Talmud. But what are these signs (simaniot)? In our modern scrolls we have inverted Nuns before and after Veyahi Binsoa Aron (see below) but not everyone agrees that these are what the Simaniot are supposed to be.

The Teshuvot Maharshal was asked how this signs should look like - should it be inverted Nuns? Says the Maharshal that he found an old version of the Rashi which says that the signs brought in the Talmud are in fact the inverted Nuns. However he doesn’t understands how can we add words to the Torah by adding two inverted Nuns - after all if you add or omit any letter of the Torah, the scroll is invalid! “I’ve found in the Torah of Rabbi Tudros, an esteemed Rabbi, that instead of adding independent inverted Nuns he modified Nun located in the words Vayehi biNsoa and MisoNenim and inverted them, thus not adding any extra letter in the Torah” (see below a pic of a scroll that follows this opinion. Photo Credit: Lion of Zion) 

Says the Maharshal that this solution is also complicated because by modifying the words Binsoa and Misonenim, you are causing what is called a “Shinui Ott”, which also invalidates the scroll.

The Maharshal concludes that he changed his mind after he saw that the Zohar brings that independent Nuns should be added before and after Vayehi Binsoa. However, the Maharshal would invalidate a watermark like the one used by the IDF since there’s no grounds to permit that. The inverted Nuns are an exception recorded by the Zohar, and therefore the only extraneous letter permitted in the whole Torah.

The Noda Biyuda of Prague (M. Kama Yoreh Deia Ayin Daled) takes strong issue with this Maharshal. He says that adding letters to the Torah is only a psul if the added letter in the actual text of the Torah, however if someone adds a letter in between the parshiot or in the top of bottom of the Torah, that’s not an intermission and not a psul. However to do like Rabbi Tudros and invert the Nun of one of the actual words of the Torah that a problem as it changes the look of the word, causing a psul. Additionally, Rabbi Tudros strategy is not a sign before an after the parsha of Binsoa, it’s rather a sign within the parsha since he modified the third letter of BiNsoa and that’s not what the Talmud meant to say. Therefore, it’s a much safer bet to use independent inverted Nuns before and after Binsoa (as we do today in our modern scrolls). And he criticizes the Maharsha for bringing the Zohar as a proof, for we cannot decide Halacha based solely in the hidden text of the Zohar (similarly, the Noda Biyuda was famously against saying Leshem Yichud before Mitzvot as brought in the Zohar).

So adding names or watermarks to the Torah scroll is permissible according to the Noda Biyuda. Practical halacha is that if you add a sign, you should do it in the back of the Torah because all agree that there’s no psul in that.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked if one should fix Torah Scrolls that have the Nuns of Binsoa and Misonenim modified, a la Rabbi Tudros and Maharshal, and rules that these scrolls are Kosher Bedieved but that you should fix it.

See below other versions of the inverted Nun brought by the great Torah Shelema from Rabbi Kasher.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Stam Stories #6: The Maharam Rothenburg and 13th Torah

The Maharam (Meir ben Baruch) was one of the last great Tosafists and was the Gadol of his generation. He lived a quite tragic life, witnessing many pogroms, the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1244 and ultimately dying as a prisoner of the King.

In 1286, King Rudolf I declared the Jews servi camerae ("serfs of the treasury"), which had the effect of negating their political freedoms. Along with many others, the Maharam left Germany with family and followers, but was captured in Lombardy and imprisoned in a fortress near Ensisheim in Alsace

The King asked for a very large ransom but after a few years his disciple the Rosh managed to collect just enough to secure his release. The Yam Shel Shlomo, who lived sometime after him, mentions that the Maharam refused to be released invoking the Talmudical law of אין פודים את השבויים יותר על כדי דמיה, as the ransom the King requested was way beyond reason. There's no evidence for that and many researchers say he did consent with the ransom but died while negotiations were in course. 

Be it as it may, the subsequent refusal of the King to release his body added more pain to this very tragic story, which only came to close 14 years later when a ransom was paid for his body by Alexander ben Salomon Wimpfen, who was subsequently laid to rest beside the Maharam.

Many legends are said about the Maharam, among them the claim that even after 14 years without a burial, when he was finally taken out of his cell his body was in perfect state, not decomposed. But this following story caught my attention:
When the Maharam was imprisoned in 1286 he was given access to parchment and quills but not to any Sefarim. Although he knew almost everything by heart, his inability to read from the Torah on Monday, Thursday, and Shabbos frustrated him.   
According to legend, the angel Gavriel visited the Maharam and presented him with the Thirteenth Torah, on loan from heaven. Generations of Tzadikim would descend from heaven and join him in his cell every Monday, Thursday and Shabbos to hear him read from their Sefer Torah.  
Eventually, the Maharam copied the Heavenly Torah onto his own scroll and sealed the copy in a waterproof case which he threw out of his window and into the river Rhine. The Torah floated to the city of Worms where some Jewish fishermen discovered it and placed it prominently in their shul. The Jewish community of Worms suffered terribly during the Chmielniki massacres but the Sefer Torah survived. They read from it every Simchas Torah and Shavuos. Today the Maharam’s Torah is in the Aron Kodesh of the famous Alt-neu shul in Prague.(click here for original article)
Yes it sounds very exagerated and the author of this piece doesn't bring a source but perhaps somebody expounded on what the Maharam wrote in one of his Teshuvot:  
.... I have no books and all what I've written is according what has been shown to me from the heavens...
There's a long way between that and the story but if you consider that Rabbi Yosef Karo, for instance, was widely believed to learn every night with an angelic Maggid (see here), perhaps being the leader of a generation, like the Maharam and Rabbi Karo, grants you these special divine visits. However, I visited the Alt-neu synagogue in Prague and I never heard about this miraculous scroll; I even emailed the community to ask about it - it got me curious!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Re-post: The reliability of messy writing

This article appeared in Jpost.com a few days ago, and it is connected to my post on Writing the last words of a Sefer Torah.


Jewish law proscribes the use of a scroll written by a gentile or by a nonbeliever.

A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll
Photo by: Reuters

The tale is told that a Torah scroll was once found abandoned in a field and a question arose as to whether this scroll was kosher; perhaps it was discarded because it was not written by a reliable scribe. Indeed, Jewish law proscribes the use of a scroll written by a gentile or by a nonbeliever (Shulhan Aruch YD 241). How should this scroll be treated? The question was brought to the great talmudic scholar and respected leader of European Jewry, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761- 1837). Rabbi Eiger noted that it was common Jewish practice for many people to participate in the writing of a Torah scroll. To be sure, there is often a principal donor who employs a qualified scribe, but everyone is invited to purchase a letter and to take part in the writing of the final lines of the scroll. The scribe generally outlines the letters of the final lines, but leaves them to be filled in or completed by others; thus allowing everyone to participate in the fulfillment of the commandment to write a Torah scroll without incurring the appreciable expense of writing an entire scroll. The result of this custom is that the final lines of the scroll may not be in the same professional script as the rest of the scroll.

With this in mind, Rabbi Akiva Eiger ruled that the reliability of the scroll could be determined by the final lines of the Torah.

If they were noticeably less professional than the other letters in the scroll, and perhaps even a mixture of scripts – we can surmise that these final lines were written in accordance with the accepted custom. Furthermore, we can assume that the scribe was a reliable person, for he sought to comply with this communal norm; ergo the scroll can be assumed to be valid. If, however, the final lines showed no signs of a different scribe and the final column of the scroll was presented in a uniform – perhaps even aesthetically beautiful – script, we have no choice but to question the scroll's reliability. In such a case, the scroll should not be pressed into communal service.

Fast-forwarding to the 20th century: Rabbi Yitzhak Weiss (1870-died in the Holocaust 1942) was a Hungarian rabbi who recorded many anecdotes from chance meetings and interactions with a wide variety of rabbis and hassidic masters. Citing the exact date of the meeting, 20 Adar II, 5687 (March 24, 1927), Rabbi Weiss recorded the reaction of the previous leader of the Boyan Hassidim, Rabbi Mordechai Shlomo Friedman (1891- 1971), to Rabbi Eiger’s famed decision.

The Boyaner Rebbe explained that Eiger’s ruling could be found in the very words that express the commandment to write a Torah scroll. The verse says: “And now write for yourselves this song and teach it to the children of Israel, put it in their mouths so that this song will be for Me as a witness regarding the children of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:19). The Boyaner Rebbe explained that the directive to “write for yourselves” indicates that each person should actively take part in the writing of the Torah scroll. Jewish law further requires that whoever is writing a Torah scroll should enunciate the words about to be written.

This is indicated in the continuation of the verse: “put it in their mouths.” The conclusion of the verse teaches us about Rabbi Eiger’s ruling: “so that it will be for Me as a witness regarding the children of Israel.” The fact that people are invited to take part in the writing of a Torah scroll means that different scripts can serve as a “witness” that testifies to the scroll's veracity.

The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Writing on Red Gvil!

My posts are usually concise write-ups about Halacha discussions. This post is different - an open and honest account of my first time writing in Gevil parchement, opposed to the standard Klaf parchement used in all scrolls today. 

For quite a few months already, I have had this obsession of getting a Gvil to write on. It's really difficult to purchase one - I tried Mea Shearim safrut stores, Machon Gvil, fellow Sofrim, to no avail. I eventually saw Binyamin's posts about writing in a Yemnite-style red gvil and I asked him for assistance. He said he would send me a sample so I can have an idea, but being that he is a busy man, many months have passed and I gave up on it.

Just before Pessach I received this tube from the mail with a small but beautiful red gvil, a bottle of carbon ink, a very good reed and a note from Binyamin, excusing himself for the delay. No need to excuse - you made my day.

It turns out that the small piece of Gvil was perfect for a Menorah-shaped Lamnatzeach, which I spoke about in depth in my last post. As we have seen, this is a kabbalistic piece with a very specific connection to Sefirat Haomer, so the timing was perfect - I wrote it just before Pessach.

So I made the sirtut, evenly spaced and couldn't wait to start writing. Although I had a carbon-ink of my own - DioLanetzach - I wrote with Binyomin's ink as he advised me. After all, I know absolutly nothing about this parchement so I prefer not to take risks.

I start writing. The letters are all smudging and i can't get it right. I was sure I messed up this Gvil, which I waited so long to write on. But you will not believe what was my mistake - I'm even embarassed to admit. Well... being that I always wrote on klaf, I always instinctivaly take the klaf and start writing in the inside side - i don't even think. In my rush to get the Lamnatzeach ready, I did the stupiedest mistake possible - I wrote in the klaf-like side of the Gvil, which is the wrong one. I knew that. You must write in the outside layer, which in this klaf is super shiny and sooth. That's what I call starting with the left foot.

So I turn the gvil and must start doing all the sirtut again! Duh! But once I start writing - in the correct side - it all feels right. The ink flows well, the reed is steady and most importantly, the Gvil is unbelievably smooth and pleasant to write on. I couldn't stop thinking how cool it was to write in the way Moshe Rabbeinu wrote his Torah Scolls (yes, he used Gevil). The less strentgh you apply, the better is the result. As I had absolutly no training for writing in this way, I was learning as I was writing. It was similar to writing in Klaf but not the same. To illustrate the difference, it's like playing tennis in clay and then playing in a hard court. You must adjust your swing and many plays come out differently. In short:

  • The Gvil is very shiny and in my opinion, more beautiful than the Klaf. The redness of this Gvil gives that “deluxe” feeling that is hard to match.
  • The parchment is incredibly smooth. Perhaps because of how the leather treated, I’m not sure, but this feature really stands out.
  • Also, the actual writing must be done in a much more smooth way, almost like painting a canvas. You need simple, precise strokes and unlike the klaf, you rarely need to add ink in the letters or work on them too much.
  • I wrote with a thin bamboo reed and it was tricky to get the flow of the ink right. I eventually adapted and found my way, but again, the actual cutting of the reed differs from feather.
  • The letters dry in a matter of seconds, while in the Klaf it can take more than a few minutes.
  • The reed is not as sharp as a feather and the writing has a simpler look, with less details and strokes. For instance, I could only make simple, bare Taguin, as opposed to the usual Zayin-shaped Tagim.
  • Overall, I would say it’s easier to write in Gvil with a reed because the writing flows easier and you can write quicker.

It was late in the night already but I managed to finish the work. But I had one big mistake - I forgot the Yud of Elokim, one of the names of Hashem. Aside from that the symmetry of the Menorah wasn't perfect and I wanted to correct a few words to make it right.

But how do you erase a letter?? Hum.. scraping I thought. So I tried to scrape a small extra Tag I made by mistake and I immediatly see that this ruins the parchement and makes re-writing on it impossible. I email Binyomim and he says to erase with cottom-bud and water. Water! The #1 enemy of the Klaf is used to fix mistakes in the Gvil - intriguing. And by then I'm thankul I didn't use Dio Lanetzach, which is water resistant and therefore unusuble in Gevil! As mentioned in the Keset Hasofer, you are alowed to erase the Mem Sofit from the word Elokim and rewrite the forgotten Yud + a new Mem since this word is not a Shem if it has no Yud. The erasing was easy and re-writing is very easy and quick, unlike in Klaf which takes work and very much attention. Below, the pics I took before my corrections:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Menorah-shaped Lamnatazeach - full post

What's the source of the Menora-shaped Lamnatzeach? I touched on this subject last year but now I will write it in full.

The earliest source, I believe, is the Abudrahem, a student of the Baal Haturim (son of the Rosh) who lived in 14th century spain (see inside the Sefer here)
ובמקצת מקומות אומרין אותו כל יום  מפני

 שנקרא מזמור המנורה  והקורא אותו בכל יום נחשב

 כמדליק  המנורה  הטהורה  בבית המקדש  וכאלו מקבל

 פני שכינה כי תמצא  בו ז׳ פסוקים כנגד  שבעה קני

In some places (the Lamnatzeach) is recited every day since (this psalm) is called the Psalm of the Menorah and when you recite it everyday, it is considered as you lit the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash (...)
The Abudrahem goes on to explain that this Psalm has 49 words which relate to the 49 different parts of the Menorah - thus why we always recite this Psalm after counting the 49 days of the Omer.

Another possible early source for this claim is the Ramban, who reportedly brings this same commentary in one of his letters adding that it should be recited specifically at sunrise, but this letter is not to be found presently.

Rabbi Yitzhak Haezovi (Turkey, 15th Century), in his sefer Agudat Ezov, confirms that there's a tradition that "whoever recites this Psalm throughout the 49 days of Omer nothing bad will happen to him that year". Perhaps you shouldn't take this lightly because he adds that King David took this very seriously:
"This Psalm was engraved in gold in King David's shield, made like the shape of the Menorah and when he went to wars he would meditate upon it (...) and with it he would win his enemies"
The Agudat Ezov goes on to say that it's good to have it embroidered in the Aron of the synagogue to protect the community - which explains why you always see this Menora Lamnatzeach in the Sephardic shuls today. 

Another early Kabbalist that mentions this is the Akeidat Yitzhak, who was one the last Rishonim who lived in the Golden Years of Spain's Jewry in the 15th century, and he pretty much mirrors what the Agudat Ezov said - see here in full.

The Chida, one of the greatest Kabbalists of the 18th century, adds that it should be recited from Klaf - parchement (direct source here). 

I must also highlight this fascinating piece from the Ben Ish Chai, arguably the most respected Kabbalist of the 19th Century and a household name in every Sephardic home, who says that you don't need specifically klaf - any paper is fine according to him - but he adds a powerful twist:

כשאומר למנצח בנגינות מזמור שיר המצוייר בצורת המנורה על קלף או על נייר, יזקוף את הציור של המנורה שמסתכל בו כדי שיהיה הציור זקוף לפניו כדמיון המנורה שהיתה זקופה ועומדת בהיכל ולא יניח הציור מושכב ושטוח לפניו

"When you recite Lamnatzeach written in the shape of the Menora either on Klaf or on a paper, you should hold it standing so you can see it in front of you just like the Menora which was standing in the Heichal, rather than leave the drawing flat"

Fascinating comment. I bring it because it illustrates how dear this Psalm is to all Kabbalists, early and contemporary, to such an extent that they even instituted it in the everyday prayers of the 49 days of the Omer, something that today is standard practice in virtually all Jewish communities. From there, as the Abudrahem mentioned abovesome people started to say this Psalm every day and, as we see today in our Siddurim, it is recited just before Baruch Sheamar in Shacharit (nusach sephard and edut mizrach). That placement is puzzling because the Ari, who basically reorganized what is today Nusach Sefrad and Edut Mizrach, actually said that we should mention it at the end of Amida, right before Elokai Netzor:
ולכן יהיה תמיד נגד עיניך גם תאמר בכל יום אחר תפלת ערבית ומנחה ושחרית אחר העמידה קודם אלקי  (full text here, difficult read) נצור מזמור ס"ז והוא מזמור למנצח בנגינות מזמור שיר

I've seen that Rabbi Pinchas Zbihi brings why we recite it before Baruch Sheamar; something to do with the daily ritual of the lighting of the Menora but that's beyond the scope of this already complicated post.

Interestingly, Rabbi Zbihi elsewhere says that the Abudrahem - who said that reciting Menora Lamnatzeach is like lighting the Menora - might explain why we say it every weekday mornings but not on Shabbat. If it is like lighting the Menora that is a forbidden Melacha (!) and that might explain why our Siddurim have another Psalm in its place.

The big question is why the vast majority of Siddurim don't print this Menora layout both before Baruch Sheamar and also by Sefirat Haomer. As we have seen, the point is not only to recite this Psalm but to recite it in this specific shape and we rarely see this in contemporary siddurim. 

But to finalize this post, I must mention a very practical consideration. There is a very famous discussion concerning the exact look of the Beit Hamikdash's Menora and this has implications for the Lamnatzeach Menora. The Maase Choshev says that the Menora was curved, as seen in the infamous Arch of Titus and many archeological findings. It happens to be the the vast majority of Menorah Lamnatzeach follow this layout, as seen below:

There's one major problem with this layout - it's very difficult to make round "Sirtut" (guiding lines) and as the Talmud in Sanhedrin notes, it's forbidden to write more than four words in parchement without guiding lines. Aside this technical problem, Rashi and Maimonides held that the Menora was not curved but straight - the late Lubavitch Rebbe actively advocated (see Likkutei Sichot vol. 21) to spread this layout and that's by the way why all Chabad's public Menoras in Chanukka are always straight. For these reasons, there's an alternative Lamnatzeach:

I however never saw this layout in any synagogue; it's not very popular. But a third layout, which is squared and doesn't conform with any of the two opinions mentioned above, is extremely popular and present in many Chassidic synagogues. It is also printed in my Ktav Ashurit Siddur:

I speculate that because of the Sirtut problem in the rounded layout, Sofrim started to write the round Lamnatzeach in this way which resembles the rounded scheme and at the same time has regular straight guiding lines (Sirtut). 

Last week I received a long awaited shipment of red Gvil parchement and it was just big enough to write a Lamnatzeach Menora. I used the square layout because I think it's the nicest and also because it's the middle way between the rounded and the straight Menora. I will record my experience with this Gvil in another post.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Fraudulent Scribe - are ALL his works invalid or just some?

Just a short introduction, in this post I bring a fascinating Teshuva I heard in Rabbi Yissochar Frand’s weekly shiur last month. In my Yeshiva years I had the great fortune of spending two years under his tutelage in Ner Yisrael, Baltimore, and I dedicate this post to him. He taught me the essence of learning Halacha Lemaase - Practical Halacha - and how important it is not to make things complicated but to be concise and understand the bottom line of every topic. This approach eventually pushed me towards learning Safrut, one of the most hands-on areas of the Torah.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (siman 69, mahadura kama) brings a case of a community who found out that a one of the city’s scribes was selling Tefillin with no Parshiot in it - a scammer. The question was what is the status of the Torah Scrolls he wrote during that time. Unlike the Tefillin, which had to Parshiot, his Torah Scrolls looked ok and seemed perfectly Kosher. Do we consider them Kosher or is there a credibility issue on all his works?

Rabbi Akiva Eiger tries to prove that the Torah Scrolls could be rendered Kosher and among his arguments he brings a very very interesting point. He brings a similar case from Halachot of Kashrut, about a butcher who was found to be guilty of selling treif chicken. Can you eat in his house? Or perhaps his behaviour of selling treif chicken invalidates his home’s kitchen?

The Halacha is:

אם אינו חשוד לאכול דברים אסורים אבל חשוד למכרן - מתארח אצלו ואוכל עמו
“If he is not suspected of eating treif, but he is suspected of selling treif - a person may stay at his house and eat with him”

Says Rabbi Eiger, the same can be said in the case of the fraudulent sofer. Even if he is found to be guilty of selling pasul Tefillin, the Torah Scrolls that he wrote for his own use are surely free of suspicion and, I quote, “may even be used to read Parshat Zachor” - which is (likely) a Biblical Commandment and thus a very important Mitzva. Why? He may be a dishonest businessman, but that doesn’t necessarily means that he doesn’t believe in anything. In fact, the opposite is true and we can rely that since he knew he would need the community Sefer Torah to fulfill the Mitzva of Parshat Zachor and say Brachot when reading from it on Shabbos, his Torahs are 100% kosher! 

However, the Sifrei Torah he sold to individuals and other communities do have a credibility issue and one should not use it.

I had a similar situation. When I gave my Mezuzot to be checked, the expert sofer told me that all of them were beautiful and Kosher, but that he would advise me to avoid using two of them, which he recognized as being from a specific sofer. I asked why but he would not answer.

I had a feeling that also in my case, there was a similar credibility problem with the person who had this handwriting. I speculate that my friend had already seen some very problematic things in other works of this scribe and thus advised me to stay away from his Mezuzot, even though they look perfectly Kosher.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ancient Tefillin

A fellow sofer showed me these exquisite ancient Tefillin, which he says are from northern Africa circa 1600's.
While I have no clue if this claim is right, I must note that beyond any doubt, these Tefillin were Psulim from the start. The four compartments of the Tefillin shel Rosh look like they're divided but when you open it, you see that instead of four there's only one big compartment - just like a Tefillin shel Yad. From the outside they made it look like a proper "bait" but that's just cosmetics.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Purim - The Shem in the Megilla

Unlike all other Tanach books, the Name of God is not mentioned throughout Megillat Ester - not even once.
The explanation is one of Purim's core characteristics: hidden provenance. The name of the scroll, Esther, means to hide and everyone puts on a crazy costume to hide themselves too. It's the festival of the hiding, and that's why Hashem's name isn't mentioned in Megillat Ester.

However when writing the actual Megilla, many scribes felt the need to highlight parts where the Megilla was referring to Hashem. In fact, that's the reason why the so-called Hamelech Megillot - which are arranged to have the word Hamelech at the beggining of every column - are so popular and command higher prices in the Stam marketplace. The word Hamelech is written numerous times in the Megilla starting every column with this word would be like the common Jewish practice of writing BSD (besiata dishmaya - with God's help) at the top of a note or page, since Hamelech can also be understood as a reference to God.

(Similarly, I've once heard that this is why every Talmud page has always four long lines of Rashi and Tosfot at the very top. It is presumably a hint to the four-letter name of God, Yud-Kei-Vav-Key. )

Be it as it may, scribes don't only use the Hamelech layout to highlight Hashem in the Megilla. Below is a 200 year old Megilla where the scribe wrote the four-letter of Hashem in big font (it is actually reversed).
In this other Megilla (hat tip to Melech), the Sofer did something similar but instead of writing big letters he made three dots on top of the corresponding letters:
I think this was a better strategy because there's a Mesorah that dictates which letters should be big (and small) throughout Tanach. It's not optimal to start inventing your own (that's the reason behind the 11-lined Megilla of the Gaon - see here for full post on that), but again, the concept is the same.

Many people attribute this practice of highlighting the Shem in the Megilla to the Hacham Tzvi, who was perhaps the most respected Ashkenazi (don't be fooled by the name) Rabbi of the 17th century Europe. I looked extensively for this source and was pointed to the Siddur of the Yaavetz , which you can read below. The Yaavetz says in the name of the Ari that we should be Mechaven (meditate) in the special Rashei and Sofei Tevot in the Megilla which are references to the name of God. Most likely, scribes decided to enlarge (or dot) these hidden names of God to make it easier for us when reading from the Klaf and thus be Mekaven.

Be it as it may, the Hamelech layout, large letters and dots are all well-established Minhagim that enhance and make our Megillot look even nicer.

Happy Purim and drink very responsibly