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Tikkun for Megillat Hashoah

Care of Your Torah

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The Song of the World photo book

East London Synagogue

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Megillat HaY’shuah (the salvation scroll)


Sefer Binsoa - the book of Binsoa

the psalm 19 scrolls

Mordechai Pinchas Sofer

When I was asked to provide designs for the new covers for the Sifrey Torah for my synagogue, I was only too pleased to be involved in chidushey hamitsvah (beautifying the commandment).  There were three scrolls and I felt that there needed to be an encompassing theme that linked them all. This was to come from an excerpt from Psalm 19 that I had vivid memories, as a teenager in shut every week, of our Rabbi reciting on the bimah when the scrolls were being taken from the Ark.

Menorah and shofar designs

The first design using my own, rather
 difficult to blow,
shofar and the
K’nesset Menorah.

I brought out the design again but time had moved on. Apart from them being dreadfully old fashioned for what a new modern building, the Rabbi quite rightly pointed out that the symmetry of the design would only ever work when the scrolls were in the Ark and because of the size of the breastplates they would be mostly obscured. A new approach was needed.

Simply put this was one of the coincidences that makes a designer very happy. There were 6 verses and three scrolls - 2 on each, bottom and top!  Some years prior I had produced a set of sketches using this text and images of the shofar and the k'nesset Menorah (it being a gift from the British Government to Israel) to give a symmetrical style. They were to be reproduced in the traditional blue with gold lettering

Mishna designs

Right: Two examples from the Mishnah designs showing the book of Mo'ed (seasons) and the book of K'doshim (holy things), unfortunately very biity and far too complex a set of designs though a nice visual midrash!

By this time, my own background had changed. I was engaged in studying the MA in Jewish Studies at the Leo Baeck College and I was very impressed by the lively teaching in the Midrash classes and was very keen on the idea of creating a visual Midrash one that linked Torah Shebichtav (the Written Law) with Torah Sheb'al Peh (the Oral Law). W e had been studying. Midrash Shocher Tov. the Rabbinical exegesis on the book of Psalms and I turned to this for inspiration.

Again fortune was kind as I read that the early rabbis had linked each of the six verses from Psalm 19 to each of the six books of the Mishnah (the base text of the Oral Law collected together c.200 CE by Rabbi Y'hudah Hanasi).

Here then was the idea and I started to come up with visual representations of the 6 books. This proved quite a task as how did one portray the complicated concepts of the books of the Mishnah in a simple design capable of being embroidered onto material. Whilst this gave them an individuality of some kind and allowed them to function independently from the other, when presented it was agreed that they were too 'bitty' and 'fussy' and stilI overly traditional in appearance, particularly since I was  locked into the S'TAM typeface (i.e. the traditional script used by a sofer (scribe) when writing a sefer torah, tefillin or mezuzah (hence the acronym S'TaM) and this was before I became a sofer!

Fire torah cover sketch

Getting closer - a hastily scribbled rough of the flame design.

Fortunately (I say this but this is where designers always cheat), I had another idea up my sleeve. Whilst the Mishnah ideas avoided the problem of the breastplates obscuring most of the design, it left columns of empty space either side. To fill this, I had contemplated some sort of background pattern so that a block was formed around the breastplates.  Insisting to myself that the 'columns' also had to convey some meaning and having already linked Torah with the Mishnah, I turned to the main repository of Jewish knowledge and law through the ages, the Talmud.

And, would you believe it, fortune smiled once again as I alighted upon the tractate Ta-anit (fast days) in which the rabbis compared the Torah with things from nature; trees, water, fire, milk and wine. Moreover, each comparison gave a different lesson regarding Torah learning. l mentioned this at the meeting as an alternative idea and quickly scribbled a possible layout on the back of one of the other designs. What had been envisaged as merely part of the background moved forward in prominence to become the main  thrust of the design.

After playing with many different colours and graphic representations, the 'milk and wine' idea bit the dust as being far too hard to convey sensibly Moreover having moved from very detailed images to a what were fundamentally blocks of colour, suggesting water, leaves (not the full tree) and flames I needed to compliment this more modern and bold graphic style with a move away as well from the traditional lettering of the previous designs.

There are something like 27 Hebrew typefaces that I was aware of at the time, but none of them were what was required to give the block effect. Undaunted I decided to design my own lettering using very blocky and angular lines (right). I then went on to draw up, what designers call ‘finished visuals' and these are shown in the photo below.

The final design for the three covers
Type block

Left: the designs in magic marker on board.  Below left: how they were transferred into workable designs for embroidered covers.

Psalm 19 - tree scroll
Psalm 19 - water scroll
Psalm 19 - fire scroll

These designs were accepted by the committee, so I got to work measuring the existing covers, visiting the synagogue, measuring up and noting down all the dimensions. For the designs to work properly the chains on the breastplates would need to be altered so that they all hung at the same level, but otherwise it would all fit. The designs were sent off to a very talented seamstress in Cardiff. 

There were changes along the way, as she worked out ways of transforming 'magic markers' on paper into hard wearing material, but the concept remained and the lettering stayed exactly as envisaged. The covers were presented at a special service in 1996.

Mordechai Pinchas

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