Sunday, October 6, 2019

Mission Accomplished! My first Sefer Torah (actually, not really mine)

I have come a long way since I set out to write my own Sefer Torah years back. I studied all the relevant Halachot and sources, got myself a mentor to teach me the craft in Jerusalem and I eventually purchased the Klaf to write this scroll.

I write slowly and only in my free time, so I was expecting it would take me many years to finish the Torah. But something interesting happened.

A few months ago, I was spending my summer vacation in a seaside resort, and I got an Aliyah in the local Shul - the fifth portion of Parshas Korach, Chamishi. The Baal Koreh finished the reading, and as I was closing the Sefer Torah to make the final blessing, the corner of my eye say something strange with the last word. I still (mistakenly) made the Bracha after the Aliya but I opened the Torah once again and I realized that there was a mistake that looked like this:



The Hey's leg was connected to the top, possibly forming a Tav. The Shul's Gabbai decided to ask a child (unnecessary), who confirmed it was a Tav. It was obvious to me the word was originally written correctly; somehow this thin connector was either written by someone subsequently or it was an impurity that found its way there. I rubbed my finger against it to see if it was something that would easily come off, to no avail. So we put the Sefer Torah away and brought in a different one.

An untrained eye would not spot the problem, as the Sefer Torah's writing was very solid and it was regularly used for over 30 years in that Shul. My question was, and still is, when this mistake happened - was the Sefer Torah pasul for a long time already?

I later came back to the Shul to take another look at it with the Gabbay and I came to the conclusion this was an impurity that found its way in this letter. It was a clear case of bad luck - wrong thing at the wrong place at the wrong time - and this "ink" fell in the worst place possible, changing the form of the letter (Tzurat Haot). Once the letter's form is compromised, the Halacha is that this letter becomes invalidated, even tough it was originally written properly, and consequently the whole Torah is Pasul.

I still couldn't believe this happened - it's the first time I caught a potential psul in a Torah - and I kept touching this strange connector, when suddenly I was able to clip away the connector, restoring the letter to what it was - a Hey. Welcome back, Hey.

Problem solved? Not at all.

This seemed to be a classical case of fixing a letter via Chok Tochot, which is forbidden. Chok Tochot means shaping a letter not by writing it, but by erasing parts of another letter. Imagine you write a big square of black ink, and slowly you "sculp" a letter by erasing parts here and there - that's Chok Tochos and that's a classical act of invalidation according Halacha. By clipping away the connector, I created a Hey from a modified Tav - not by writing it but by "playing" with the Tav. If this was the case, I would have to remove the Hey and rewrite it.

In the other hand, it could be that the connector never actually modified the Hey, since it was kind of a sticker that could be removed (as I did!). If that was the case, perhaps the Torah was always Kosher and it would require no action.

We asked a knowledgeable Dayan, who decided that it was necessary to erase and re-write the Hey - the Torah was pasul indeed. I asked the Shul's board to let me fix it, so I could be the Sofer restoring this Torah by fixing just one letter. This reminded me a concept brought down in the Talmud in Menachot:
וא"ר יהושע בר אבא אמר רב גידל אמר רב הלוקח ס"ת מן השוק כחוטף מצוה מן השוק כתבו מעלה עליו הכתוב כאילו קיבלו מהר סיני אמר רב ששת אם הגיה אפי' אות אחת מעלה עליו כאילו כתבו R. Yehoshua bar Aba: One who buys a Sefer Torah is like one who seized a Mitzvah from the market (Rashi - it is a bigger Mitzvah to write it himself; Rema - he does not fulfill the Mitzvah);If he wrote a Sefer Torah, it is considered as if he received it from Sinai. 
Rav Sheshes: If he corrected even one letter, it is considered as if he wrote it.
A simple reading of this Gemara suggests that any Sofer fixing a Sefer Torah that is pasul is actually performing the Miztva of writing a Sefer Torah - even if the Torah is not his (for example, a communal Torah scroll or a scroll that belongs to a library). After all, he is "creating" a Kosher Torah Scroll.

The Tosafists immediately weigh in this issue and write explicitly that the Gemara's last clause is not an independent one; it is the the continuation of the previous cases and it talks about someone who bought a Sefer Torah, which was invalid, and fixed it and only in this case, the Talmud is saying that this is equivalent to actually writing a whole Torah. See here verbatim:

אם הגיה בו אפי' אות אחת. פירוש בס"ת שלקח מן השוק לא נחשב עוד כחוטף מצוה

Sounds like Tosafot is explaining this Gemara in order to specifically dispel the possibility ("Hava Amina") I raised above, and would obviously rule that a Sofer fixing someone else's Torah is not fulfilling the Mitzva of writing a Sefer Torah.

This view is the mainstream outlook in this topic, and it is the universally accepted Halacha. However, the Mishnas Avrohom, an important early work on the laws of Safrut written by one of the Levush's children, brings down (see here) sources that apparently award the fixer the Miztva of writing the scroll even if the scroll belongs to someone else - precisely the idea we expounded above. The Mei Yehuda also brings other important sources agreeing with this idea. Therefore, basing myself in this minority view, I can say that when I rewrote the Hey and validated the Shul's Torah, I somehow got the Mitzva of writing my own Sefer Torah!

But realistically speaking, if I want to fulfil this magnificent Mitzva properly, I have to continue writing my own Sefer Torah, and I'm still at it. Nevertheless, this incident was a good opportunity to expand on the concept of what invalidates a scroll, Chok Tochos, how to fix it and the significance of writing even one letter in a scroll - perhaps this can also explain, as the Mei Yehuda writes (here), why people are careful to write at least one letter before the Sofer completes a new Torah Scroll (see my original post on this here). Even a small letter matters and it can make a very big difference.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Aleph א in Safrut and Modern History - Exploring the Hebrew Alphabet #1

The Aleph is probably the most famous letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and one could spend hours talking about its history, hidden meanings and symbolism. I've seen relatively few traditional resources exploring the Aleph in depth, so I decided to have a go at it, through the scope of a Sofer.

The Aleph's core shape is in the style of Ktav Ashurit as seen in the left, an ancient form which has existed throughout millennia with almost no change.

As with other Hebrew letters, you can often deconstruct it into smaller letters, for exegesis. The Aleph is composed of a higher Yud slightly facing updwards, a lower upside-down Yud and a diagonal line which is actualy a Vav (also called the Vav ha Mechaber / "connecing Vav"). It's widely known that the Aleph, the first letter, symbolizes the unity of God as the Gematria of Aleph is 1 and it's also the first letter of the hebrew word אחד / Echad   (1). And if you take the deconstructed letter, Yud Yud Vav, that will give you a Gematria of 26 which is the same as the Tetragammon - Gods Name. So you have Aleph, Echad, Tetragammon. You also have אמת / Emet, also starting with an Aleph, and according to tradition it's the Seal of God, the word best representing what God is about.

It's worth noting that many older publication used the innovative Aleph-Lamed instead of writing the word א-ל / E-L or Elokeinu / א-להינו, which are other Holy Names starting with Aleph. Again, there's a clear association between the Aleph and the holiest words in the Torah.

The Aleph is the first letter of the Ten Commandments (Anochi..) and according to the classical Rabbi Akiva's Midrash of the Letters, an ancient work, the Aleph received this honour in return for not being the first letter of the Torah, which starts with the second letter Bet (Bereishit). So here you have the Aleph as the first letter of Anochi Hashem, another important instance where the use of the Aleph stands out,

It's paradoxical that the Aleph symbolizes God's oneness, while its form has two Yuds. The explanation given is that the Two Yuds represent the spiritual and material realms, and that God is omnipresent is both. That's a common explanation. A deeper one, relates to two different ways of understanding God which is rooted in Kaballah. The explanation of these understanding is beyond the scope of this blog but Rabbi Prof. Ari Bergmann has a great series exploring this (click here for the online series; shiur 4 is specifically talking about this concept).

Aleph in Ktav Ivri
Coming back to the Aleph's form, the diagonal line sets the Aleph apart from the other letters, since most of the Hebrew letters are squared, while the Aleph is not. This diagonal look is most likely related to the way the Aleph looks in old Hebrew script - Ktav Ivri (or Paleo Hebrew - see pic in the right), an alphabet used by the Jews in Sinaitic times. In Jewish tradition there's a discussion which script came first, Ktav Ashuri or Ktav Ivri, however everyone agrees they are related and both Alephs share this diagonal commonality, which is important to keep in mind. By the way, the Greek letter “A” we use today is clearly the Aleph from the Ktav Ivri, rotated.

But throughout modern Jewish history, Jews used exclusively the Ktav Ashuri Aleph and you can find nuances in different scrolls around the world even in a letter as ubiquitous as the Aleph. Below you see the four most famous versions, which are still in use by different communities today.

From top left, clockwise: Arizal, Veilish/Sephardi, Beit Yosef/Ashkenazi, Chabad

As you can see, the differences are pretty much negligible but scribes of each community are very careful to always follow one of the options above, and keep a uniform layout.  The Arizal’s Aleph, is novel and substitutes the lower Yud for a Daled (it’s difficult to observe but it’s there, upside-down). This is a pretty radical introduction, and it’s safe to say the only the Ari had the stature to make this change; remember that the Yud Yud Vav construct is connected to the Tetragrammon and the Ari’s form is a Yud Daled Vav - completely different Gematria. I haven't found a good resource exploring this issue, however there were a few instances of Kabbalists pushing for minor tweeks in the letters in order to have some sort of mystical impact in their generations however no other Kabbalist had the level of acceptance of the Arizal, and to this day, his script is widely used in Tefillin, Mezuzot and Torahs around the world.

Reverse Aleph
I've seen some old scrolls with a reverse Aleph (see sketch in the right), following the style of the Tzadi of the Arizal which is also reversed. As the Ari did not introduce this change, this Aleph became subject to Halachic discussion in regards to its fitness and validity. The Noda BiYuda, one of the leading Dayanim of his time, validates (see here source) this post-facto, but this unusual shape in rather rare and scribes were very careful in following one of the four accepted shapes in the above diagram.
If you look closely, the Aleph has many "Ukzim", additional strokes at the extremeties of the letter. If you look at the classical Aleph of the Beit Yosef, you will find one Uketz at the top left, a second at the top right (by the Yud), a third in the lower right, and a fourth in the lower Yud. Some sofrim even add another one or two Uktzim, making the Aleph a very complex letter which requires a lot of work if you wish to achieve its ideal form.


Today, with the flourishing of the Hebrew language in Israel, many artists and publishers have proposed new versions of the Aleph for modern usage in printing and digital media. The most important typographic changes came after the invention of the printing press and subsequent need for new modern typefaces for prints. Van Dijk in Amsterdam came up with a popular font in the 1660's, which is still seen today in many books and it's clearly based on the Sephardic version of the Ktav Ashurit - "Veilish". Perhaps the strong Portuguese-Sephardi community in Amsterdam at the time had an influence in Van Dijk, but be it as it may, most typefaces today have a strong resemblance to the Veilish script. Another famous type is Frank-Ruhl's from the early 20th century. 

Some scholars have conducted extensive historical studies about the Aleph, and some have suggested a link to the ancient Swastika used by the Hindus in Asia, which was later hijacked by the Nazi propaganda. There is a resemblance between the two symbols, but in any Jewish mind, the Swastika is now connected to the atrocities of the Holocaust and it's unappealing to make any attempt to link the two. 

Source
Above you have a cover of a Shoa film implicitly suggesting this commonality in an attempt to visually connect the letter and the Shoa. To me, that's a leap too far.

But as time goes by, the Aleph is now in use in countless websites, artistic works and everyday signs in Israel and museums around the world. The history of the Aleph continues to be written everyday but the origin of this letter is a tenet of Judaism and it can be best understood in the context of its form in Ktav Ashurit and overal Safrut practices, which have been meticulously preserved by pious scribes and strict Halacha governing them throughout the millennia of the Jewish people's existence.