During our 2014 exhibition The Creation of the World with illustrated manuscripts from the Braginsky Collection, the rabbi and Torah scribe Reuven Yaacobov spent five days a week in the exhibition writing a Torah scroll. Miriam Goldman, curator of the exhibition, asked him about his work.
How do you train a Torah scribe, a sofer?
A sofer must first spend a few years studying at an Orthodox school, a yeshiva, where it is established whether or not he is devout enough for this role. Then he learns how to write a Torah. First, he studies the theory. There are rules ordaining who is allowed to write the five books of Moses, the Sefer Torah. For example, only men, not women, are permitted to write the Torah. Furthermore, the person in question must be an Orthodox Jew and lead an Orthodox life. Then there are rules determining which support a Sefer Torah should be written on, and precisely how it should be written.
Once the sofer knows the theory, he begins to learn the letters that are used to write the Torah. A certain sequence of strokes must be followed to write each letter correctly. After learning this calligraphy the sofer starts on a Megillat Esther (Hebrew: Scroll of Esther) because this is the easiest of all the holy texts to write. After completing the Megillat he writes the texts of mezuzah and tefillin. If by then his calligraphy has become highly accomplished, he begins to write a Sefer Torah. According to Jewish tradition, a Sefer Torah must be written in the most beautiful calligraphy possible and in the best and most aesthetic way.
Which scripts do you use?
Everyone uses the traditional K’tav Ashuri script, which is to say, the Assyrian one. The Jews adopted the Assyrian script after returning to Israel from Babylon. The Torah has been written in this script ever since. There are also Ashkenazic and Sephardic scripts. The principle is exactly the same but the letters look different.
Do you know the entire text of the Sefer Torah by heart?
The first time you write a Sefer Torah, you have a copy in front of you for reference. But once you have spent several years writing Sefer Torah, the whole text becomes imprinted on your mind’s eye. You can read a book ten times over in order to learn a particular passage by heart. But write out that passage only a single time, and it’s as if you had read it twelve times over. And therefore, after two or three years of professional practice, a sofer holds the entire Torah in his mind’s eye.
I thought for the sake of concentration you were supposed to refer to a template before writing each sentence.
Yes, we do refer to a correct template when writing the text. Yet, before beginning to write, I must say out loud that I am about to write a sacred text. That is how I prepare myself for this procedure. When I come across the name of God while writing a text, I say before writing it: “The Lord’s name is holy.” And only then do I write His name. If you fail to say this each time you come across the Lord’s name, the Torah is considered no longer fit for use.
The interview was conducted by Miriam Goldmann.
Miriam Goldmann (2014), From the Theory to the Practice of Writing the Torah. An Interview with Rabbi Reuven Yaacobov.
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Illustrated Manuscripts from the Braginsky Collection
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