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.


  1. Hi, Jen

    Can't see the end of the lines on the right, the two letters in grey, etc.

    Looking forwared to weeing you in Mtl.


  2. That should have been seeing ... looking forward to seeing you.