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diary of a sofer - part 1

Mordechai Pinchas Sofer

Vivian Solomon z”l was a Sofer (scribe). In fact he was at one time the only scribe in Britain helping the progressive movement with the maintenance of their Sifrey Torah. Vivian, however, has been looking for an apprentice, for ten years without success. Then he found one, ‘the chosen one’ has an awful lot to learn! My first lesson was in early August 1998. Vivian is an amazing person, 75 years old, but full of energy and enthusiasm and determined, as he says, "to pass on before he passes out". Looking back on it now, it was just like Star Wars and I felt like his padawan training under the master Jedi!  Except we used quills instead of lightsabres.

After he had looked at some of my calligraphy work - k’tubot (wedding certificates), covers for booklets etc. - and decided that I could at least write, we moved to the first lesson; cutting and shaping kulmusim (quills).

Feather quills

Goose or Turkey quills are the norm (though some scribes use reeds). Swan quills are nice but apparently Her Majesty the Queen isn’t too happy about people nicking her swans’ feathers, even if they are scribes.

I also learnt how to tell which feather is from which bird - now there’s a useful skill that I can employ to good effect in my daily life. My first two quills weren’t that bad but, on my own at home later, my third would be a complete disaster. Then we went outside to play with a rose bush.

(Now that sentence made you stop and think - didn’t it).

Sargel

Left: quills with an without barbs.  Right: a dowel sargel.

A scribe is not supposed to use base metals when writing sacred script and this even applies to how one rules the guidelines on the parchment. Lines are ruled with a thorn and the implement (a piece of dowel with a thorn ‘superglued’ on - yes I know they didn’t have superglue in ancient times but one must move with the times) is known as a sargel. Vivian then introduced me to k’laf, the parchment that one writes on. To practice Vivian likes to get people to write their names in Hebrew and so my first piece of writing on parchment with kosher ink was my own name.

To end our day we looked at various pasul (not-kosher) Sifrey Torah that Vivian had at his home for repair. One was literally five different styles joined together, where another scribe had tried to fill in the gaps missing in a Torah either from spare columns he had from other scrolls or by writing the extra columns and adding them in. In graphic design we would call this ‘cut and paste’, here it was more like ‘cut and sew’. The final scroll would never be kasher in the true sense of the word, (though not because of the fact it was put together from several scribes work) but it was at least legible and a community overseas would be able to use it, where previously they had no Torah at all.

Was I serious about it all? Vivian had the way of separating the men from the boys as he gave me a piece of k’laf about 12cms square. What’s this for?", I asked innocently. ‘Oh’ he replied, "just homework. I want you to write a mezuzah!"                                                               

Mordechai Pinchas

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