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diary of a sofer - part 5

Mordechai Pinchas Sofer

The mezuzah was almost complete. I had completed the names of God with the appropriate degree of kavannah and I scanned it into the computer and sent a copy to Vivian for checking.

There was a mistake! A small mistake true, but nonetheless a mistake. In the very last word of the 6th line I was missing a letter 'yud'. Fortunately such a small letter is relatively easy to insert and by scraping with glass, I managed to rectify the word. A bit messy but passable. However the mezuzah was not finished as on the reverse were needed two additional elements. The word Shaddai - another name of God) for which there are a number of explanations the most popular (but least likely) explaining it as an acronym shomer d’latot yisrael - the guardian of the doors of Israel - and the even more peculiar phrase kuzo b’mochsez kuzo which is written upside down directly behind the words hashem elokeynu hashem and which are the next letters on in the alphabet. Don’t believe me - check your mezuzot - which you should do at least every 3.5 years anyway!

Why? The usual explanation is that it’s kabbalah (mysticism) but Vivian and I weren’t satisfied with that and we searched for some real hard facts.

Reverse of the mezuzah

However as I learnt studying the halacha my mezuzah was not actually correctable as the letters must be written k’sidran (in their order) and thus it was pasul (invalid). However it is noted by the Va’ad Mishmeret S"TAM that many less than meticulous sofrim do allow correction, but this means their work is invalid. My first mezuzah is now merely for display and never to be used, so this isn’t a problem, but I have been even more careful since.

The reverse of a mezuzah

So far, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the actual ‘doing’ of Sofrut. Just as important, if not more so, is the study associated with all the intricate laws governing the letter forms, the rituals, the parchment, the ink etc.

This is not that simple as the laws are not all gathered in one place. Many collections of laws purport to be comprehensive, but so far I’ve discovered numerous versions of halachik digests. The big downer is that since this is a very specialist area very few of them have been translated from the original Hebrew, so it’s jolly hard work, but quite and interesting challenge!

The form of the letter Gimel

The form of the letter 'Gimel' as described in Mishnat Sofrim by the Chafets Chayim.
There are several rules to ensure it is written just so!

Being a sofer is just as much about understanding and adhering to the strict rules as much as the writing and whilst this element of my learning isn’t quite as eventful (or as funny) as some of the other things I have described in my preceding articles, it is crucial. Assisting in my learning, believe it or not is the world wide web. Aside from advertising their services on the internet, a number of scribes in Israel and America have set up very educational sites (in English!) with lots of detail, examples of work and in some cases summaries or translations of specific laws.

One might think that learning a 3,000 year-old trade that is wedded to the natural and is about as old-fashioned in communication terms as you can get - being one step up from cuneiform - wouldn’t be compatible with the high-tech computer world. You’d be wrong. One site even boasts that as well as the prescribed checks by three rabbis for accuracy in a Sefer Torah they offer an additional validation by computerised scanning. Most importantly I learnt from the web that most apprentice scribes start with Megillat Esther, for the simple reason that it is the one piece of scribal work that does not mention the name of God. Was this the start of something big? Find out next time.

Mordechai Pinchas 

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