Thursday, August 27, 2009


Sofer's inkThe main thing about Torah ink is that it has to be black and it has to stay black. If it changes colour within fifty years, it wasn't kosher to begin with.

Generally, Torah ink (דיו, in Hebrew, like dye) is what's called an iron gall ink. Iron gall inks have been used in a great many places during a great many periods in history. They last a long, long time (think Dead Sea Scrolls kind of longevity). They have an unusual property among pigments in that they form chemical bonds with the parchment, which makes them symbolically very appropriate for use on Torahs. They are lightfast, the ingredients are cheap, and they are very indelible.

I don't make my own; making good ink is hard, and I don't have anyone willing to share their recipe. Anyway, it's supposedly rather a pain, so I buy it in bottles, as shown. I don't know if it's also available in cake form - cake is much easier to transport, of course, and lasts longer, and is entirely traditional. I suspect perhaps not, because I have a feeling that buying ink like this is kind of For Dummies, and real hardcorers, the kind who would want cake ink, probably do make their own.

As you might expect, there are hundreds of different recipes for this kind of ink. However, they have some things in common, viz.: gallnuts, iron (II) in solution, something runny, and something sticky. The following descriptions are indebted to an excellent article by Cyntia Karnes.

Gallnuts on oak leavesGall nuts

See the Wikipedia entry, but basically gallnuts (also called oak-apples) are a sort of arboreal tumour. A gall wasp comes along and lays its egg on the tree, and the tree goes "whoa" and swells up around the egg, into this little hard ball. The larva sits inside the swelling, munching away, and when it grows up it eats its way out and leaves the ball on the tree.

The balls have to be turned into a gloopy solution. This basically involves grinding, dissolving, and fermenting, and there are about a zillion ways of accomplishing this. Depending how it's done, what you end up with is a liquid containing tannic acid, gallotannic acid, or gallic acid.

Iron II sulphateIron (II) sulphate

This is where the iron comes from. It tends to be known as copperas, or coppervasser if you are the Mishnah Berurah, because iron sulphate and copper sulphate tended to come out of the ground together, but the copper isn't important and the iron is.

NailsThis is why some recipes call for boiling up nails with the gallnuts. In an acidic solution, you get the right sorts of reactions. It's apparently quite dangerous if you do it properly.

Gum arabicRunny and sticky

Fairly obviously, ink needs to be runny, but it also needs to stick to the page. Gum arabic, the sap of certain sorts of acacia tree, dried, ground, and dissolved in water, is commonly used as a binder in all sorts of things - ink, paint, food - and has been for centuries. It stops the ink being too runny, and helps stick it to the parchment when it dries.

WineRunny can be distilled water, but it can also be wine (including idolatrous wine, isn't that interesting?) or vinegar, or presumably most other sorts of liquids. Vinegar helps to make the ink shiny, I am told (the gum arabic goes on shiny, and the vinegar helps keep it shiny, something like that), and indeed one of the shiniest brands of ink out there smells very vinegary indeed.


This is the fun bit. You mix all these things up, apply them to parchment, and let the oxygen in the air do its thing. It's incredibly complicated and I don't understand it all, but basically what goes on is: the gallotannic acid bit reacts with the parchment; part of it grabs onto the parchment, and part of it floats about. The floaty bit reacts with that iron solution, and iron (II) oxide gets precipitated. Iron (II) oxide is black.

Iron-gall ink made like this is pale grey in colour, and it gets darker when these reactions have had time to happen - about a day, I understand, but I've not tried it.

Letters in Torah fading to brownIncidentally, iron (II) oxide isn't terribly stable, and over time it tends to turn into iron (III) oxide. This is the same stuff rust is made of, and it's red. This is why letters in old Torahs go brown or orangey-red, as the black iron (II) compound oxidises to the red iron (III) one. They're just starting to go brown in the picture here.


For whatever reason, the inks I buy have had stuff added to them so that they are black when they go on, and presumably they get blacker with oxygen, but not so's you notice. I think this is soot - burnt olive oil is referenced in one source, or just burnt wood. They say specifically you mayn't use burnt ivory (ivory-black), since elephants aren't kosher.

Pilot gel penNon-iron-gall inks

The rule is that the ink has to be black and permanent, and for the longest time the way to make permanent black ink that would work on a scroll (wouldn't fall off when rolled) was like this. However, these days we have all manner of funky synthetic blacks that are entirely lightfast and suitably adherent and flexible. Can we use those?

The discussion then takes one of two approaches.
a) The sources talk about using the ingredients for iron-gall ink, so this must be part of what kosher ink is, and to use kosher ink is a requirement from Sinai.
b) That is by way of description, it's true that in those days they couldn't make good ink without iron galls etc. But the point is that the ink be indelible and black; synthetics accomplish this just as well, and there are times when they're a better tool, in some ways.

Interestingly, the right of the denominational spectrum seem to be more okay with b) than the left. The left-tending and the ultra-right frequently share a visceral aversion to b) and insist on a) only. Happily, it's not really an issue with brand-new Torahs, where you don't need synthetics for anything.

To finish, here's the Keset ha-Sofer, the scribes' handbook, on basic laws pertaining to ink.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

more ice cream now plz?

It being vilely hot and sticky in New York at the moment, the fancy takes me to show y'all just how little of a sheet of Torah is actually visible while I'm writing it. Well-written, polished, intellectual blog posts with nicely-edited pictures and everything are kind of hard when almost your entire brain is screaming "MORE ICE CREAM NOW PLZ," and this is moderately educational, anyway.

Here's a picture of my tabletop last Thursday.

Soferet desktop

A and B: plasticised cardboard off old calendars (or cereal boxes, whatever's around). This is a general protection against mucky fingers, dust (not that the work is ever lying around long enough to collect dust, oh no), stray ink blots, and the like.

C and D: kitchen paper. On hot hot hot days, the function of the kitchen paper is primarily as a sweat-soaker. Resting my forearms on kitchen paper means that when I raise my arm to dip the pen in the ink or write along the line or other such activities calling for a certain degree of mobility in the limbs, there isn't a sticky timelag while my arm peels itself away from A and B.

You will notice the inkstains on D, though; that's because even on sensible days when one can wear sleeves to the wrist one still needs pen-wipers. Long sleeves present a peril all of their own, namely FLUFF, which is why A and B are present whenever I can manage it; there's nothing quite like finishing a day's work in a purple sweater and realising that now you have to fetch your erasing sponge and remove the delicate purple bloom from your parchment, except *not* realising it and having your client ask why their sefer is patchily purple. I would guess. Not that that has ever happened to me. No indeed.

A thru D are attached to the parchment with paperclips. E, though, actually moves (that is to say, it is mobile. I move it, like a manual carriage return). I call E a finger guard; goodness knows what anyone else calls it, but its function is to keep the fingers off the parchment, so "finger guard" seems like a good name to me.

Parchment is temperamental, especially on hot days; it likes to cockle itself nostalgically and ripple gently across the desk. This is not especially helpful when you are trying to write on the darn stuff, so your left hand has the constant task of holding flat the square inch you're writing on. Without the trusty finger guard, that means you're continually writing on nice fresh fingerprints, and that's not so spiffy.

F is my tikkun page, wot I am copying off of. I have it as near to the working line as possible, because it's much easier to flick one's eyes a short way than raise one's whole head. You aren't allowed to write sans tikkun, as I've mentioned before.

G is the usual amount of visible Torah, although recently the days have been so hot and sticky that the ink takes forever to dry, so there are perhaps ten lines visible instead of the more usual four.

H. I'm very proud of H. It's that non-slip stuff that yachtie tablemats are made out of, that will sit quite happily on a table inclined at thirty degrees and not go anywhere. Ideal for people who work on tables inclined at thirty degrees, if you see what I mean. H is being a place marker, so that I don't go writing line 29 instead of line 35 or some similar foolishness.

I uses the same stuff to keep the inkwell and other tools from sliding off the desk. On I you can see tile; scalpel; pen; inkwell; giant blots. The tile and scalpel are for pen-sharpening (the tile serves as a chopping board). The giant blots are the natural consequence of giving Soferet Jen bottles of ink in handy easy-to-knock-over locations (you might describe me as ham-fisted, but we're too kosher for that aren't we); at J you can see how the wall has suffered similarly in the past.

Ice cream is totally relevant to writing Torah, anyway. They both come from cows.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The principle of not carving to form letters

In some script styles (not the one I'm using for DE), the samekh and the mem look quite similar, and the only difference is the bottom right-hand corner.

I came across a Torah in this script style, in which the word "Ramses" (you know, as in Egypt) had been misspelled, so it read "Ramsem." The final samekh had been mistakenly done as a mem.

So it was my job to fix that problem, and turn that final mem into a samekh.

This kind of fix illustrates one of the crucial sofrut principles, that of hak tokhot, or carving to form a letter. To turn final mem into samekh, all you need to do in principle is round off the corners - but in sofrut, that counts as forming the letter by carving. We don't do this, because carving isn't writing, and what we do is writing. So instead of just merrily trimming away the corners, you have to erase the whole bottom part of the letter until it isn't any letter at all, and then rewrite it with curved corners.

This is one of the things where afterwards you can't tell the difference, but the proper method is crucial. If you carve, the letter is pasul and the Torah is pasul. If you write, all is kosher. But no-one except you knows whether you wrote or carved.

It's pure formalism, in a way - it doesn't look any different, whether you make it by scraping or inking; you can't tell the difference, but the way we define Torah writing, there is a difference.

Looking at it from a homiletical perspective, it's easier to see why.

You can't form Torah from destructive acts. The letters have to be made with additive processes, not subtractive processes. The creation has to go in one direction, adding to the body of the letter, not taking away from an existing body.

We might make a comparison with sculpture, in particular Michelangelo's famous comment that David was already inside the marble and he, as the sculptor, merely removed the surplus. Torah letters cannot be made in this way. You can't take a blob of ink, scrape away the surplus, and reveal a letter, and on some level that's because without human interaction Torah doesn't mean anything. It's not a pretty statue, that once revealed stands there looking beautiful - it's a relationship, so there has to be interaction. The content comes from without, but it doesn't become part of us unless it also comes from within.

Compare how Torahs are made from perishable materials. They last a long time, but ultimately they decay, and hence the ever-renewing process of writing fresh scrolls to replace the worn. Stone tablets are very symbolic, but like the statue of David, they aren't a relationship. You make them once and there they are (until they break or get lost), but there isn't that process of internal, ongoing recreation which is what keeps Torah alive.

Really the more you think about it, the more important this little rule about not-forming-letters-by-erasing seems. On one level it's a formalist rule of artisanship, and on another level it's a whole theological discourse on the sympathetic relationship between the Jews and the Law.