Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Lavlor Judaica - it's here!

As a Sofer I have spent countless hours looking at letters and also studying different concepts and ideas brought down in Chazal in the field of Safrut. By definition a Sofer is a copyist, and my job is do write my Torah Scroll as uniformally and perfectly as possible, without much room for creative work.

When I started in Safrut, I even considered adopting the obsolete Mesora of Otiot Meshunot for my personal Torah, as these letters are a great medium for creative and artistic work. I quickly realized it was a bad idea, as the mesorah of these odd letters is lost and not in use, so how could I write a scroll with a lost mesora? The whole point of a Torah Scroll is adhering to the accepted mesora of our day, and that's what I did in the end.

I'm exploring my creative urge in Safrut in a different way. I developted a design concept that is rooted in a sofer's work and also in many commentaries in the Torah - the concept of the interplay between Black Fire (written letters of the Torah) and White Fire (invisble letters that surround the written letters). 

According to tradition, the white letters will be revaled in the future, and we can only ponder what they actually are. It's hard to visualize how these invisible letters will actually appear in the Torah Scroll, as our scrolls today are so simple and unidimensional. But the invisible letters are there, and it is said in the name of the Arizal that while all Jews have a corresponding letter in the Torah, this personal letter might be actually not a written letter but an invisible one located in the blank klaf (by the way, this is way many have the minhag of looking at the Torah Scroll at the time of Hagba in shul, as the Ari said that you might evetuallt peek at your letter and connect to it).

My design is an attempt to crystalize this interplay between visible and invisble letters, and I got inspired when writing my recent post on the Four Legged Shin of the Tefillin. This odd letter is precisely one of the invisible letters which surround a normative written Shin, and it got me thinking how each letter from the Hebrew alphabet can relate to others. The most obvious combination is the famous Peh-Bet interplay, which scribes always make sure to create whenever writing a Peh in the Torah (with a small inner Bet). But there are many other possibilities, for example, a Yud inside a Kuf and so on. 

My first design variation is called Black and Color Fire, which is the best way to visualize how a black letters might be surrounded by many other invisible letters (represented by the colored letters) at any given time.

Then you have the fully colored design, called Color Fire, which is more uniform and perhaps more pleasing to the eye.

Lastly, I made a B&W version called Black and White Fire, which was the hardest but surely my favorite. It was a challenge to form the letters using only grayscale colors, because it's harder to spot the different letters around the canvas. It brings me back to the black and white scheme of the Torah Scroll, which is the pallete I always face when writing.

These designs are available for everyday items, as there's no reason why we should not be constantly reminded of the sanctity of the Hebrew letters and their relevance to our daily lives. While a Torah Scroll is mostly kept safe out of eyesight, my design is made with our modern world in mind and with the intention of bringing scribal ideas out in the wild. You have shabbos mugs, backpacks, phone cases and pillows. Soon you will be able to buy Mezuzot as well. It's more traditional then my wacky Banana art Mezuzah, which was really my first attempt at creating a Judaica piece.


Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Tefillin's Four-Legged Shin

The Tefillin shel Rosh has the distinctive feature of possessing a regular Shin in its right side, and a bizarre four legged Shin in the opposite side. Considering that the Tefillin is a very popular and publicly displayed Mitzva, most people are aware of this strange four-legged Shin but few know the story behind it. We we will explore this topic in this post.

The Talmud in Shabbat 62a and in Menachot 35a brings in the name of Abaye that the "Shin, Daled and Yud of the Tefillin are all 'Halacha LeMoshe Misinai'" i.e. an oral tradition dating back to Sinai. The comentators note that there are allusions to the Daled and Yud in the Tefillin's knots, and these allusions are not literal but rather loosely based in the letters Daled and Yud - see diagram on the right. Only the Shin is clearly written as a full fledged letter.

Before we delve into the Shin, which stands out from the other two letters, it's worthwhile mentioning the great controversy in regards to the Daled which is related to our topic - how to identify the letters in the Tefillin.

Up to a few hundred years ago, all communities - Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite - had the same Daled-style knot in the back of the head and it looked like a square knot (also referred to as Double Daled knot) - see image below. Looking at the Original Daled (below), it's not immediatedly evident the resemblance to the letter Daled but if you consider two Daleds, connected to each other, you can arrive at that picture. Then it came the "new Daled", which is more like a single letter Daled and more immediatedly identifiable.

Rabbi Fleckless (1754-1826), a student of the Noda BiYuda, writes in his response (link here) that we must keep the established square knot, and refrain from adopting the "new daled knot which has surfaced around 50 years ago... and we only have our tradition to rely on (square Daled)". We can gather that the new Daled shape (also called Single Daled knot) was introduced in the 18th century by the influence of Kabbalah, and Rabbi Fleckless (like his teacher) was a staunch traditionalist and fought any changes introduced by Hassidim based on Kabbalistic ideas (other changes include the Leshem Yichud prayers before Miztvot, which I explored in an earlier post).

The new, single Daled knot proved to be very popular and with the expansion of the Hassidic movement in Europe and also with the wide adoption of Kabala by the Sephardic communities, the Single Daled eventually became the standard knot present in most Tefillins sold in the marketplace. I've seen this phenomena in my own family - while my grandfather has the square knot, most of my cousins today have single Daled knots in their Tefillins - only because the new Daled is the standard in the shops and they didn't pay attention. 

From this discussion, we can already glean that the letters in the Tefillin are very loosely based on the actual scribal letters used in scrolls and not meant to be actual letters. The same used to be the case with the Shin - it wasn't originally a full fledged letter as we have today in our Tefillins, and like the Daled knot - which with time evolved to be more clearly identified with the letter - the Shin also underwent transformations.

While the Talmud does not elaborate on the nature of the Shin, early sources point out to a possibility that the original allusion to Shin was actually just the actual shape of the Tefillin shel Rosh - the four different compartments resemble the Shin when looked straight on (or from the back) - see picture to the right. Rav Elyakim, a tosafist (quoted by the 13th century work Or Zarua), brings this possible explanation along with the more popular and accepted tradition - writing the shape of the Shin in the sides of the box. 
The box itself alluding to the Shin
The Box itself looking like a Shin of 4 heads (black part)

Also possible to observe a traditional Shin of 3 heads if you focus in between the compartments

Notwithstanding this novel Shin allusion brought by Rav Elyakim, the prevailing custom throughout the ages evidently is to write Shins on the sides of the boxes. The earliest clear mention of the Shins in the sides of the Tefillin is the Shimusha Raba (who, by the way, has a different order of the four parshiot in the Tefillin unlike Rashi and R. Tam - explored here), an ancient work on Tefillin from the Gaonic period (roughly 589-1000CE):

"צורה דשין דימינא ג' רישי, ודשמאלא ד'
רישי, ואי אפיך לית לן בה"

"The shape of the right Shin is with three heads, and of the left is four heads. And if he made the opposite, it is of no concern"

Note how this passage only talks about three and four heads - that’s no coincidence; the original tradition was to write only the Shin lines without a base. The base of the Shin was the actual Tefillin Box base, serving as a flat base, as we learn from the talmud the the Shin should be touching the base (וצריך שיגיע חריץ למקום התפר) and the lines were not even very clear scribal letter - just lines (see below).

Ancient Tefillin, where the Shins are only lines touching the box base (source). See another example here

A scribal shin without a base, as per Yemenite custom 

As time passed, people started to made the Shin look more and more like the scribal shin, abandoning an allusion to an actual literal interpretation, leaving no mistake that this is a Shin. However, the Tefillin producers were carefull to always make sure the Shin is touching the base of the box even with the modified custom. 

Rabbi Yosef Karo writes explicitly, that "he heard that the Ashkenazi Jews make the Shins as simple lines... but we make them as actual printed letters... and go out to see what is the custom today (printed letters)". (see source here, midway through the page: ושמעתי שהאשכנזים נזהרים בכך, שמקמטים העור במלקט על ידי כפילה שכופל מהעור עד שנעשים סעיפי השיני"ן בחקיקת ירכות. אבל אנו נוהגים לעשות השיני"ן בדפוס, וגם בארחות חיים כתוב שיש אומרים שאין לחוש בזה, ופוק חזי מאי עמא דבר, עד כאן לשונו)

It is clear that the Shin in the Tefillin went through some significant transformation over time. Rabbeinu Simcha even writes that one should not "change from the old minhag of simple lines. If he wrote as an actual printed letter...we don't have the power to invalidate it" - a clear indication that he favors the early custom. (in hebrew:  וזה לשון הגהות בברוך שאמר, בשם רבינו שמחה: ושי"ן אין לשנותה ממנהג זקנים, שהיו עושין בקמט של עור הבית. ומיהו אם עשאה בדפוס, או כתבה בדיו על בית לבן, אין בידינו לפוסלה, עד כאן לשונו)

Now that we have established the two options of displaying the two Shins - either simultaneously in the shape of the actual box of the Tefillin or as two actual letters in the sides - we must understand what is the need of showing the second Shin. 

There are two forms of writing in Hebrew. One is what is referred to as “Moshe Rabeinu’s writing”, which is the standard writing method of a quill and parchment. The other writing form is the Ktav of the Luchot - Decalog, which was not written as a Torah Scroll but through carving in stone - and it was a Godly work,  delivered to Moshe at Sinai. In this form of writing, the letters are formed by the surrounding space made from stone. The letters themselves are hollow, nothing on their own. When writing a Shin, the surrounding space of the standard Shin looks like a four-legged Shin. 

According to Kabbala, the written Torah is only a part of our Torah - the surrounding spaces (i.e. negative spaces) are also part of the Torah but they are not revealed to us readily. They are mostly concealed, but they can make up sentences and a whole different level of teachings. 

The extra Shin is there to symbolize the hidden Torah from the surrounding letters, perhaps to remind us we only have access to part of the Torah. We can only speculate about the novel letters and wordings that will be revealed in later days, but I have seen an interesting drawing that helps illustrate how many possibilities there can be. 

Interporsing possible wordings within letters
Peh Bet
Famous interplay between Pei and inner Bet

The Arizal (quoted here ) says that a person should look at the Torah Scroll after the weekly portion, when the Torah is displayed to the congregation (hagba’a), because every Jew has a corresponding letter in the Torah and perhaps he will find his if he looks for it. 

I've also heard in the name of the Ari, a person who yearns for wealth will have a letter connected to a word or sentence in the Torah relating to money. Someone who is drawn to helping people or healing people will be drawn to a letter corresponding to this topic. But, says the Arizal, a Jew can have not a letter but an empty space surrounding the letter of the Parsha and that carries meaning and relates to the person in some esoteric way. Hence, the written and blank spaces in the Torah scroll are equally important, and that is the message of the two Shins in the Tefillin.

I suspect that this can also explain one well established scribal tradition in the beginning of the Torah. While the tradition relating to extra tagim in the Torah as brought by the ancient Sefer HaTagim has been lost, scribes still do four extra tagim in the Bet of Bereishit - one of the very few surviving extra Tagim in our modern day Torahs. Perhaps these four lines convey the same message of the four-legged Shin of the Tefillin - it relates to the other writing form which was found in the Luchot. While our Torah Scroll is written in the traditional way, we keep tagim that look a four-legged Shin in the very first letter of  the Torah to allude to the invisible Torah, just like we do in the Tefillin, because the written Torah and space surrounding it are actually one unit, although we only have access to the Torah we see in writing. 

As we have seen, the shape of the Shin in the Tefillin evolved through time and it carries a great deal of symbolism. The Shin is also the main feature of the Mezuza, which has the Shin Daled Yud inscribed in the outside of the parchment and the widespread custom is to write a Shin in the outside of the Mezuza case - similar to what’s done in the Tefillin shel Rosh. The Tefillin and Mezuza have this commonality, and  they stand out in regards to the importance attached to the Shin, one of Judaism‘a most mystical and beautiful letters.

I conclude with the Talmud in Brachot 6a:
א"ר אבין בר רב אדא א"ר יצחק מנין שהקב"ה מניח תפילין שנאמר (ישעיהו סב, ח) נשבע ה' בימינו ובזרוע עוזו בימינו זו תורה שנאמר (דברים לג, ב) מימינו אש דת למו ובזרוע עוזו אלו תפילין שנאמר (תהלים כט, יא) ה' עוז לעמו יתן ומנין שהתפילין עוז הם לישראל דכתי' (דברים כח, י) וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה' נקרא עליך ויראו ממך ותניא ר' אליעזר הגדול אומר אלו תפילין שבראש 
In short, the Talmud says that even God himself dons the Tefillin (!) and that the Tefillin relate to the passage "all the people of the world will see the name of Hashem in you, and they will fear you" - they will see the Tefillin shel Rosh and become fearful. Throughout the ages, the Tefillin has been a staple of Jewish life with amulet-like status, and archeologists even found them in Qumran, dating over 2000 years, and they look very similar to ours today - that alone, a great feat and giant testament of how well we kept our traditions, if if there were some minor tweaks in the body of the Tefillin.
Tefillin found in Qumran (source)

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Mezuza Art

Mezuza Art! 

How far can Judaica art go? 

In my opinion, it hasn’t gone far enough. Of course, there must be respect and reverence to the subject matter - holy scrolls that need to be treated as such. With that said, it’s hard to find Judaica items that are modern or inspired in pop-art, for example. 

Perhaps this has to do with the history of the Jewish people, who often needed to hide their religious items or at least be discreet. But in the present time such concerns no longer apply, and at the same time art has become ubiquitous and present in most homes - even if their Mezuza cases are passable. I think modern art can elevate Jewish practice in a very unique way, infusing it with added symbolism and imagination. 

Not long ago, M. Cattelan was able to elevate a simple banana into a 6 figure art piece (sarcastically called Comedian), which has become an instant pop art hit. This is my prototype for my house’s Mezuza case, which is suitable for 10cm Mezuza scroll. I needed a way to add the traditional Shin to the case, so I used the theme of Chiquita bananas, which is the most popular brand here in Europe. A mezuza case inspired by a banana pop artpiece? Why not. If we keep it respectful, a Mezuza Banana art case can be a tool towards elevating your home and perhaps showing that if a banana artpiece hung in a wall can fetcha whooping U$120,000 price tag, our Mezuzot are surely worth more. Or is this only good enough for Purim? 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Pitum HaKetoret on Klaf - a Good Idea?

One of the most popular Judaica items today is the Pitum HaKetoret, an excerpt of the Tamud in Kereisos 6, written like a Sefer Torah in parchment in various layouts, often times together with a Menorah-shaped Lamnazeach alongside it. This is probably the cheapest Safrut item a person can buy, and it can be used daily in Shachrit and Mincha prayers. 

This item always puzzled me. It’s an oddity to write Talmudic passages in parchment like a Torah or Megillot - there’s no precedent to this. The Ketoret has two passages of the Torah, and then a Baraita expanding on all the ingredients of the Ketoret as it was done in the Temple.

Before addressing this minhag of writing the Ketoret in Klaf, let’s step back and understand why we recite the Pitum Haketores every day and it’s importance.

The Beis Yosef (OC 133) writes that in the Siddur of Rav Amram Gaon (9th century) there was the full passage of Pitum Haketoret as in our Siddurim today - a testament of how old is the custom of reciting this passage in the prayers.

It would seem that its importance is similar to all the other passages about the Temple services in our daily prayers - as we cannot perform them in our days, we recite them and it's considered like we made the sacrifices, or in the words of the prophet Hosheaוּֽנְשַׁלְּמָ֥ה פָרִ֖ים שְׂפָתֵֽינוּ, "instead of bulls we will pay with our lips" - our prayers are today's sacrifices.

But there's a stringency in the Ketoret, already mentioned by the Rama (16th century - source here), that a person must read it from a written text but not from memory, because of the halacha that in the times of the Temple, forgetting any of the ingredients of the Ketoret incense was punishable by death. As mentioned, we recite the Pitum Haketoret in order to emulate the Ketoret preparation, therefore a person must make sure not to forget any ingredients, and reciting it by heart will inadvertently cause you to skip something some day. 

In fact, this is why Sephardim to this day, and Belz Hassidim, are careful to count with their fingers each ingredient while reciting the Pitum Haketoret - an extra layer of protection against skipping an ingredient (the source of this Minhag is Rabbi Chaim Vittal, the Arizal's prime disciple, in his Pri Etz Haim - here). See video below where you can visualize this Minhag, as performed by an Iraqi Jew. 

Therefore, we can say that there's definetly something different about the Pitum Haketoret, unlike other passages we recite in everyday prayers.

The emergence of the Zohar (see Vayakhel) and Kabbalistic minhagim in the 16th century brought the concept of reciting the Pitum Haketores to a whole new level, highlighting its esoteric value and protective properties (specially against plagues; that's why many are reciting it in the current Covid-19 epidemic, see article) to those who recited it, with the note that “there’s nothing as dear to Hashem as the Ketoret”. 

The Arizal popularized this concept and encouraged his followers to recite this passage twice daily, in Shachrit and Mincha, with maximum concentration, with the caveat that it should only be recited during the day but not in nighttime because of Kabbalistic considerations (although the Rama, mentioned above, and others specifically advised to recite it after Maariv). 

In our Siddurim today, the Ketoret is printed twice in Shachrit - once in the very beggining, before Hodu, and a second time in the very end before Aleinu, but this came about because of conflicting opinions about the optimal placement for the Ketoret in the morning prayer, and Siddur printers opted to follow both opinions. Many people only recite it once in Shachrit, usually at the end, and once again before Mincha.

Rabbi Moshe ben Machir, another famous Kabbalist who lived in Safed at the same time, wrote in his important work Sefer Hayom (source here);

החושש עליו ועל נפשו ראוי להשתדל בכל עז בענין הזה ולכתוב כל ענין הקטורת בקלף כשר בכתיבת אשורית ולקרות אותו פעם אחד בבקר ובערב בכוונה גדולה ואני ערב
He who is afraid for his life, should focus all his might in this topic and write it in a Kosher parchement, in Ktav Ashuri script, and recite it once in the morning and again in noon with great concentration. And I am the guarantor.

This is the earliest source recommending the writing of the Pitum Haketores in parchment, with Safrut lettering. Note his unusual wording "and I am the guarantor", meaning that he is personally attesting the protective powers of this passage if recited in the prescribed manner.

The Kaf Hachaim (19th century - source here), respected Kabbalist and Chief Rabbi of Turkey, also brings that the Ketoret "should be written like a Sefer Torah and it will bring him constant wealth", in addition to many other segulot associated with the Ketoret.

But there aren't many more sources to the Minhag of writing the Ketoret in klaf, and while all Kabbalists highlight the importance of the Ketoret, almost no one writes anything about writing it specifically in Klaf like a Torah Scroll. Perhaps this connected to the prohibition of writing a Torah scroll with only a few scattered passages, mentioned in the Talmud (Gittin 60a) and seemingly undisputed in practical Halacha, as quoted by the Rambam:

מֻתָּר לִכְתֹּב הַתּוֹרָה כָּל חֻמָּשׁ וְחֻמָּשׁ בִּפְנֵי עַצְמוֹ וְאֵין בָּהֶן קְדֻשַּׁת סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה. אֲבָל לֹא יִכְתֹּב מְגִלָּה בִּפְנֵי עַצְמָהּ שֶׁיִּהְיֶה בָּהּ פָּרָשִׁיּוֹת. וְאֵין כּוֹתְבִין מְגִלָּה לְתִינוֹק לְהִתְלַמֵּד בָּהּ. וְאִם דַּעְתּוֹ לְהַשְׁלִים עָלֶיהָ חֻמָּשׁ מֻתָּר.:  
It is permitted to write the Pentateuch, each book in a separate scroll. These scrolls have not the sanctity of a scroll of the Law that is complete. One may not however write a scroll containing some sections. Such a scroll may not be written for a child's instruction. This is permitted, however, where there is the intention to complete the remainder of the book. 
The Shulchan Aruch follows suit (here), therefore casting serious doubts about the permissibilty of writing the Pitum Haketores, which has a few Biblical passages, in parchement like a Torah Scroll. It's perhaps no coincidence that we have no precedent to writing something like the Ketoret in Klaf, and the question is not anymore why there are so few sources to this Minhag but how is it at all permitted. 

This prohibition is also applicable in everyday issues like writing Psukim in wedding invitations, which are commonly adorned with passages like אִם לֹא אַעֲלֶה אֶת יְרוּשָׁלַֽיִם עַל רֹאשׁ שִׂמְחָתִי or Kol Sasson veKol Simcha (see picture). Many scupulous individuals avoid writing it, or modify the passages slightly in order to avoid writing a scattered Pasuk (see here for an interesting article discussing this and other Halachic problems involved in Psukim in wedding invitations, by Rabbi Kaganoff) - and the Pitum Haketores, written in parchement and Ktav Ashuri like an actual scroll, would be even more problematic if written exactly like a Sefer Torah.

Perhaps the supporters of writing Ketoret in Klaf today utilize the Halachic heter of Es Laasos Lashem, which justifies writing Oral Torah even though there's a different, all encopassing prohibition of writing it in any form. This Halachic justification, which overrides the prohibition on the grounds that Chazal at the time of the Mishna felt that there was no other way to preserve the Torah, could be extended to the idea of writing a small scroll like the Pitum HaKetoret. This possibility is brought down by the Mizahav Umipaz (link), which has an excellent overview about many of the issues raised in this article.

Any way you slice it, it's difficult to find Halachic precedent to justify writing the Ketoret like a Sefer Torah and I haven't found many responsa on this issue. Perhaps this custom was not as widespread in previous generations. I was pointed to Rav Ovadia's responsa , in his magnum opus Yebia Omer (ח"ט יו"ד סי' כג) who disapproves this minhag (rather surprising, as it goes against the Kaf Hachaim, and Rav Ovadia was often careful to justify established Sephardic customs) but says that if you already have a Ketoret written in Klaf, it's no problem to read from it - a paradoxical answer (see this link for a quite and discussion about Rav Ovadia's ruling).

In practice, the Pitum Kaketores today is commonly a scribes' inauguration work because the Halachot of Torah, Tefillin and Mezuza do not apply to this novel scroll and therefore it's a good way to practice while not being afraid of making mistakes. One of my first works was indeed a Pitum Haketoret and guess what, I skipped a line but never thought it was a big deal (see picture). But as we have seen, there's one Halacha about this scroll that is more stringent than any other scroll - a Sofer cannot skip a word from the Ketoret ingredients lest he will be punishable by death! Baruch Hashem, it turns out that I skipped one of the very last lines, so without knowing at the time, I actually dodged a bullet by sheer luck.

After I got familiar with the issues discussed above, I have a whole different level of appreciation for the Pitum Haketores recitation - it is really a standout feature of our daily prayers. However, the sad reality is that, as the Rama predicted, people run through this tefillah because it is at the end of morning prayers and everyone is rushing for their daily schedules. I don’t remember last time I davened in a Minyan that gives enough time to say it word by word - the Chazzan will always rush towards Aleinu. And as noted by the Kaf Hachaim, if recited without the proper focus and rhythm, it has no esoteric value and even worse, it can even cause a major transgression of skipping a word from the Ketoret. The Ein Maavar Yabok (17th century) writes that the Chazzan must recite the whole section aloud just like the Shemone Esre, in order to make sure the Shul will have enough time to recite the Ketoret.

Notwithstanding the obscure origin of this Minhag, the reality is that it is very widespread today and one can find a Pitum Ketoret in hanging in many synagogues around the world and also in private people's tefillin bags - Ashkenazi and Sephardi. While the Halachic weight seems to be against this practice, some authorities try to find Halachic loopholes (see Mizahav Umipaz here for some suggestionsin order to justify this widespread Minhag, which could perhaps be referred to as a "Minhag Israel Torah Hi" - a well established Minhag can have validity even if it's not well justified. However, the most important thing to discuss is not whether the Ketoret should be written in parchement or not. What is crucial is having the proper state of mind, and knowing how important the Pitum Haketores is in our daily prayers.

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

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 approach among the classic commentators, 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.
lavlor scribe 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. 

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.