Please Give Us More About Soferut. Originally Published January 28-29, 2022.

Along the way to answering the question a couple weeks ago about whether a sofer must also be a rabbi, we did learn a few miscellaneous interesting facts about the soferut business.

For one thing, as anyone who just looks at a Torah scroll - during an aliyah, for instance - can see, there are different styles of ketav used in STaM.  Huh?  Calligraphic font faces!  In Ashkenazic tradition alone, there are at least four distinct styles of writing used by a sofer.  And there are many more different styles of calligraphy used around the world in the various traditions of Judaism.  Just looking at the sifrei Torah (whenever I roll them to make certain they are waiting in the proper starting place for the next service), I notice that some have a lot of flowers/crowns coming out of the letters, some have long horizontal stretching of the letters, some have thicker and thinner lines, and so forth.

There is a notion (which your correspondent finds a bit too retro) that we should stick to the style of ketav used in the land from which our predecessors came.

What documents might be produced by a sofer?  These items include a sefer Torah, tefillin and mezuzah parchments (together “STaM”), a scroll of one of the five megillot (Song of Songs, Book of Ruth, Book of Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Book of Lamentations), the books of the Prophets (Nevi’im) which are used for haftarot, other books of the Bible, such as Psalms, a ketubah, a divorce document, and maybe even some certificates for rites of passage.  Some of the latter in that list do not require the scribe’s certification as a sofer, nor proper preparation of the parchment, for the document to be considered kosher.  For instance, one may write one’s own ketubah, or have it calligraphed by a talented family member.

In English, the prepared skin may be called “vellum,” but many consider this word to specifically refer only to parchment made from calfskin (its derivation is from the Old French vélin, calfskin).  Some scholars and librarians refer to the parchment as “membrane,” since that is presumed to be the part remaining after sanding down to the proper depth.

When preparing a skin for use as parchment for a holy object, the sofer must declare that intention early in the process and at all the proper times thereafter.  Before beginning writing, the sofer visits a mikveh.  To test the quills and ink, a sofer writes the name “Amalek” (no, the sofer doesn’t forget to do this), and then crosses it out numerous times. 

The ink must be permanent black.  It is called “iron gall ink,” and one may think of the Dead Sea Scrolls to consider the longevity.  According to the site, the recipes vary, and there are commercial versions available.  Gall nuts are usually included; they are the scar tissue on an oak tree formed around gall wasp eggs, which “nut” the larvae would eat if the nut were not made into ink.  They are ground, fermented, and otherwise processed into an acid, and then mixed with iron sulphate.  (Some boil nails with the gallnuts.  Don’t try this at home.)  Also in the mix may be gum Arabic and vinegar or wine, and possibly some form of burnt soot.  Without the soot, the ink may not flow onto the parchment black, but will turn dark within a day or so.  The ink forms a chemical bond with the parchment; hence the longevity.

Each time we read the acronym STaM, we think how fine our ancestors might have been at texting, IOHO.