Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stage management

Sukkah-building. Ink in foreground.

The Soferet likes a bit of human interaction now and again, and so on Thursday I was working in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary here in New York.

There's a bit of the library which is set up as a beit midrash, with Talmud volumes instead of the usual academic books. It's got great big windows, and most of the time it's very quiet. (The real beit midrash is elsewhere, you see. Underground, so the light isn't as good. But with free tea. I might work there next week.)

A young woman passed by and did a double-take: quill and ink? what is that happening there? crikey, it looks like Torah... and we ended up having a nice conversation, in which she mentioned that she'd never before seen a Torah in the process of being written, and indeed had never really thought about how the Torah gets to be the way it is.

A soferet's job is like that. You work in the background, doing your job, and when it's done, all attention is on your product, the shiny new Torah, and perhaps you deliver it and interact with the community and perhaps not, but in any case afterwards you fade back out and the Torah takes over.

Personally, I don't mind this - I also enjoyed stage-managing in college - but what grabbed me particularly was that outside the lovely big windows, the JTS ground staff were building a sukkah, ready for the Sem to use next week. Next week perhaps the students will have sukkah-decorating and perhaps they won't, but the actual building of the sukkah took place, like much Torah-writing, in the background, so that next week the sukkah will be ready for use and the ground staff will have faded into the background.

So, that was a nice parallel, last Thursday. Me inside, writing Torah more or less unseen, and them outside, building a sukkah more or less unseen, setting the stage for the pageantry of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, upon which the curtains will open next week.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Half a vort

The text of the Torah is written out in columns, as I expect you know. Our Torah will have 245 columns*.

As it happens, 245 is also the number of words in the Shema (full text here). Good parallel, eh? The Shema is the cornerstone of the liturgy; the Torah is the cornerstone of the religion. The Shema says, bring God into all your doings; the Torah is the guide as to how. The Shema declares faith in God; the Torah symbolises God's presence. 245 words; 245 columns.

We could leave it there, and that would be very nice. However, the Shema in liturgy has an interesting peculiarity, thus: when praying as individuals, we precede it with the three words אל מלך נאמן, God truthful King. When as a community, three words are added after its silent recitation - the last two words ה' אלהיכם the-Lord your-God are repeated aloud, and the word אמת, emet, true added.

Why's this?

Well, 245+3=248, and 248 in the rabbinic narrative corresponds to the number of pertinent parts of the human body. Proverbs 3 says of the Law It shall be health to thy navel, and marrow to thy bones; how better to map the fundamentals of the Law onto the fundamentals of the body than by reference to the Shema? One word for each body part, says Rav Nehori,** and everything will be good above and below.

248 is also the number of positive commandments in the Torah, as it happens. 248 imperatives, 248 vital body parts, and 248 words in the vital liturgical element.

245 columns in the Torah seemed jolly nice a few paragraphs ago, but now it seems we've got three bits missing.

Well, the Torah lives on a pair of rollers. Some call them spindles, some call them atzei hayim, trees of life - and some call them amudim, columns.

Recall that the three words added to the 245 in the Shema are אל מלך נאמן, God truthful King or ה' אלהיכם אמת the-Lord your-God [is] true. Both times, it's two words and emet, truth. With our Torah, we've got 245 columns of words, 2 wooden columns, and...and something.

What is it, this final something?

Our clue comes from another "column," the amud, the desk from which the Torah is read. Torah reading is, after all, the link between the scroll and the life of the community, both now and in all the generations before. The Torah does not mean much if it is not part of people. The Shema is only 247 mumbled words without the emet. The 248 body parts aren't much without the spark of life.

There are several ways I could finish this off, and you don't need me to say any of them, because they're all going to sound crass and didactic compared to what you can think of yourselves. So the Torah - it's 247 columns, and you.

* Not all Torahs have 245 columns. Column height and width can vary, and therefore so can the total number of columns. People are often surprised to learn this.

** Midrash Ne-elam (Zohar Chadash to Ruth), via the Mishnah Berurah on this aspect of Kriat Shema (61:6), see also Virtual Beit Midrash.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ambiguous letters quiz

Here's a link to the laws of forming the letters. Now:

Reish or dalet?

Middle letter: khaf or beit? Kvar or kikar?

I really wanted to make this a proper poll with clicky buttons, but I couldn't figure out how to get the images and the clicky buttons into the same entry, and I wasn't going to spend all night trying to make it work (if someone tells me how, I'll edit the entry).