Thursday, 22 May 2008

All the sevens ...

The second visual midrash in B'chukotai occurs twice and revolves around the number seven and the letter zayin, the seventh letter of the Alphabet. Throughout the section on the curses, we are informed that Hashem will punish us 'seven ways for our sins' (26:18, 21, 25, 28) and the duration of the punishment revolves around 'appeasing the land' for each of 'the sabbaticals it missed it did not rest'. Again a concentration on the number seven.

This is reflected in two words, ezarah (I will scatter) in Vayikra 26:33
and te'azev (will be bereft) in 26:43 both words describing the Israelites absense from the land and exile. In both there is a zayin described as akuma - bent or by the Meiri (in Kiryat Sefer) as m'ugelet - rounded.

However there is some disagreement over what this form looks like and there are a number of versions. Torah Sh'lema notes two versions but there are more.
On the first the Ba'al Haturim explains that 'it indicates to you that [God said], "I gave you the land of the seven [Canaanite] nations, that you should there fulfil Torah" [of which it is written] she carved out her seven pillars (Proverbs 9:1). But you had seven abominations in your hearts, therefore And you I will scatter [among the nations].'

The seven abominations correspond to the seven sins and is a paraphrase of Proverbs 26:25 concerning the decietful person 'though his voice is ingratiating do not trust him for there are seven abominations in his heart'. The seven pillars of wisdom are the seven books of the Torah - counting the section encased by the nun hafuchot (Numbers 10:35-36) as a separate book breaking Bamidbar into three books making seven in all (Shabbat 116a).

The second use on te'azev (bereft), 'indicates that for a period of seven years [the curse of] sulphur and salt outlined in Deuteronomy 29:22 was fulfiled in the Land [of Israel]'.

So all the sevens are reflected in the letter that represents the number 7.

But why is this letter described as bent?

Perhaps this visual midrash is the compliment and opposite to the one described in the previous blog? There, the kuf of the word kom'miyut (erect) gained extra taggin to demonstrate the growth in our spiritual nature, that we would have the upright stature of Adam Rishon (some two hundred cubits). Should we follow Hashem's laws. Here however we are far from upright - instead we are bent over, humble and contrite, through our abandonment of those same laws and hence the letter reflects this diminishing of our self.

Our wrong choice leads us to the bent nature of the zayin of zarah (strangeness/idolatry) instead of the upright kuf of kodesh (holiness and separation).

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

A kuf with a choice...

So this week's sedra is B'chukotai. Usually jammed onto the previous sedra B'har except when there is a leap year.

So what's exciting about this sedra from a scribal viewpoint? What gets the sofer all excited and lends a layer of interpretation that I refer to as Visual Midrash?

Well very little actually.

According to scribal tradition there is a letter kuf in the word kom'miyut (erect) in Vayikra 26:13

'I am Hashem who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from being slaves, and I broke the staves of your yoke and I led you erect'.
One of 185 kufs in the Torah that supposedly have this.
The Ba'al Haturim explains that it is drawn with [three] taggin enhancing the letter kuf [which stands for 100]. For in the future, their [Israel's] stature will be one hundred cubits.' Some apparently say two hundred cubits which is why he says there are two extra taggin - kuf normally has one. This has been taken from Bava Batra 75a where the Tannaim discuss the word kom'miyut in the verse and conclude that in the world to come we will be of a much higher spiritual stature.

There are some disagreements on editions of the Ba'al HaTurim over whether it is three or two taggin in total, but the most interesting thing is that whilst one is obviously an extra tag, pointing upwards with a crown, the other extra one is not. Instead it points sharply downwards and has no 'blob' on the top. In this way it is more an okets (thorn).

Perhaps, given the subject matter that preceeded it, the extra upwards tag symbolises the spiritual and material heights one would reach if one did 'follow [Hashem's] decrees and observe [Hashem's] commandments' as we are required to do in 26:3. And it points upwards towards those verses of reward (26:4-12) and we obtain a crown for that. However if we do not choose this path then instead 'hold [Hashem's] decrees loathsome and our souls reject [Hashem's] ordinances' (26:15) then the tag/okets points sharply downwards towards the verses of punsihment (26:15 onwards) and denotes our spiritual and physical descent from holiness (kuf = kadosh).

The kuf with it's extra taggin upwards and downwards therefore represents a decision point (a bechira) midway between the two halves of the sedra and we can choose which way to go. Only one way however gains us a crown of spiritual achievement.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Working hard...

Working hard on my Ketubah. Have been using some of the wonderful taggin that I have found in various sifrey torah that I've been fixing. See
and also
for lots of examples.

Have finished all the writing but now have to move on to the illustrations - been a while since I did any serious illustration - hope I still have the knack!

Thursday, 15 May 2008

One of my major projects over the last two years was the design of the new siddur for the Movement for Reform Judaism. A huge task involving some:

750 pages
18 separate sections
Erev shabbat having 36 drafts!
A regular, deluxe, pocket-sized, large-print extract editions
2 dozen graphic devices
3 dozen illustrations
New stuff and olf familiar friends

The other day I went to the final meeting of the steering committee where the printed book was given out to everyone along with thanks for their contribution. There are several versions, deluxe, standard, pocket size and large print

So what has this got to do with sofrut I hear you ask. Well one of the key elements of the design was the ceation of graphic devices to act as section headers and for these I designed a kind of STaM font whiich was blocky and angular and a bit modern whilst retaining a link to the traditional - an echo of the book itself. Initially there were going to bbe a few of these scattered around but the client liked them and now they grace every section - which meant a lot of ideas to come up with. One of my favourites - havdalah is shown above.

The siddur was well received by the committee and the rabbis and I got a very nice e-mail from the head of the Movement, Rabbi Tony Bayfield.
"It is simply stupendous - and very, very beautiful. I don't think that there is another person in the world who could have produced something that looks so good and is, at the same time, so user friendly. The Movement will, I know, thank you."

Here's hoping the congregants find it as equally user-friendly.

Writing or Fixing?

Above: A new small Tefillin passage that I wrote. Below: Before and after fixing on a torah that had faded badly.

Writing something from scratch is always a joy. You are free to use your own style and form the letters using the forms that you have been taught and have developed into. It is simply magical to see the letters appear on what was previously blank k'laf (parchment). You are conduit for the words and you can lose yourself in them. And the act of creation is truly yours. No others.

Fixing however is very different. The creative act has been done by another and instead you are acting as an expert in restoration trying to repair damage done by the passage of time or individuals. Wrtiting over someone elses k'tav is by definition limiting as you try your best to avoid a patchwork look to the Torah. Nonetheless to see a piece restored to near its inital glory is also magical and one of the best feelings. One has saved something from disuse and there is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment that that brings, particularly if the damage was extensive.

Both actvitites have massive merit and a sofer will need to busy themselves in both. Sometimes, however, when one is labouring under the pressure of endless repairs and corrections one yearns for the freedom of the blank k'laf. Few shuls (or individuals) however want new. Second hand, restored (or in some cases second hand and unrestored - i.e. pasul) seem to be the order of the day. Shame really.

Sunday, 11 May 2008

The other day I was asked if I could extend a vav that someone had noticed had faded and looked like a yud as this was making the Torah pasul (invalid). .

While doing so I glanced back at the predeeding amud (column) and saw about a dozen broken or incomplete letters that similarly invalidated the Torah. I didn't have a lot of time, but regardless I still fixed these. No doubt there are problems in the Torah and it will need a proper check. However whilst doing the other letters I was assured by one of the congregants that there was no real need to do this as they could still read them as they were still obviously those letters, unlike the vav mentioned above.

I assured them that actually that isn't the case at all.

In my little booklet 'Care of Your Torah', I have a phrase - 'legible doesn't necessarily mean kasher'. If a letter is damaged or broken or faded badly and there isn't at minimum a complete and unbroken outline it is pasul. It might be absolutely obvious what that letter is supposed to be but unless it is complete it isn't okay.

One of the reasons I produced the booklet was to help congregations recognise when they actually have a real problem and should call in a sofer (who you gonna call... Ghostbusters?). Another was to try to prevent well meaning people actually damaging their torah by trying to mark places for bar/bat mitsvah boys or girls or trying to fix them with the wrong materials and not according to halacha with the proper intention.

Shameless plug then. If you are a congregation then you should have the guide. Available at

Prevention is way better (and a lot cheaper) than cure. You might ask why a sofer would want to reduce his business? Well actually my job is to make sure a Torah is kasher. If I can do that by stopping it getting damaged in the first place then job done too. Keset Hasofer says that sofrim should be 'haters of profit'. Sure we want to get paid and be valued for the skills we offer (possibly more than we are, according to Yerachmiel Asmotsky who astutely points out that whilst we're all prepared to pay a plumber when something needs to be done, we're more inclined to quibble about the sofer's charge when something much more holy than the pipes needs to be done) but our main aim is to protect Hashem's word and it pains us to see the damage done.

So if you want to help prevent damage or be aware of what damage renders a Torah pasul, don't say I didn't tell you where to go.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Large letters in the Torah

Some considerable time ago I had a hunch that all the Hebrew alphabet was to be found as large letters within Torah and not just Tanach as is established in the Mesorah - this hunch came out of seeing lots of different sifrey with variant traditions. I couldn't find the one with the letters 'kaf'. However I then read a section from Mishnat Avraham that confirmed where all the large letters were supposed to be (plus some variants) and lo and behold they matched the various ones I had collected (see my website fixing sifrey over the years. Anyway, collecting these all up I've done a little bit of 'large letter art'. Wouldn't it be cool if all sifrey torah used all the large letters not just the ones that were fixed and agreed by all?

Prints available ...

Yom Hashoah

So, after having a blog before blogs were even thought off - though it was called a web diary then (see Diary of a sofer on, I finally have a real blog thanks to the suggestion of my fiancee and world famous soferet Avielah Barclay.

But what to say? Usually on my website its all very considered and crafted but blogs are supposed to be immediate and very stream of consciousness. So here goes ...

Well my first post was about the tikkun for Megillat Hashoah and last week it was Yom Hashoah and I attended a service at New London Synagogue which was deeply moving The Megillat Hashoah was read in full (the first time I had seen this instead of excerpts) and the rabbi very kindly gave me the honour of reading a chapter. More importanty, there was a survivor there who held us all spellbound with her tale of the horrors she experienced. I won't report the details as I would not do it justice but suffice to say that of her family only her and her father (who joined the resistance) survived. It was incredibly moving and the bravery of that woman will stay with me for many many years. At the end of the service I gave her a copy of the tikkun as I had brought some with me to show the rabbi.

Interestingly enough that same day I had paid a very quick visit to the Czech scrolls museum in Kent House, Westminster. I had been there for a BT seminar - which was an odd thing to do at a shul - so nipped in afterwards after meeting up with Avielah. As well as the normal exhibits were a group of other sifrey in another room where I'd given a lecture once. The museum is being expanded and renovated so will hopefully go back there soon. There was a tiny torah about 10 inches high and some amazing atsey chayim on another. Amongst the exhibits themselves was a rolled torah that had been fused together from fire.

So very much a day for recalling the Shoah.

So the point of tday's blog? Well in part to tell people about my Yom Hashoah experience and in part to register a bit of surprise that the Megillat Hashoah hasn't caught on more. The Schechter Institute and Rabbinical Assembly brought it out quite a few years ago and I'm still amazed at how few people have either heard of it or have incorporated it into their commemorations. When Rabbi David Meyer approached me to create the scroll it was clear that he was trying to create a fresh impetus for this new piece of liturgy and to try and get people engaged in a new minhag.

Obviously I'm slightly biased, having invested so much time and effort into the text and creating the scroll and the tikkun, but putting the scroll aside, I am given to understand that over 1,400 rabbis 'signed up' to the text that appears in the booklet. No mean feat. So what is going wrong? Why aren't more synagogues adopting this? Do people not like the text? Do people prefer to create their own services? Do people want to read the book of Job (which I don't think is that appropriate as the pain and misery was caused by supernatural means as opposed to human cruelty)? Is it a 'not invented here' syndrome? Is it because it is viewed as American and we're British? But I'm told that a lot of Conservative shuls in Canada and the States haven't adopted it either. Or am I wrong and lots more people are using it every year and I'm just not aware?

If it isn't adopted widely it is potentially a great shame, as in decades to come when there are no survivors to bring to life the realities of the Shoah, it will be the power of words - whether ink on parchment or print on paper - that will be the core means of remembering. Yes there wil be pictures and video but in prayer and contemplation it is the word that will engage on a deep level.

If you're not familiar with the text then visit to order a copy of the booklet from the Rabbical Assembly. /Schechter Institute. The authorised tikkun is available at

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Rabbi Rothman said I should put this up... and you never argue with a rabbi.

A few years ago a new piece of liturgy was created to commemorate the Shoah and give Jews around the world a standard text to use each year on Yom Hashoah. Megillat Hashoah (the Holocaust scroll) presented a six chapter account of those dark days in a small booklet.

Jews throughout the ages have told their stories using parchment and quills and so Sofer STaM Marc Michaels was commissioned to turn this booklet into a kasher scroll that could be read by the community.

Drawing on the power of the letters and scribal tradiotions to create a visual Midrash that adds further depth and meaning to the text, the scroll has now been turned into a tikkun - a copyists guide - explaining the journey of the booklet to scroll and detailing the rules so that scribes over the world may creat scrolls. Scholars and laypeople alike will find this book a fascinating jouney on the creation of a the first new tikkun in thousands of years and hopefully the establishment of a new minhag to help ensure that the Shoah is remembered for all generations

Tikkun Megillat Hashoah is written by Marc Michaels, Sofer STaM with the authorisation of the Rabbinic Assembly and the Schecter Institute. It is a full colour booklet containing the entire unpointed text of the Megillat Hashoah and explanatory articles and notes. Available through for £21.82 plus postage and packaging.

New scrolls can be commissioned through the sofer by contacting or visiting