Thursday, May 3, 2012

Re-post: The reliability of messy writing

This article appeared in 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.

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