The Power of the Scribe
Spiritual faith has long been shaped by the lettering on a religion’s sacred texts. This is particularly the case with Judaism, so we visited three Hebrew scribes—in Jerusalem, New York City, and the liberal enclave of Berkeley, California—to understand why such laborious traditions continue.
By BRYCE T. BAUER
With LYNN HOLSTEIN, TODD OPPENHEIMER, and ALI ETERAZ
It’s about halfway through our first interview when Rabbi Shimon Zeide decides his best option is to just start scribbling. This, I wager, is unusual. Zeide, a Hebrew scribe with nearly thirty years’ experience, is the proprietor of the sofrus supply shop and scribal studio Merkaz Hasofrim, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and he has taught, by his own estimate, over 200 students the art of scribal craft. He definitely doesn’t show them how to scribble.
Along the streets around Zeide’s shop, in an area that’s been referred to as the Williamsburg shtetl, Hebrew script is everywhere: on shop windows, school buses, ambulance stations, and sign posts. It all harkens to the passersby—the men and women in long coats and dresses of such a consistently dark palate that they stand out, even a city where black apparel seems to be the unifying fashion.
Yet, he’s scribbling. First, out of a swift series of chicken scratches comes the Hebrew letter shin. Then he scribbles some more: an alef. Each takes just a few seconds to make; half, maybe a quarter even, of the time he took to write the letters earlier, when I first arrived and he was showing me how to do it right. He’s trying to make a point; trying to answer a question that I’ve been asking, and struggling to understand, in some form, many forms, since I entered his shop thirty minutes earlier. It’s not a particularly decorous question, but it is an obvious one: what is the point of all this—of the letters that take nearly a half minute to write apiece, done with hand-cut quills on calf-leather parchment that costs, on a square inch basis, something like 100x more than even an extravagant Moleskine? All of which can add up, for a particularly exquisite Torah, like the pocket one Zeide was working on when I visited, to $100,000.
It’s a question made more confounding by the fact that the space I’m standing in seems utterly incongruous to the world I’ve entered. Merkaz Hasofrim is located in the Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg, and until the moment I’d crossed the threshold, I’d been expecting to arrive in something like an old-world atelier. Something perhaps a little dark and a little dank, its windows coated with hoar-frost like dust. Definitely, there’d be parchment stacked everywhere. This expectation was reinforced on each of the several blocks I walked after exiting Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue subway station.
Away from the telegenic blocks of craft-cocktail lounges and art galleries and metal-and-glass new builds—those frequently evoked symbols of Brooklyn’s new gentrified urbanism and hipster cool—that has made the neighborhood’s northern region world-famous, this section of Williamsburg seems, to the outsider at least, almost monotonous. Along the streets around Merkaz Hasofrim, in an area that’s been referred to as the Williamsburg shtetl, Hebrew script is everywhere: on shop windows, school buses, ambulance stations, and sign posts, all harkening back to old times for the passersby—the men and women, frequently pushing a stroller, who are dressed in long coats and dresses of such a consistently dark palate that they stand out in a city where preference for black apparel seems one of the few strands of unification.
Even the row-house that holds Merkaz Hasofrim, with its jerry-rigged buzzer system for a door that doesn’t appear to lock, seems to be in character. But when I walk into the shop itself, it is bright, almost gleaming, with the reflective sheen off a new floor and pristine white walls, the result of a recent renovation. In a different part of town the space would probably be a dentist’s office. It’s definitely not a place stuck in time.
Why would Orthodox Jews care more about penmanship than almost anyone else? The answer, I soon learn, has to do with the nature and components of meaning.
When we settle into Zeide’s studio, in a room with three sofer tables, Zeide begins demonstrating his craft by cutting a writing quill from a turkey feather. Merkaz Hasofrim sells both pre-cut quills and uncut feathers, which they usually get from Europe, where the turkeys are allowed to grow larger than they are in America. As he whittles, Zeide explains the religious underpinnings of scribal work.
The rules of sofrus, he tells me, derive from Jewish law, which dictates that certain Hebrew texts must be written by hand in accordance with a long series of Judaic regulations. These texts are the tefillin (writings put in leather boxes, which are strapped to the head and arms during prayer); the Torah (the Jewish bible, commonly referred to by Christians as the Old Testament); and the mezuzah (a short selection from the Torah, enclosed in a small box that is attached to the doorways of observant homes). One of these regulations says the scribe has to have intention, or awareness, that what’s being written is holy. A machine cannot have intention, so a machine cannot do the writing.
The text also must be written on kosher parchment, which has to be handmade as well, and with kosher ink. When I ask him whether a scribe could write with, say, the Uni-Ball Vision Elite I’m using to take notes, he says, basically, sure, as long as one can confirm that the ink is kosher. (What makes an ink kosher, I learned, is that it be made of specific natural ingredients—water; soot; Logwood; Gum Arabic; copper or iron sulfate; and Oak Gall nuts. These nuts, which are growths provoked by wasps, are the most highly astringent botanical in the world.)
Later, Zeide shows me a fountain pen with a ceramic tip for scribes who don’t want to cut their own quills. Zeide says that hand-cutting quills is one of the hardest skills to learn—a sentiment that one of his former students echoes during a subsequent visit. The effort has its rewards, however. Making one’s own quill allows the scribe to cut a tip to dimensions that perfectly match the size of letters he wants to write. Furthermore, the tip of a hand-made quill can be re-sharpened as needed, typically about a dozen times.
Each letter also has its own set of rules, Zeide tells me as he flips through a book in Hebrew; the book describes the requirements for each letter and what to do if a mistake is made. The book is the size of a literary novel, but this apparently is only the abridged version. Most texts also have to be written in order, so if a mistake is made and not caught immediately, the scribe has to start over. Unless, that is, one has written the name of God.
“Before we get to the Hashem’s name we have to look over it and see that there is no mistake,” Zeide says. “If I see a mistake, then I could erase all the way back to where the mistake is, but when Hashem’s name is written, you can’t erase the Hashem’s name.”
Zeide began studying to be a scribe in his late teens, in Israel, on suggestion of his mother, who noticed that he liked to draw. The job appealed to him for two reasons: it could be done part-time, while he was still studying at religious school; and it was a career that seemed to offer some job security.
“It’s one of the things, I always say, that God gave us such a law that it had to be handwritten, because with today’s technology, if we were able to do it with a computer, we’d be out of business,” he says.
Doing it with a computer could spell the end of the script as well. When Urdu, a language spoken by 100 to 125 million people in Pakistan and India, got digitized, it got straightened almost beyond recognition. In the process, an entire tradition of calligraphic beauty, and sophisticated exercises for the hand and the brain, are in danger of being lost. (For more detail, please see “The Death of the Urdu Script” in our Resources sidebar at the end of this story.)
In the classes Zeide teaches, aspiring scribes typically begin with 15 to 20 lessons, twice a week, each lesson focusing on just one or two letters. To become proficient enough to make salable work typically takes a year. In addition to learning how to make Hebrew letters, students also must obtain rabbinical certification proving that they understand the laws governing the overall craft.
To illustrate how fine those points of law can be, Zeide grabs his quill and writes another shin. This time, he makes a small mistake, one that can be fixed with a bit of erasing, which he does. Visually, then, he says the letter looks correct. But it is not kosher.
“The bible says it has to be written,” he says. “This is not written, it has been scratched. So basically you could see it, it looks very nice, it has all the details, but it’s not valid.” Assessing validity is another one of the scribe’s important jobs, but one where technology can serve as an aid: for the last couple decades, scribes have been allowed to use a computer program that can take a scanned piece of written parchment and analyze whether the words and letters are written correctly.
All that said, despite the novel-length rule book and the year-long practice, Jewish law does not require the writing to actually be good. “In order to make it kosher, I would say, you don’t need so much skills,” Zeide says. Hence those scribbled letters: they are kosher, but not good.
Shortly after Zeide makes the flawed letters, a customer walks in—he needs his tefillin adjusted. As Zeide does so, they speak in Yiddish, broken occasionally by English for my sake. I ask the customer how he found Zeide. “He’s popular,” he responds, “people know.”
Perhaps it’s because I can’t get the design of the room out of my head, but I want to ask the customer if one chooses a sofer like one chooses, say, a dentist—a task New Yorkers devote themselves to with more energy, and more resultant grief, than they do even to dating. Before I get a chance, Merkaz Hasofrim starts to fill up with customers, so I decide to let Zeide work and excuse myself with plans to return another day.
It’s only later that the root of my question becomes clear to me. What I want to know is, if being kosher has so little to do with craft, then why fuss over, and go to so much expense for, exquisitely written texts? Why, in other words, would Orthodox Jews care more about penmanship than almost anyone else?
The answer, I soon learn from my fellow correspondents, has to do with the nature and components of meaning.
Half a world away, in Arnona, a suburb of Jerusalem where holy Hebrew texts dating to 408 BCE have been found in local caves, Dov Laimon continues Judaism’s scribal arts, albeit with a decidedly modern bent. Born in western Canada, Laimon was raised in a secular Jewish family and majored in English literature, at the University of Saskatchewan. At age 22, he became a baal teshuva, meaning one who has returned to the tradition; he soon immigrated to Israel and was ordained as a rabbi.
“I identify as Orthodox,” says Jennifer Kamenetz, a Jewish scribe in Berkeley. However, because she is a woman, “I know that people in my community wouldn’t read a Torah that I wrote.”
Although Laimon has become a member of Jerusalem’s Haredi community—a group of unusually strict Orthodox Jews who often distance themselves from the modern world—Laimon embraces the outside world. He has long maintained his subscription to The New York Review of Books. He uses the Internet, and even has a website (see below). His wife calls him “a bridge person.” For the last 15 years, that bridge has included teaching the scribal arts at an institution, called Pardes, that his fellow congregants would refuse to enter. Pardes is a non-denominational Jewish learning center, whose membership includes women and non-religious men.
According to traditional Jewish law, only men are obligated, and permitted, to pray with tefillin. And, since only those who wear tefillin can become scribes, women cannot become scribes. As archaic as this may sound, Orthodox Jews still take this law very seriously. “I identify as Orthodox,” says Jennifer Kamenetz, a Jewish scribe in Berkeley, who converted to Judaism a decade ago and is now married to a rabbi. “Yet I know that people in my community wouldn’t read from a Torah that I wrote. And I accept and respect that.”
This seems like a classic case of gender discrimination, but most Orthodox Jews—even Jewish women—do not see the restriction this way. It’s a purely practical matter. Men who wear tefillin must pray at specific times every day. Since women have long been responsible for children in traditional Jewish society, it has been considered only fair to free them from such rigid extra duties. As Zeide puts it, Jewish women “have their own obligations, even more than us.” Rabbi Laimon, however, supports teaching women the scribal arts, as a way to bring them closer to the Divine.
That feeling, of divine proximity, has certainly been Jennifer Kamenetz’s experience. According to yet another rule of Jewish law, before beginning to write a scribe must first utter declarations to the sanctity of the work at hand. The scribe then reads each word or phrase, pondering its meaning, then says it out loud, and finally dips quill to ink. The steps in this ritual build the power of intention during the writing. “When I go to synagogue now,” Kamenetz says, “and I read the words that I have written out loud, along with the whole congregation, I feel their meaning so much more strongly. It’s this experience of really deep immersion and intimacy. These are letters and words that have been written in exactly the same way, with the same tools, for thousands of years. When I pray with these texts, I can really feel all that history.”
When I return for my second visit to Zeide’s shop, it is teeming with men looking through dozens of Megillot ahead of the upcoming Purim holiday. To obtain some quiet, Zeide takes me back to a small room where he stores dozens of rolled-up of pieces of calf-skin parchment, one of the products he uses, and sells.
During my first visit, Zeide had explained what makes for quality parchment. Scribal parchment, some of which is made right here in Brooklyn, comes from the skin on a calf’s back (parchment must be thin so the animals have to be young; some of the best comes, in fact, from fetuses found in utero when adult cows are slaughtered). The parchment comes either lined or unlined; to make the former, Zeide bought a $10,000 computerized machine (apparently another permissible piece of technology), which sets the spacing between lines to within a half-millimeter of accuracy. This precision is critical because some texts, such as the tiny scrolls that go inside mezuzahs, are miniscule.
As I am talking with Zeide, one of his students, Rabbi Aaron Silberman, drops by to get help with his quill. Silberman’s grandfather was also a scribe and one aspect of the trade that attracted him was that he could take it anywhere. As Zeide works on his quill, Silberman asks if the article I’m working on is like a “free advertisement.” As I laugh off the question, Zeide jumps in with an answer.
“People ask why I am interested in an interview,” he says, “I want more and more people to be aware that cheap stuff is not worth it. There is a big difference in which you go for, it makes it better, more kosher, more value.”
“I will a little bit correct this,” Silberman adds. “It’s two different products.” Zeide and Silberman point out that after a man buys his tefillin, he’ll keep them for life—unlike, say, a piece of clothing. “Your hat, suit, and coat, you have to change it quite often,” Zeide says. “So when you compare the price you pay for good-quality tefillin, for everyday use, it is cheaper than everything. The only reason why people are not spending a lot of money, is because they don’t understand,” Zeide says.
His point, as I gather it, is this: If a scribe can’t be bothered to do exquisite work on high-quality materials, if he’s just out to finish the job quickly, then why wouldn’t he slouch on the intangible steps that also go into making a product kosher? “We have to know, is he a trustable guy?” Zeide says.
In this world, then, quality is not just a job well done. It is also a signal of trustworthiness, an assurance that a religiously significant object can match the quality of a buyer’s faith.