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diary of a sofer - part 18

Mordechai Pinchas Sofer

Recently I attended a governors training day at Clore Tikva school, where we were studying Talmud with the American educator Joel Lurie Grishaver.  In the roundabout way that Talmud works, though we were learning about leadership we were focusing on what one can or can’t do in a public courtyard (all those where an improper thought just crossed their mind go to the back of the class). 

But why am I telling you this?  Apart from the fact that study is very important in sofrut, it transpires that according to an un-attributed baraita (a statement from mishnaic times which isn’t in the Mishna) in Bava Batra 21a  that ‘if a person has a room in a courtyard, he must not rent it to a mohel, a blood-letter, a weaver, a SOFER or a non-Jewish teacher’. 

Now I know a mohel - we often go to the cinema together - and I suspect he would be fairly surprised to be classed alongside a blood-letter (though this is presumably where his main profession as a doctor started), however as we passed through the text,  I suddenly got a bit miffed.  Why shouldn’t a sofer be allowed to work in a room in a courtyard?  It was Rashi who first leapt to my defence.  According to him, sofer in this context doesn’t mean scribe, as is usual, but refers to a Jewish teacher.  Rava says it’s actually the head teacher and the prohibition is to prevent staff meetings, which would have too many teachers coming and going and so annoy the residents.

‘Wrong!’ says Tosfot (a motley collection of  Rashi’s descendants who enjoyed nothing better than proving their ancestor wrong) ‘sofer does mean the town scribe who would have lots of visitors’ making orders and bringing scrolls, mezuzot and tefillin for repair, so I was banned again!

But it was Rabbi Gershom who turned out to be the hero of the day.  ‘Wrong!’ he says, ‘here the word is actually SAPAR (same consonants, different vowels)  a barber, not a scribe!’ 

It was more or less at this point that I started giggling - probably not the done thing with Talmud study.  Joel looked at me strangely.  You see, I explained, my grandfather had been a barber.  Within a couple of sentences a scribe had become a barber, and, as my father then piped up, within a couple of generations, a barber had become a scribe!

A good story, but not as good as the best scribal co-incidence, I have ever heard of.  My friend Sheila Chiat (another educator, but more well known to SWESRS) recently took up a post at the museum for the Czech Memorial scrolls.  Sheila and I recently met up to look at two pieces of scroll that she had discovered hidden away.  She also gave me some literature and told me the story. 

Right: A piece of Czech scroll (actually from the Ha’azinu poem) held up by Sheila.


In 1964 the Prague Museum agreed to hand over Czechoslovakian scrolls that had been preserved by the Nazis for an ‘exhibition of a defunct culture’.  The Museum could not store them or display them effectively.  They were sent to Westminster Synagogue in Knightsbridge where they were racked, numbered and examined.

Later in 1965, Mrs Ruth Shaffer, who had overall responsibility for the project, opened the door of Kent House and there was a man with a long white beard.  ‘Shalom, I’m an experienced sofer do you have any scrolls that need repair?’  ‘Yes’, replies Mrs Shaffer, ‘we have one thousand, five hundred and sixty four.’  The scribe - one David Brand - stayed there for more than twenty years!

Mordechai Pinchas

Coming soon a little section on the Czech scrolls.

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