Sunday, May 31, 2009

Taggin, the crownlets on the letters in the Torah

There is a famous story in the Talmud (Men 29b) that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, he found God still finishing up, putting crowns onto the letters.

"God," says Moses, "'sup? You don't need these!"

"Aha," God replies, "but after many generations, a scholar by the name of Rabbi Akiva will arise who will derive from them mountains of laws."

Mount Sinai is the original Mountain of Law, and on top of the Mountain of Law are squillions of crowns which are all themselves mountains of law, and so ad infinitum. I'm sure there's a spiritual word for "fractal," but I can't think of it at the moment - anyway, it suggests the move from the first mountain, the physical realm, into the mountains beyond, the metaphysical realm.

Sefer Yetzirah (trans. Aryeh Kaplan; 3:7) says These crowns represent the higher spiritual nature of the letters. If the letters themselves are in Assiyah, then the crowns on top bind them to Yetzirah - that is, if the letters are in the lowest sphere of existence, the physical world, the crowns form the link into the next sphere of existence, that which shapes the physical world.

The letters shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimel, and tzaddi are the ones with crownlets. Actually, what the Talmud says is that these letters are zayinified (שבעה אותיות צריכות שלשה זיונין, ואלו הן: שעטנ"ז ג"ץ), and indeed the crownlets approximately resemble zayins, being a little stick with a lump on the top, which fundamentally is what makes zayin. Of course if you put zayins on a letter, the zayins have zayins, and so on, which is why I made the animation at right. (Heh. I've been wanting to do that for ages.)

Part of the kabbalistic apparatus is the set of sefirot, the divine levels of understanding. The ultimate one is Infinity, the utterly-unknowable-unless-you're-God, then you get revelation and understanding (the intellectual realm, apparently), then a bunch of things like mercy and grace (the emotive realm), but this is a very bald rendering and properly it is terribly nuanced and subtle. And there are ten altogether.

Zayin is the seventh letter in the alef-bet, and it has three taggin. That makes ten sefirot! So one interpretation of a zayin is that the seven part, underneath, corresponds to the seven sefirot in the emotive realm, and the three part, the three higher.

In which case, the three taggin correspond to Keter (Infinity), Hokhmah (Wisdom), and Binah (Love). The middle one is the tallest, and represents Keter, which is the highest possible state of being; Hokhmah is the next tallest and the next most important so it sits on the right, and Binah is the shortest and sits on the left (Understanding the Alef-Beis, Dovid Leitner).

Talking of wisdom and understanding, what was the deal with Rabbi Akiva earlier? Rabbi Akiva represents a period in rabbinic history when scholars were looking at the day-to-day Judaism which had evolved with the societies it was part of, noting that in some places it didn't much resemble the original Torah, and doing something about that. To wit, tracing the exegetical paths that ran between the Torah and the current Judaism. Depending on your attitude towards rabbinics, you may find this more or less evidence-of-divine-planning or contrived-post-facto - logical processes leading to everything we do or customs given authenticity by retroactive and unlikely links to biblical authority. It doesn't really matter; whichever way you swing, Rabbi Akiva and his successors were engaged in an activity that shaped Judaism. That's not relevant to crownlets per se, except that it was an activity directed at Keter which required Hokhmah and Bina...anyway, I like it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Mistakes, part 1

Q: What happens if you make a mistake?

smudged letters
The answer divides into parts. First, mistakes are fixable. Second, a Torah works differently to mezuzot and tefillin. Third, God's names work differently to ordinary words.

Mistakes can be fixed

Many people are under the impression that if you make a mistake, you have to toss out the whole sefer and start over. This isn't true. A mistake, even one tiny wee one, does invalidate the whole Torah - but not permanently. If there's a mistake in a Torah, you can't use it until it's fixed - but you can almost always fix it.

Torahs and mezuzot work differently

There's a rule that mezuzot and tefillin have to have each and every letter written in strict order. So, if you make a mistake when writing a mezuzah, let's say you leave out a letter, you can't go back and add that letter unless you erase all the way back - if it was typing, it would be like saying you can't move the cursor back and insert the letter, you have to backspace all the way to the place where you need the insertion. And sometimes, doing this would entail erasing God's name, which we absolutely do not do, so sometimes there really is nothing you can do about it and you do have to go back and start over.

But with a mezuzah, this isn't a disaster, because there are only 713 letters in a mezuzah, and it'll only take you a few hours to rewrite them. A Torah has 304,805 letters and takes more than a thousand hours to write; having to start over would be so impractical that we would never manage to get any Torahs written at all. So we don't have this writing-everything-strictly-in-order rule for Torahs.

This means that if you make a mistake in a Torah, you can go back and fix it later and it's okay. When I make a mistake, I blot as much of the ink off as I can, with blotting paper, and then when the remaining ink is dry, I come back and deal with it. We'll look at how next time.

God's names work differently

Letters stuck together
So, most of the time you can go back and fix mistakes.

Sometimes, fixing means you have to erase a word or part of a word - maybe you wrote a word twice, maybe you misspelled, maybe you smeared it. BUT - you can't erase God's names. The Torah says that we should blot out the names of idolatrous gods and destroy them, and then it says that we mustn't do that to our God. Erasing God's name is tantamount to erasing God - it's really not a good thing to do - so we don't do it, ever.* So, if you have a mistake that you can't fix without erasing God's name, that's that - you can't fix it. You take the sheet away, and bury it respectfully. Throwing it in the garbage would be like throwing God in the garbage - again, bad plan - so one buries it, like one would a dead person.

This, by the way, is why we try to refrain from writing God's names down - because it's likely to get thrown away, and we don't want that to happen. Better to make sure it can't happen by not writing God's names in the first place.

* In real life. Electronically is different. The main issue with electronic God's-Names is that someone might print them and later throw them out, which does present issues.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Q: How do you know what to write?

It's a rule that you HAVE to copy from something. It doesn't have to be an actual scroll, but it has to have a Torah text which has been checked against another text which has been checked, etc. We say that you must copy from another text, even if you know it by heart, to try to guard against the text becoming altered in transmission. I have a book called a tikkun soferim to copy from. The bit in the front says that it was put together by expert scribes and that the text is super-correct, so that scribes know it's okay to use this book as their master copy.

The recto of my tikkun soferim looks like this:

Tikkun koreim

You can see that it's printed, with lots of little squiggles and doodles, that are vowels, notation, and stage directions. It tells you which verse you're in (and the chapter number, at the start of a chapter - this is verse 17, though)

The verso has the same line, but printed just as it appears in the Torah, with Torah script instead of type, and nothing except the letters themselves:

Tikkun soferim

Instead of a verse number, it has a line number. Columns have between 42 and 60 lines, depending on which layout you choose (dictated, to a certain extent, by geography and fashion). I'm writing a 42-line Torah. When you're writing, you want to keep track of where you are, and counting lines makes a lot more sense than counting verses - like if you're studying a poem, when you tend to use line numbers as a reference rather than count sentences.

The two letters in grey on the right-hand side are the most useful, and what really make a scribe's tikkun different from a reader's tikkun. Since not all words are the same length, it's not possible to make each line have exactly the same number of letters in it. We want each line to be justified (i.e. to form neat columns) so you're generally going to have to squish or stretch the letters to achieve this. This little note tells you how.

Letters are measured in yuds, because yud is the smallest letter.


Yud counts as one, obviously. So do narrow letters (gimel, vav, zayin, and nun), and a space between words. All the other letters count as two yuds when written in the normal way, except shin, which counts as three.

A normal line is defined in this Torah as 62 yuds. That means that if you sat down and wrote 62 yuds in a nice line, they should fill up the line exactly. (If you find your writing doesn't fit, you learn to space your script so that it does!) So, the person who put the tikkun together looked at this Torah that someone with a lot of experience wrote once, and counted the number of yuds to a line. Using the tikkun soferim saves me having to do that, you see. I could copy from any good text of the Torah, but this is far easier - if you don't count, you risk your spacing going wrong, and if you do count, your brain explodes from tedium.

Anyway, sometimes a line will indeed have the exact equivalent of 62 yuds, and in that case it will be labelled ש"ת, shin-tav, which stands for "shita temima," or "complete line." Otherwise, it will be labelled by the number of yuds it has gained or is lacking. The line above is labelled yud-hey. Yud stands for yoter, which means "extra," and hey has the numerical value of 5, so we know that the line is over by 5 - it would measure 67 yuds if you wrote each letter its usual size. So you have to squish everything up a little bit to make it all fit in nicely. The alternative, when there are fewer letters, will be labelled chet-something, the chet standing for chaser, which means "lacking." So chet-gimel would mean lacking-three, or 59 yuds.

If you aren't concentrating, you get a nasty surprise at the end of the line, and you have to salvage the situation as best you can:

Tikkun for line over by 3

This line is only over by 3, but:

Writing of line over by 3

the letters at the beginning of the line are too long, so the letters at the end are squished up, and even so they spill over into the margin. Not good.

A well-written line plans ahead, so that all the letters are evenly reduced or enlarged from the beginning of the line - this doesn't happen when you only remember that you need to be doing it after you've written half the line already. You want it to look not obviously squished or obviously stretched - the first line we saw has 5 extra yuds, but that isn't obvious here:

Good spacing on line over by 5

With practice and concentration, you get so that you can space all your lines well, and that makes your script that much prettier and easier to read. This is an important skill for a scribe to acquire.