What does a sofer do?

Since you’re on this site, you know that I’m a sofer, and, if you’ve read the “about me” page, you know that a sofer STa”M (STa”M stands for sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzahs) writes and repairs Jewish ritual texts and paraphernalia.  But what does this really mean?

Let’s start with Jewish ritual texts.  The ritual text with which we’re most familiar is the Torah itself, which is written by hand, on parchment, with black ink.  Similarly, tefillin (usually, and unhelpfully, translated as phylacteries), which are black leather boxes containing four sections of the Torah and which are worn by Jews at prayer, and mezuzahs – by which we mean the scroll inside the case, and not the case itself – are also written by a sofer.  Sofrim – the plural of sofer – also write megillahs – usually, scrolls of the book of Esther, but also Shir Hashirim/Song of Songs, Eicha/Lamentations, Rus/Ruth, and Koheles/Ecclesiastes.  Sofrim may also write gittin, Jewish bills of divorce, which are written on paper and not parchment – but that’s another post.

Now, let’s break down a number of the terms I used.  Parchment (קלף, or klaf, in the Hebrew), is the skin of an animal that has been processed in lime to remove fat, flesh, and fur.  The resulting membrane is stretched out, scraped clean, allowed to dry, and sanded.  Klaf to be used for writing STa”M needs to be made לשמה, lishma, with intent that it is being prepared for sacred use.  There is a rule regarding all the parts of STa”M known as מן המותר בפיך, of that which is permitted in your mouth.  This rule tells us that all items used as part of STa”M must come from a product that could be kosher.  Thus, non-kosher wine can be used (kosher wine exists), and the skins of kosher species that were improperly slaughtered (even though the cow that the skin comes from wasn’t kosher, kosher cows exist), but pig skin cannot be used.  Interestingly, while skin from a kosher species of fish theoretically could be used, the Talmud forbids its use because of the stench, which cannot be removed even during processing.

Next, we have the ink, or דיו/dyo in the Hebrew.  Dyo needs to be, at minimum, black and permanent; other colors of ink, or ink that is black but impermanent, render the STa”M unfit for ritual use.  There are two formulas commonly used for dyo – one based on soot, similar to modern India ink, and iron gall ink.

I said above that the sofer “writes” STa”M – but what does writes mean?  In the case of STa”M, there’s a very particular meaning, which includes the following elements:

  • The sofer uses their dominant hand to apply ink; the rabbis understand that applying ink using other body parts doesn’t qualify as writing.  So if one holds a quill in their weaker hand, their mouth, or their foot, for example, they have not written.
  • The sofer must write in כתב אשורית, k’sav ashuris, or Assyrian script.
  • The letters must be formed by the application of ink, and not by erasing or scraping.  Only if the letter has its correct shape, but needs neatening, can erasing be used to help shape the letter.
  • STa”M requires guidelines, which are pressed or scored into the parchment.

To ensure that the sofer doesn’t make a mistake in writing, the sofer copies from an existing text and says each letter or word out loud before they write.  Additionally, at the start of the writing process, the sofer states that they are writing for the sake of the holiness of that which they are writing, and, each time they come to a divine Name, they state that they are writing for the sake of the holiness of the divine Name.

So, this give a bit of an overview of writing – G-d willing, I’ll go into more detail in future posts.

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