Thursday, January 23, 2020

Preparatory Prayers in Safrut - an Overview

The Talmud in Berachos 13a mentions in passing a classic Talmudical dispute if Mitzvot need intent (מצוות צריכות כוונה) or not. For instance, if someone eats Matza in Pessach without any intent - just eats it - did he fulfill his obligation? This is a major topic of discussion that affects all Miztvot, and the Halacha seems to require a person to have some sort of intent, or at least not a negating intent, to perform the Miztva.

Many Rabbis encouraged the recital of a short pre-Miztva prayer, which usually is הרני מזמן את פי - a verbal declaration that the person is focusing in what he will shortly do. This concept is accepted by all streams of Judaism, as it is always a good idea to prepare ourselves and verbally declare that we are conscious before performing a Mitzva.

The Kabbala movement brought this concept a step further, and added another dimension to the preparatory prayers - a prayer that our Mitzva will have a mystical impact in the celestial worlds. This prayer is called לשם יחוד, and it's mentions the Shechina, the Tetragammon and how this name is divided - all very complicated and deep Kabbalah concepts - and the inclusion of this in the daily prayers was novel and controversial. The actual basic Leshem Yichud text is:

לשם ייחוד קודשא בריך הוא ושכינתיה  בדחילו ורחימו , לייחד שם י"ה בו"ה בייחודא שלים בשם כל ישראל
For the sake of the unification between the Holy Blessed One and His Shechinah with fear and love, in order to unify the Name Yood Hey and Wav Hey in perfect unity, and in the Name of all Israel.
Rabbi Landau - Noda Biyuda
Not all Rabbis were in favor of adding this prayer in everyone’s routine. Most notably, the Noda BiYehuda (Rabbi Landau d. 1791, leader of the European Jewry in the 18th century) wrote a famous sharp condemnation of those promoting the Leshem Yichud and famously declared that וחסידים יכשלו בם, paraphrasing the Pasuk ופושעים יכשלו בם - in effect, calling the Hassidim sinners, for he contended that this Kabbalistic prayer couldn't be understood even by learned scholars therefore it was not appropriate to encourage the commonfolk to recite it. One should contextualize his harsh opposition to his era - a time when Hassidism was a novelty and revolutionary to conservative leaders like Rabbi Landau (parentethically, Rabbi Landau's descendants attempted to remove this "name calling" in subsequent editions of the Noda BiYehuda, as the Hassidic movement grew and remained part and parcel of normative Orthodox Judaism - source and blog post).

Rabbi Falkeles, a disciple from Rabbi Landau, testifies that he once saw a pious man asking Rabbi Landau to use his beautiful Etrog for a bracha (Etrogim were very rare in Europe at that time, even more so nice Etrogim), and when he saw the man saying a Kabbalistic preparatory prayer - Yehi Ratzon - Rabbi Landau objected and declared that no one reciting any preparatory prayers had permision to ever use his Etrogim (source here).

Rabbi Landau, like the Vilna Gaon, held that a Bracha is in itself a preparation for the Miztva and therefore there was never any need of adding prayers before saying the blessing of any Miztva. When a Mitzva has no Bracha, for example when writing a Sefer Torah, then the Noda BiYehuda concedes that a preparatory prayer is warranted, in order to confirm a person's awareness, and his actual prayer was short and to the point (source):
הנני עושה דבר זה לקיים מצות בוראי "I'm doing this in order to fulfill my Creator's Miztva"

Rabbi Jacob Emden, a contemporary of Rabbi Landau and another influential (and controversial) leader, did include the Leshem Yichud prayer in his popular Siddur, the Yavetz Siddur, however he noted that his father, the famous Chacham Tzvi Ashkenazi, used to follow Kabbalistic guidelines but was careful not to do so publicly. In other words, Rabbi Emden addresses Rabbi Landau’s concern that this prayer is not intended for everyone and advises readers to recite it privately, like his own father used to do.

Notwithstanding the objection of some traditionalist leaders, most communities around the world adopted the custom of reciting the Leshem Yichud before Mitzvot, most notably the Sephardic Jews, who had always favored the adoption of Kabbala in their daily routine, and Hasidim, whose movement was sparked by Kaballa (also why the Siddurim of the Sephardim and Hasidim are so similar). And today, even non-Chassidic communities have accepted this prayer, and one can find this prayer in the ArtScroll siddur today before Pesukei DeZimrah, for instance. Eitan Katz, a popular Jewish Music singer, even composed a Leshem Yichud song (embedded below). We can safely say that the controvery died out over the centuries, and no one will scream at you for saying such prayer today, anywhere.
Most German Jews, who follow the Ashkenaz minhag did not adopt the Leshem Yichud as they generally followed the opinion of the Noda BiYuda. It’s also interesting to note that Belz Chassidim to this day have the custom of not saying Leshem Yichud before Birkat Sefirat HaOmer in the Yahrtzeit of the Noda BiYuda, which falls in Sefirat HaOmer, in deference to his position.

After this general overview, I would like to focus in the impact of preparatory prayers in the field of Safrut specifically.

Chazal demand an extreme level of focus when writing Mezuza, Tefillin and Torahs (aka Sta”m), and pre-writing prayers and concentration are almost mandatory, not merely advised. The Keset HaSofer (פרק ד), which is the last word in Halacha for Sofrim, writes:

סת״ם צריכין לכתוב אותם בכוונה גדולה לשמה וצריך שיאמר כן בפיו... ואם לא הוציא כן בשפתיו אלא שחשב כן בלבו יש פוסלים אפי׳ בדיעבד.
Sta”m must be written with a high level of concentration - lishma - and (the scribe) must say it verbally... if he didn’t say it with his lips but only thought in his heart there are those who invalidate the scroll even Bedievad.

Hence we can see that unlike other Miztvot, where we can find room for leniency, the lack of focus will invalidate the scribes’ entire work even before he gets started. Imagine a whole Sefer Torah invalidated on this account - a year’s work immediately deemed unfit.

According to accepted Halacha, the pre-writing prayer said when starting a Sefer Torah suffices for the whole scroll, even if the scroll will take many years to be completed. Without this initial sanctification, the validity of the whole scroll is in serious question. Even according to those who oppose preparatory prayers, as we have seen above, there's no Bracha for writing a Sefer Torah and therefore no existing framework for a demonstration of intent. Therefore, even they will agree that a Sofer must say loudly that he intends to perform the Miztva. 

The same principle applies one step before, in the process of manufacturing the parchment for writing. The very first moment of the production requires a verbal declaration that the work is being done lishma - for the sake of the Mitzva. Therefore if the worker fails to make this declaration at the start, the resulting parchment will be invalid and the Keset HaSofer writes ואין להקל i.e. there’s no room for leniency. It's interesting that this is so, as the Miztva per se is the writing of the Sefer Torah while the parchment production is only an Hechsher Mitzva (enabling the Miztva) and I would think that perhaps there's a way out in case of emergency. That's what the Keset says - no room for lenience, period.

The actual wording of this verbal declaration is also crucial. When manufacturing parchment for Mezuza, for instance, the worker will need to specifically say עורות אלו אני מעבד לשם מזוזה - I’m working these hides for the sake of (the Mitzva of) Mezuza. It's important to note that this very declaration is only valid if the parchment will indeed be used for a Mezuza. However, a parchment that will be used for Tefillin, the worker must be specifically declare it for Tefillin - ideally (there's perhaps room for leniency if you declared intention for a Tefillin but used the parchement for a Torah because of the concept of Maalim Bakodesh - one may increase the sanctity once there's a valid declaration).

In practice, the klafim makers usually produce the parchment with a conditional declaration - “I’m working these hides for either a Mezuza, Tefillin or a Torah, to be decided at a later date”. This is called a parchment produced “al tnai”, on a condition, and the Keset writes (פרק ב) that a person can rely on this option בשעת הדחק, as a last resort. But it's better to use a non-conditional parchement for sure.

So which klafim are usually sold in the market today? I learned it the “hard way”. When I purchased klafim for my Sefer Torah, the package got stuck in customs when the seller mailed it to me. I was quite upset because the authorities wanted to charge me a fortune for import taxes. So I called the klafim maker and after a chat, I discovered that these hides were “conditional hides” and he said that he could take them back if I purchased more expensive non-conditional parchments. Yes, there’s a substantial difference in price between the two, and while I assumed I was buying the very best, this whole situation enabled me to exchange my purchase for a much more "mehudar" option.

This is the level of trust involved in the work of a Sofer, because the scribe has to source his material from a trusted source and even a good source can give you less then optimal products. In turn, the private buyer has to trust the Sofer, and the source where the Sofer got his materials from. That's quite a leap of faith.

Therefore a Sofer or any aspiring buyer of Judaica scrolls must be vigilant and - here is the difficult part - know the Halacha. We live today in an age that many think that everything can go as long as you mean well. Unfortunately, in the world of Safrut, this is wishful thinking and there are many things that will go wrong without proper due diligence and knowledge. Hoping for the best will only get you in trouble.

One of these “danger spots” is the pre-Mitzva declaration which we have explored. That’s how important this short prayer is, and the impact it has in a holy scroll.

I will conclude with the recommended pre-writing prayer as mentioned in the Lishchat HaSofer:

1- before writing, the Sofer must recant for his sins.
2- he should recite the Kabbalistic prayer אנא בכח גדולת ימנך תתיר צרורה וכו׳
3- he should recite this personal prayer: יהי רצון מלפניך ה׳ או״א שתשרה שכינתך במעשה ידי ותצליכני בכותבי זאת שאני כותב ספר תורה זה לשם קדושת ספר תורה ותצילני מטעות הכתיבה ומטעות הכוונה אמן כן יהי רצון