In the 1980’s I worked at a law firm in New York City as a “word processor.” Computerised typing was new, and there were a lot of systems that were increasingly being used in business; I worked on one called the Wang word processor. We saved our documents to what was then state of the art, the 9- inch floppy disk. A few years ago, I realised that, unless a paper copy had been printed, every document I created in those years is lost; there may be a few machines left that can read those floppy disks, but for the most part, all the work I did then (and every other word processed document from that era) has completely disappeared. No one will miss the contracts and agreements I worked on then. But what about more important things?
For Jews, the central text is the Torah. One of the ways it has been preserved over the millennia is that it is produced by the oldest possible technology. As Rabbi Michal Shekel tells us in My Jewish Learning, a Torah scroll must be hand-written.
This is done by a sofer, a specially trained individual who is devout and knowledgeable in the laws governing the proper writing and assembling of a scroll. The word sofer is from the Hebrew root “to count.” According to the Talmud (Kiddushin 30a), these scholars would count each letter of the Torah,making certain that nothing was omitted.
The materials used for creating these sacred items are restricted as well. Parchment used for the writing must be made from the skin of a kosher animal. The scribe mixes a special ink for the writing and prepares the actual writing utensil, a quill, usually from a turkey feather. He uses a reed instrument to scratch lines into the parchment in preparation for the writing. Once all the writing has been completed, the pieces of parchment are sewn together with thread made of animal veins. The finished scroll is attached to wooden rollers. No instrument containing iron or steel may be used in the creation of a Torah scroll, because these metals are used to create instruments of war.
There is a special type of lettering that is used to write the Torah. While the writing looks like a form of Hebrew block letters, certain letters are embellished with crowns, called tagin. Greater variations in lettering existed a few hundred years ago. Torah scrolls written by Hasidic groups had swirls in certain letters, with each letter said to convey a mystical meaning. Today, there is greater standardisation among Torah scrolls.
The scribe prepares the parchment by scratching 43 horizontal lines on it and two vertical ones at each end. This allows for a standard 42 lines of writing. Each sheet of parchment contains three to eight columns of writing. Some letters are stretched within a column to justify the left margin.
There are some places in the Torah where certain letters are larger or smaller than standard, or where the text is written in a diﬀerent type of column. Each deviation from the norm carries a special meaning. For example, the “Song of the Sea” (Exodus 15:1-19), which describes the parting of the Sea of Reeds, consists of three interlocking columns. The two outer columns symbolise the sea parted on either side, with the middle column representing the children of Israel marching on dry ground. Visually, this sets the section apart from the surrounding columns.
Such changes were instituted by the Masoretes — scribes of the 7th-9th centuries who standardised the biblical text — to highlight the importance of certain passages. All of the writing and layout must be done exactly to specification in order for the scroll to be kosher.
The scribe cannot write a Torah scroll from memory and must refer to a written book called a Tikkun. Whenever he writes the name of God, the scribe focuses on the task by declaring out loud his intention to honour God by writing the holy name.
One other ritual item written by a scribe is the Megillah (Book of Esther), which is read on Purim. However, in addition to ritual items, scribes also write legal documents such as a get (bill of divorce) or ketubah (marriage contract). The writing of all these items requires strict adherence to traditionally established form. The only place where the scribe has artistic license is in doing calligraphy for and decorating the ketubah. In this instance, creativity fulfils the precept of hiddur mitzvah, enhancing the joyous commandment by beautifying the item associated with fulfilling it.
The Talmud (Gittin 45b) states that scrolls written by certain groups of people, such as women or minors, cannot be used. The argument is based on an interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:8-9, where instructions are given regarding God’s teachings that you shall bind them on your hand and write them. The traditional understanding of this passage is that only those obligated to bind the teachings on their hand — that is, to wear tefillin — may write a Torah. In other words, being a sofer is restricted to adult Jewish males.
Later commentators relate the obligation to study Torah with the writing of one. This raises the question: since women are not traditionally obligated to study, does this fully prohibit them from writing a Torah, or merely exempt them from it? Today, there is recognition that women do study Torah and so there are those who argue that this permits women to write a Torah scroll. In addition, supporters of this position argue that numerous commentators in the past never put women on the list of those prohibited from fulfilling this sacred task. Still, the majority of scribes today are Orthodox men, though there are a few female and liberal scribes.
The Bible mentions “families of scribes” (I Chronicles 2:5), which were probably schools or guilds where an individual learned through apprenticeship.
Modern scribes also learn through individual apprenticeship and receive certification through a professional organisation. Interestingly, this is mirrored today in a nascent informal movement of traditionalist women learning this sacred craft secretly and teaching it to each other. This widening of the circle of scribes indicates its central importance for modern Judaism.
I have an electronic tablet version of the Torah text, and there are many technological aids to help us study and print the Torah. But, although changes have occurred in the writing of our central text, the creation of a Torah scroll relies on simple materials and human skill and devotion. It is through these resources that we are linked to our oldest traditions. And although small errors may have crept into the preserved text of the Torah (and the Hebrew Bible in general,) the degree of accuracy with which it has been transmitted is remarkable.
For me, this symbolises the right way to see the Torah, by preserving it to provide a firm foundation for our study of it and our other sacred texts. But at the same time, I believe we are obligated to study it critically. We inherit and value its wisdom, but we apply our modern sensibility to our tradition as well. The Torah thus becomes, in Jaroslav Pelikan’s words, not the dead tradition of living people, but a living tradition left by those who came before us.
Rabbi Gershon Silins