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.


  1. Each time I read one of your posts, I learn something -- and better yet, I think about a lot of things! Thank you.

  2. I notice in the upper left corner, 20% of the Torah is done -- any photos yet?