Who are the Hebrew Sofer?

The Hebrew alphabet (excluding final letters) in Ashurit script.

My last two articles have been: What is a Torah? and What is a Sefer Torah?, and now I want to address who writes Sefer Torahs. The Hebrew word Sofer (or sopher) (plural: soferim/sopherim) means “one who counts”1, and refers to Jewish scribes who have faithfully copied the Torah for thousands of years. I find it interesting the the scribes are called “counters” and not “writers”. Only a trained and certified Sofer is authorized to create Sefer Torah.2

Modern scribes are called Sofer STaM, which refers to Sefer TorahTefillin and Mezuzah, and describes the types of documents the Soferim are specially trained to copy. Tefillin, or phylacteries, are small boxes worn by Orthodox Jewish men on their arm and forehead which contain verses reminding the wearer of God’s goodness (Exodus 13:1–10 ESV, Exodus 13:11–16 ESV, Deuteronomy 6:4–9 ESV, Deuteronomy 11:13-21). A Mezuzah is a small box which is hung on the doorposts of Jewish homes, and contains two passages (Deuteronomy 6:4–9 ESV, Deuteronomy 11:13-21). The purpose for both the tefillin and mezuzah is to fulfill the commandment in Deuteronomy 11:18 (ESV): “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine [God] in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”3

There are 304,805 letters in a Sefer Torah, and if even a single mistake is found in a scroll, the scroll will not be considered kosher and can’t be used in synagogue. Because errors are not allowed, soferim have over 4,000 rules they must learn before writing a Torah. Many of the rules are discussed in the Talmud4, which is a source for Jewish theology and ceremonial law, second only to the Torah. The Talmud is considered authoritative, but it contains the opinions of a number of Rabbis, and the opinions often conflict.

Various rabbinic rules regarding transmission procedures such as the selection of writing materials, preparation of leather, error correction, transcribing of divine names, storage and reading of scrolls, and measurements of sheets, columns, and margins all point to the reverence with which rabbinic scribes approached the biblical text.”5

Who is allowed to write a Sefer Torah?

A Sofer must bar mitzvah, which means to become a member of the Jewish community, and become accountable to the ritual laws, ethics and traditions of the community. Boys bar mitzvah at the age of 136, while girls bat mitzvah at as he 12 (Orthodox and Conservative) or 13 (Reformed).

In Deuteronomy 6:8-9 (ESV)7, Moses is speaking and says “You shall bind them [tefillin] as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the door-posts of your house, and on your gates.” This is a command primarily to the Israelite men, so it is the basis for the  tradition that only men can become soferim.8 Some Jews allow women to become soferet and write Sefer Torahs9, but Orthodox Jews reject Torahs written by women.

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.10

There is a commandment which requires all single men to write a Sefer Torah, but writing even a single letter in a Sefer Torah fulfills the commandment. This is based on the verse Deuteronomy 31:19 (ESV) “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel.” This commandment is confirmed in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b:1911; Menahot 30a:1012). Often a community will commission a Torah scroll, and as the scroll is being completed, the men who have not yet fulfilled this commandment will each write a single letter, with the help of the Sofer writing the scroll.

How does a Sofer prepare himself to write a Sofer Torah?

The Sofer must pray with a minyan, a group of ten or more Jewish men13, every morning before writing on the scroll.

Writing a Torah scroll is a holy task. In preparation, the scribe immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath). Before beginning a new scroll, he recites a formula declaring his intent to write the scroll for a holy purpose. To make sure all his tools are fit for the task, he tests the quill and ink by writing the word ‘Amalek’ on a piece of parchment. He then crosses it out with a number of strokes in order to fulfill the commandment of blotting out the name of Amalek, a biblical enemy of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 25:17-19 ESV)14.15

What materials does a Sofer use to write a Sefer Torah?

The instruments used to make a Sefer Torah must not be made out of metals which can be used to make weapons.

The parchment for a Sefer Torah must come from kosher animals, and be prepared specially for use in a Sefer Torah. The  preparation process for the parchment can take two weeks or more per sheet.

The Sofer also prepares ink for writing the Sefer Torah by combining a blend of powdered gall nuts, copper sulfate crystals, gum arabic, and water, preparing only a small amount at a time, so that the ink will always be fresh. Fresh ink is a deep black, and only this is acceptable for writing a Sefer Torah.16

The quills, or kalmus,  the Sofer will write with must come from kosher birds, such as goose or turkey. Special quills are reserved for writing God’s name.

The individual sheets are stitched together with giddin, veins from a kosher animal.

What is the format of the scroll?

There will be 248 columns in a Sefer Torah.17

A Sefer Torah will traditionally have 42 lines per column. A straight edge is used to lightly mark off the columns and lines on the sheets to allow the Sofer to neatly write the text in each column.

The spacing of the letters, word, lines and columns is carefully controlled.

No two letters can be touching.

One who writes a Torah scroll and comes to finish writing it may not finish writing it in the middle of the column in the manner that one finishes writing one of the five books of the Torah written as an independent scroll. Rather, he should progressively shorten the width of the lines until he finishes the scroll at the end of the column. (Menachot 30a:2)

The font must be Ktav Ashuridi, of which there are a few variations, depending on where the Sofer was educated.18

The Hebrew alphabet (excluding final letters) in Ashurit script.

The font must be Ktav Ashuridi, of which there are a few variations, depending on where the Sofer was educated.19

There must be exactly 304,805 letters in Sefer Torah. An extra letter, or a missing letter, would make the scroll only 99.999672% accurate, which makes the scroll pasul [invalid], and can’t be used in a synagogue.

How does the Sofer start writing a scroll?

A Sefer Torah must be hand-written, not using a machine (printing press), or even a ball-point pen. Only quills from kosher birds may be used for writing.

The Sofer may not write from memory. “It is prohibited to write even a single letter of the Bible when not copying from a written text.” (Megillah 18b:12) The Sofer will copy the text from a Chumash20 or Tikkun21 to ensure the text is copied accurately.

Although Hebrew is read and written from right to left, the Sofer forms each individual letter starting from left to right, checking each word from the Tikkun, singing each word, each letter, out loud.22

The Torah must be copied exactly, even if the Sofer believed the source document had a mistake, such as a misspelling.23

Each completed sheet must be checked three times to look for errors.24

How does the Sofer prepare to write God’s name?

Because God’s name is holy, Jews are reluctant to write it down. Deuteronomy 12:2-4 (HNV)25 gives instructions to the Israelites on what to do with the foreign gods and places of worship in the land they were going into.  This passage ends with “…you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods; and you shall destroy their name out of that place. You shall not do so to the LORD your God.” Because of this command, Jews believe it is a violation of God’s law to destroy his name. Since God’s name should not be destroyed, great care is taken when writing it to ensure its written correctly. Often Jews will write G-D to avoid writing God’s name when the object it’s written on might be destroyed.

The Sofer must wash in a mikveh26 on days the name of God will be written.

The Sofer must recite “I am writing the name of God in honor of his holy name.” every time God’s name is written.27

A special quill and bottle of ink are used to write God’s name.

What happens when a mistake is found?

Repair on Torah Scrolls can be done by cutting out the pasul section (Numbers 26:38)

If a mistake is made which does not include the name of God, the sheet can be repaired if the mistake can be completely removed, even if it means cutting out a bit of the sheet.

When a Sofer (scribe) is writing the Sefer Torah he must prepare himself mentally to sanctify the name of G-D. Once he starts writing the name he may not stop until it is finished and if he makes a mistake he may not change what he has written. One of two things can happen at this point. According to some Soferim, he may take a very sharp object and cut out that piece of skin, glue a new piece on the back side of the sheet and re-write the name. There is quite a bit of argument with this procedure though. The most common thing he may do is take the entire sheet to the geniza and never use it.28

How long does it take to write a Sefer Torah?

The entire Sefer Torah can take a scribe a year or more to create.

A very rough estimate required for a Sofer’s time would be one sheet per week (average 52 sheets per Sefer Torah), one column per day, six lines per hour, and 3 letters per minute. The following quote is from Mordechai Pinchas Sofer STaM: “I average about 7-8 minutes a line and when I’m in the zone about 6 minutes and when struggling 10 minutes. So a good scribe should be able to do about 4 letters a minute. Sefardi scribes will be quicker. And careless scribes will be quicker still.”29

If you read that carefully, he averages about 4 letters a minute, or 15 seconds per letter! I don’t have the patience for writing that carefully.

Resources

  1. …the first Sages were called: Those who count [soferim], because they would count all the letters in the Torah…. (Kiddushin 30a:11)
  2. A Torah scroll is a Sefer, while the scribe is a Sofer, with the second letter being an “e” and an “o”, respectively.
  3. Similar commands are also given in Exodus 13:9 (ESV), Exodus 13:16 (ESV) and Deuteronomy 6:8 (ESV).
  4. The Talmud has two components; the Mishnah (Hebrew: משנה, c. year 200 CE), a written compendium of Rabbinic Judaism’s Oral Torah; and the Gemara (circa year 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah and related Tannaitic writings that often ventures onto other subjects and expounds broadly on the Hebrew Bible. The term “Talmud” may refer to either the Gemara alone, or the Mishnah and Gemara together. (Talmud (Wikipedia) Accessed 31-Mar-2029.)
  5. McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017)  97. (Amazon)
  6. Five years is the age for the study of Scripture, Ten is the age for the study of Mishnah, Thirteen is the age for observing commandments, Fifteen is the age for the study of Talmud, Eighteen is the age for the wedding canopy, Twenty is the age for pursuit, Thirty is the age for full strength, Forty is the age for understanding, Fifty is the age for giving counsel, Sixty is the age for mature age, Seventy is the age for a hoary head, Eighty is the age for superadded strength, Ninety is the age for a bending stature, One hundred, is the age at which one is as if dead, passed away, and ceased from the world. (Pirkei Avot 5:21)
  7. Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV)
  8. A Torah scroll, phylacteries, or mezuzot that were written by a heretic or an informer, a gentile or a slave, a woman or a minor, or a Samaritan or a Jewish apostate, are unfit…. Anyone who is included in the mitzva of binding the phylacteries, i.e., one who is both obligated and performs the mitzva, is included in the class of people who may write Torah scrolls, phylacteries, and mezuzot; but anyone who is not included in the mitzva of binding is not included in the class of people who may write sacred texts. (Gittin 45b:6)
  9. Ingall, Marjorie. Women of the Deerskin (TabletMag.com, October 22, 2015) Accessed 30-Mar-2019)
  10. Shekel, Michel.The Making of a Torah Scroll (My Jewish Learning) Accessed 30-Mar-2019)
  11. With regard to the mitzva for every Jew to write himself a Torah scroll, even if a person’s ancestors left him a Torah scroll, it is a mitzva to write a scroll of one’s own…. (Sanhedrin 21b:19)
  12. One who purchases a Torah scroll in the marketplace is akin to one who snatches a mitzva in the marketplace, as the proper manner in which to perform the mitzva of writing a Torah scroll is to write one for himself. And if he himself writes a Torah scroll, the verse ascribes him credit as though he received it at Mount Sinai…. If he emended even a single letter of the Torah scroll, thereby completing it, the verse ascribes him credit as though he had written it in its entirety. (Menahot 30a:10)
  13. Some congregations allow women to participate in a minyan when there are not enough men present.
  14. “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the LORD your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget. (Deuteronomy 25:17-19 ESV)
  15. Shekel, Michal. The Making of a Torah Scroll (My Jewish Learning) Accessed 06-Mar-2019.
  16. What is a Sefer Torah? (Torah Tots, Inc.; Website) Accessed  31-Mar-2019.
  17. Some resources indicated 245 columns, but 248 seemed more common.
  18. Letters (Mordechai Pinchas – Sofer), shows how each letter is formed.
  19. Letters (Mordechai Pinchas – Sofer), shows how each letter is formed.
  20. A chumash is a copy of the Torah, each of the five books of the Torah bound separately.
  21. A tikkun contains the text as it appears in the Sefer Torah, and the text with the vowels and cantillation marks for pronunciation.
  22. What is a Sefer Torah? (Torah Tots, Inc.; Website) Accessed  31-Mar-2019.
  23. Berch, Mark L. The Sefer Torah From Start to Finish | A New Torah Is Created, Part 1 (Tifereth Israel Congration)
  24. This may be an ancient tradition which is not used by some modern scribes, as I read computes are now used to verify a scroll is kosher. (Examine Your Torah Via Technology (Sofer On Site; Website) Accessed 01-Apr-2019.)
  25. You shall surely destroy all the places in which the nations that you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains, and on the hills, and under every green tree: and you shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; and you shall cut down the engraved images of their gods; and you shall destroy their name out of that place. You shall not do so to the LORD your God. (Deuteronomy 12:2-4 HNV)
  26. Ritual bath.
  27. Shekel, Michal. The Making of a Torah Scroll (My Jewish Learning) Accessed 06-Mar-2019.
  28. Writing the name of God in a Hebrew Scroll (Scrolls4All.org) Accessed 28-Mar-2019.
  29. The duties of a Hebrew Scribe or Sofar (Scrolls 4 All)

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