Sofer

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A sofer finishing the final letters of a Torah scroll

A Sofer, Sopher, Sofer SeTaM, or Sofer ST"M (Heb: "scribe", סופר סת״ם) is a Jewish scribe who can transcribe Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzot, and other religious writings. (ST"M, סת״ם, is an abbreviation for Sefer Torahs, Tefillin, and Mezuzot. The plural of sofer is "soferim", סופרים.)

By simple definition, a sofer is a copyist, but in their religious role in Judaism they are much more. Besides Torah scrolls, Tefillin, and Mezuzot, scribes are also necessary for the writing of megillot (scrolls of the Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Book of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Book of Lamentations), Nevi'im (the books of the prophets, used for reading the haftarah), and for gittin—divorce documents. Also many scribes function as calligraphers—writing functional documents such as marriage contracts, or ornamental and artistic renditions of religious texts—which do not require any scribal qualifications, and to which the rules on lettering and parchment specifications do not apply.

The major Jewish law (Halakha) pertaining to "Sofrut," the practice of scribal arts, is in the Talmud in the tractate Maseket Sofrim. In the Torah's 613 Mitzvot (commandments) the 613th[1] is that every Jew should write a Sefer Torah in their lifetime.(Deut. 31:19)[verification needed]

(The ⟨"⟩ in ST"M is a transliteration of the Hebrew punctuation character ⟨״gershayim (see that article).)

Qualifications and education[edit]

A sofer should be religiously observant, of good character, and knowledgeable about the laws concerning sofrut. It is a common misconception that one has to be a rabbi in order to become a sofer, which is not required by Jewish law.

People who want to become ritual scribes usually learn from another expert scribe by undergoing Shimush (Apprenticeship), since it would be impossible for someone to be a scribe without any actual practice. The hardest part about learning to be a sofer is not the calligraphy, but rather remembering the thousands of laws that apply to Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls), tefillin (phylacteries) and mezuzot and all the other texts that are written on parchment.

Some people who want to become ritual scribes learn at the Vaad Mishmereth STaM with the option of receiving a certificate. (This is an international organization whose goal is to protect the halachic and artistic integrity of the scribal arts. It is located in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak in Israel as well as and in Brooklyn, New York, United States.) Certification of this sort is not a halachic requirement, nor does it necessarily guarantee the quality of a particular sofer's work. This process does however ensure that a certified sofer has received the proper education and is a recognized expert in the field of sofrut.

Texts teaching sofrut[edit]

The Torah Scribe by Maurycy Gottlieb, National Museum in Wrocław

The main texts from which Sofrim learn the scribal art include: The Keset Ha-Sofer, Chasdey David, Mishnah B'rurah Volume I(B)—The laws of T'fillin, Mishneh Torah: Hilchot Tefillin u'Mezuzah v'Sefer Torah. Hilchot Tzitzit, Mishnat Hasofer, Mishnat Sofrim, Likkut Sifrey, Shulchan Aruch HaRav. Stam.[2]

Women and sofrut[edit]

Forming the basis for the discussion of women becoming soferim, Talmud Gittin 45b states: "Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot written by a heretic, a star-worshipper, a slave, a woman, a minor, a Cuthean, or an apostate Jew, are unfit for ritual use."[3] The rulings on Mezuzah and Tefillin are virtually undisputed among those who hold to the Talmudic Law. While Arba'ah Turim does not include women in its list of those ineligible to write Sifrei Torah, some see this as proof that women are permitted to write a Torah scroll.[4] However today, virtually all Orthodox (both Modern and Ultra) authorities contest the idea that a woman is permitted to write a Sefer Torah. Yet women are permitted to inscribe Ketubot (marriage contracts), STaM not intended for ritual use, and other writings of Sofrut beyond simple STaM. In 2003 Canadian Aviel Barclay became the world's first known traditionally trained female sofer.[5][6] In 2007 Jen Taylor Friedman, a British woman, became the first female sofer to scribe a Sefer Torah.[7] In 2010 the first Sefer Torah scribed by a group of women (six female sofers, who were from Brazil, Canada, Israel, and the United States) was completed;[8] this was known as the Women's Torah Project.[9]

From October 2010 until spring 2011, Julie Seltzer, one of the female sofers from the Women's Torah Project, scribed a Sefer Torah as part of an exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. This makes her the first American female sofer to scribe a Sefer Torah; Julie Seltzer was born in Philadelphia and is non-denominationally Jewish.[10][11][12][13] From spring 2011 until August 2012 she scribed another Sefer Torah, this time for the Reform congregation Beth Israel in San Diego.[14][15] Seltzer was taught mostly by Jen Taylor Friedman.[16] On September 22nd, 2013, Congregation Beth Elohim of New York dedicated a new Torah, which members of Beth Elohim said was the first Torah in New York City to be completed by a woman.[17] The Torah was scribed by Linda Coppleson. [18]

Documents written by scribes[edit]

Besides Torah scrolls, Tefillin, and Mezuzot, scribes are also necessary for the writing of Megillot (scrolls of the Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Book of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Book of Lamentations) and Nevi'im (the books of the prophets, used for reading the haftarah), and for gittin divorce documents. In some communities, especially Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky's community in Bnei Brak, soferim also write the other books of the Bible, such as Psalms or Ezra. (This was promoted in 19th-century Jerusalem by Rabbi S. S. Boyarski).

Calligraphy and lettering[edit]

The first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet as they would be written scribally (a digital approximation)

There are many rules concerning the proper formation of letters that must be adhered to if a written text is to be deemed religiously valid. Some details on letters, with animations The Ashkenazi, Sefardi, Chabad (Lubavitch), and Am Mizrachi each have their own script for forming the letters, though the same rules apply throughout the text. Generally, regarding Sefer Torahs, none would consider the other posul, though they would each consider their own "highly preferable."

The four-pronged Shin on tefillin

The documents must be written on properly prepared parchment or vellum known as klaf.

Also many scribes function as calligraphers—writing functional documents such as marriage contracts, or ornamental and artistic renditions of religious texts—which do not require any scribal qualifications, and to which the rules on lettering and parchment specifications do not apply.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

External links[edit]