Thursday, October 29, 2009

Quills, part 10


Having established that a feather from a kosher bird is not the only permitted tool for writing - reeds, metal and so forth being permitted - the question arises: well, why's it have to be a kosher bird then? The answer, essentially, is "it's just icky to use non-kosher things on Torahs, for heaven's sake."

This makes total sense, except that icky is hard to articulate in the language of halakha. It's not logical, not conveniently legal - but it's a very real visceral reaction which is hard to ignore completely. Thus one gets an interesting division between authorities: one side saying a feather from a non-kosher bird invalidates the writing, and one side saying it doesn't matter in the least what you write with, you can write with a porcupine quill if you feel like it.

Actually I tried making a pen from a porcupine quill, once. Porcupine quills, you may be interested to know, aren't hollow like bird quills, they're full of funny spongy stuff. The spongy stuff is hard to shape and sort of crumbly, but it supports the hard outside. If you scrape away all the spongy stuff, the outside isn't strong enough to write with. If you leave the spongy stuff, it's like writing with a very bad marker.

Porcupine quills: best left as decoration.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quills, part 9

Metal nibs!

Metal pens have a lot of bad press in the sofer's world. Quoting from a Hatam Soferet blog post of a while back, here:

Our aversion to metal implements starts in the Torah, in Exodus 20:22:
If you build an altar of stones to me, you shall not use dressed stone; if you lift your sword to it you pollute it.
And in 1 Kings 6:7:
In building the House, stones ready-dressed were brought, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any iron tool was heard in the House during its construction.
Rashi, the most widely-accepted biblical commentator, explains:
The altar was made to lengthen man's days, and iron was made to shorten man's days; it isn't appropriate to lift something which shortens against something which lengthens. Also, the altar brings peace between Israel and their heavenly father, so one should not use upon it anything which cuts and destroys.

Specifically speaking of pens, Jeremiah 17:
Judah's guilt is written with an iron pen...
Judah here means the Jews; Jeremiah is talking about how the Jews have messed up again, so it seems likely that Jeremiah didn't choose an iron pen just because of its material properties - he chose it because spiritually iron has nasty overtones. A set of sinister connotations, if you will.

Looking forward, to today's sofer. It's not actually per se forbidden to use base metals when making Torah, according to various authoritative sources, but many soferim hold that nonetheless it's utterly inappropriate to use metal tools, and in particular the iron pen, associated by Jeremiah with the numerous times the Jews have failed to play straight by God.

The iron pen carries not only associations of violence but also of disregarding the Torah. It's not necessarily the best tool for the process of creating that selfsame Torah. (Read about the connection with chopsticks here.)

More pragmatically, kosher ink is chemically active, and it plays merry hell with metal nibs. Dissolves them, basically. Also, even metal nibs need sharpening from time to time, and you need a grindstone for that - once you've got the hang of feathers, they're much easier to maintain. And metal nibs aren't as gloriously flexible as quills, either - so metal nibs lose on pragmatic and homiletic grounds.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Quills, part 8

If you don't use a quill for a few days, it will usually dry out a bit and lose its shape. Recutting it is a bit of a pain. If you're then going to be using it all day, that's time well spent, but if you're just going to fix a letter or two in a broken Torah, a plastic nib is totally the way to go, since it keeps its shape between uses. You can just keep it in your pencil case and there it is, ready to use.

A plastic nib is also a good tool for learning, in a way, since it means you can practice when your teacher isn't there. (I was never taught to tune my violin, which was one reason I didn't do a lot of violin practice - the other reason was being undisciplined...same problem...good thing I'm a decent calligrapher, because I'm a terrible violinist.) But you'll still need to sharpen it eventually, or else spend a lot of money on nibs, and you're better off learning sharpening on a real quill, it's much easier. Also a plastic nib won't make very fine lines, and you need to know how to do those eventually.

A crude method of letter formation uses a plastic nib to get the body of the letter in place, and then comes along later with a gel pen and puts in the very fine lines. This is all very well, but it is sort of like learning to sing and stopping at karaoke - there's so much more to it than that.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Quills, part 7

Fibre-tips and plastics

The thing with fibre-tips is that they don't contain the special kosher ink.

Now, this isn't necessarily the end of the world, because there are two schools of thought re ink. One says that kosher ink has to be black and stay black, and the other says that this blackness has to be attained by means of the traditional ingredients (read about that here).

The former school of thought will be satisfied with archival-quality black inks, which are designed to stay black for serious amounts of time. They're also made with entirely synthetic ingredients, which means you can be sure there aren't any non-kosher ickies in there. So, a member of the former school can use fibre-tips just fine.

The only problem then is that when they wear down, they're jolly difficult to sharpen. You can use a scalpel to sharpen up a marker, but you still don't get much mileage out of it. A $3 marker might last you a day or two, where a $0.50 quill will last you a month; that means markers are only really worth it in situations where quills are tricky (like very small mezuzot) or perilous (intricate repair jobs).

Plastics are one of my favourite modern refinements to the scribe's craft.

Once I was doing a Hebrew school visit, the sort where I hand round quills and things for the children to look at, and one of the children asked me if the quill was made of plastic. As it happened, it was a real feather quill, but this child had done something interesting - noted the material properties of the quill in her hand, and observed that they matched the material properties of plastics with which she was familiar.

Some smart sofer did the same thing, and came up with plastic nibs for scribes - pre-cut quills, essentially; you pop them onto the end of a feather or a pencil, and you're good to go. One buys them in Israel, or if in the USA from You still have to sharpen them from time to time, but they're not at all bad, and very convenient.

And in an emergency, you can cut a quill from a drinking straw. Been there, done that :)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Quills, part 6


Reeds have been a traditional Sephardi thing, and have contributed to the distinctive Sephardi script.

In a nutshell, a reed tends to give less contrast between thick and thin lines than a feather, and reed writing tends to show less contrast between thick and thin lines than feather writing. Compare the images below: the first is characteristically Sephardi reed-influenced script, and the second characteristically Ashkenazi and feather-influenced.

Speaking in general terms, Ashkenazi Jews tended to be in parts of Europe where quills were widely used, and Ashkenazi scripts often make heavy use of techniques and flourishes which rely on having a very flexible, very thin, very sharp writing instrument such as a quill, and trying to write that way with a reed will cause you much heartache. Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, tended to be in parts of the world where reeds were the writing instrument. A reed won't take an edge the same way a quill does, so it can't make those hair-thin vertical lines beloved of Ashkenazim, and it isn't as flexible, so the shapes are bolder and starker. This also makes Sephardi scripts quite a lot quicker to write, incidentally, which is why they are sometimes considerably cheaper to purchase.

A calligraphy marker resembles a reed a lot more than it resembles a quill, so trying to learn an Ashkenazi sta"m* alef-bet with a calligraphy marker will give you limited success. That's why my worksheets for beginners use markers but concentrate on skills, and don't go all the way to showing you how to make the fine details - it just won't really work. The logical thing would be for me to teach Sephardi script with calligraphy markers, but so few of my students are Sephardi that it doesn't make much sense really.

Here's a couple of rules from the scribal rule book of the Hida (Hayim Yosef David Azulai, late 18th century, Mediterranean regions), Torat Ha-Shelamim (chapter 18)

8. The quill should be made from a reed, not from a feather.

9. When the quill is ready for writing, he should put its tip in his mouth and roll it around in his spit (rir). He should say: Just as this spit is pure before it leaves the mouth, so shall this quill be pure when I write the holy Torah with it. This is because rir has the same numerical value as kadosh (holy) [210].

I don't write with reeds, myself, but I'd guess they're more flexible - easier to write with - if you soak them a bit before use, hence this custom. More of the Hida's rules here; more on quills shortly.

* sta"m - abbreviation for "sifrei Torah, tefillin, mezuzot."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Quills, part 5

Concerning interaction with one's fellows, Rabbi Elazar taught: one should be soft like a reed rather than stiff like a cedar, and it is for this reason the reed merited to be used in the writing of sifrei Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot. (Taanit, 20b)

In Rabbi Elazar's time, reeds were what people made pens from.Indeed, the rabbinic word for a quill, kulmus, comes from the Greek word for a reed, calamus. Feathers didn't come to be used for pens until about 700CE, in Europe.

Popular lore has it that one may only use a quill from a kosher bird to write Torah, but we see at once that if you can use a reed, clearly kosher feathers aren't the only permitted tool. Modern alternatives include metal, plastic, and fibre-tipped pens, as well as feathers and reeds. More about those coming up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Quills, part 4

Quill cutting list. Okay, this isn't very interesting to most Torat Imeinu readers, but maybe it's a bit interesting to some readers.

or other hollow tubes

sharp knife
I use surgical scalpels, because they are SHARP, and this is good for accuracy. Craft knives also work well for rough shaping.

razor blade
Did you know you can buy them in packets? I didn't. As far as I'm concerned razors come in a packet labelled Bic Ladyshave - but if you go to the Men's Shaving section, whaddya know, razor blades.

piece of tile
or glass, metal, perspex - something to cut down onto. I like tile; a pocket mirror also works and you can also use it to check that your tefillin are on straight.

Ink and klaf for testing
Test with the materials you will actually be using. A quill that works nicely on parchment may work horribly on paper, so if you're testing on paper it'll look dodgy and then you'll be slaving away trying to fix something that isn't broken.

Razor blades and pocket mirrors you can get in a pharmacy. Feathers you can pick up from the ground if you're lucky, or buy in craft shops.

Surgical scalpels are less conveniently found - you can buy them on ebay, and I also stock them in my Etsy shop.

Once I've found something in which to ship ink, I'll be putting that up on Etsy too. But check out; they have kosher ink (stocked as Yemen Ink) and kosher parchment (stocked as Israeli parchment). They're expensive, but convenient.

Also recommended:
under Quills & Quill Knives:
--Feathers - RAWQUL- you can buy cured ones if you like; you're going to spoil a lot of them while you're learning, so it's not necessarily worth it. Get five or so.

under Cutting Tools
--scalpel handle - SCALPL - metal handle and two #10 blades.
--spare blades - 5#10BL - five spare #10 blades.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Quills, part 3

Learning to cut and shape quills is one of the most stumbly stumbling-blocks a newbie scribe has to negotiate.

I learned to cut quills from a combination of websites (, liralen, and the ever-helpful Mordechai Pinchas), assistance in person, and practice.

When you're starting out, you don't know what a good quill is supposed to feel like, so you don't know if you're doing it right or not. Assistance in person is especially useful at this point.

When I was learning, Mordechai Pinchas was kind enough to send me a couple of ready-cut quills. It really helps. (Also especially worth noting is his tip about the Sharp Click - read his instructions; where he says A loud "click" confirms a good sharp cut and thus a clean edge, pay extra attention.)

Mediaeval re-enactment sites are jolly good for telling you how to recreate the mediaeval way of doing things, but they aren't very useful for incorporating modern technology. Fair enough, obviously, but one thing it took me a long time to learn was: a razor blade is the best tool for cutting the ink channel. I was shown that particular trick by the sofer at Pardes, and life got easier.

But practice is the main thing. If you're a beginner, it's quite normal to spend all morning wrestling with your quill. If you're a beginner whose teacher is nearby, they can sort you out; if you're not that lucky, you just have to keep working at it. When I started my first Torah, I could get a decent quill eventually, although it might take me an hour or more; by the end of that year, I could get a decent quill pretty much every time. Practice.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quills, part 2

An historical interlude.

Pitted against a metal nib, a quill almost always loses - strength, durability, convenience, level of skill required in user - metal nibs win. Metal pens have been around for an extraordinarily long time, since I think about 1000CE, but quills remained the writing instrument of choice for Europeans well into the nineteenth century, because they were so easily obtained and made.

Businesses bought quills by the thousand for their clerks, and professional quill-cutters were commonplace (a professional quill-cutter might reasonably be expected to produce between six and eight hundred pens per day). Metal nibs only took off with the advent of the steam-engine, mechanising the process so that mass-production of metal nibs became faster and cheaper than cutting feathers. It also took some time to develop a suitable alloy, one that was both flexible and durable. Once this was done, metal nibs quickly became ubiquitous, and the profession of quill-cutter obsolete.

Most pens, quill or otherwise, are shaped such that the barrel of the pen stays whole where the fingers grip it, but then is cut away and shaped into a nib (below, top). Torah scribes leave their nibs broad (below, bottom picture, left nib), so that they can make broad lines, but they may be larger or smaller, and for very fine writing the nib may be cut to a sharp point. As the pen is used, the corners tend to wear away (bottom picture, right nib) and the scribe will have to restore the shape every so often. Later on, we'll see that that can mean several times a day, so metal nibs are a good deal more convenient, for the most part.

However, a quill remains the tool of choice for top-flight calligraphers (har har), because it is capable of much more subtlety than any metal nib, more on that later. Soferim also have other issues with metal nibs; more on that later.

(You noticed, of course, that the left nib in the bottom picture has three ink channels instead of one. That's a modification one makes in certain circumstances, mostly in repair work when you are re-inking crumbling letters; you want a lot of ink and a lot of flexibility.)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Quills, part 1

I sat down to write a post on quills, and before I knew it I had fifteen posts and was still going strong. I never knew I could say so much about quills. So we're going to have Quill Month. Tenuous link: it's parshat Noach, and that's got birds in it, and birds have feathers, which is what we make quills out of...see? Tenuous.

Okay, quill terminology.

Quill: the tubey middle bit of a feather, the pen made from same.

Nib: the business part of a quill. Note that the nib has a slit up its centre. The slit divides the nib into semiquills*. The slit forms a channel in which ink lives (as you can see in the picture), so sometimes I call it an ink channel. The ink sits in the channel and gets pulled out gradually, as the nib sets ink onto the page - like a candle wick, but in reverse (physics is so clever).

The nib is cut from the non-fluffy end of the feather.

Many people, myself definitely included, strip off the fluffy bits before working, so that the quill resembles a pen more than it does a feather. This is because when you are working (rather than playing about), the fluffy bits get in the way and are just annoying.

The quills in the top picture are goose. The quill in the bottom picture is turkey. Goose is good for smaller work, like mezuzot; turkey tends to be sturdier and more durable, so I like using it for Torah work.

Some scribes temper their quills with heat or chemicals. The idea is for the tempering process to harden the feather, and then it stays sharp longer and is nicer to write with.

Tempering can be tricky - the problem is that if you don't do it enough, nothing happens, but if you do it too much, you melt the quill. If you melt it, tiny air bubbles form and are trapped in it when it hardens so you can't cut it to a smooth edge, plus it's far too brittle to be useful. I do it sometimes, and sometimes I don't bother.

* Okay, the proper word is "tines," but "semiquills" is a much prettier word. Credit to my chum Gabriel for inventing a good word.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


When writing Torah, the sofer is supposed to speak each word before writing it.* The speech somehow causes the essence of the words to waft through the air in holy, mystical fashion and settle onto the parchment, to be followed in short order by the letters themselves. Like spreading rose petals before a bride, if you will.

Today I was writing down at Yeshivat Hadar. I like writing Torah in places of Torah in general, but today it so happened that while I was writing, the group was listening to Rabbi Held talking.

It's always worth listening to Rabbi Held talking (PLUG FOR OCTOBER 21 EVENT), he's the sort of person you ought to want to be when you grow up, but today in particular - I was listening with a quarter of an ear because I was mostly concentrating on writing Torah - he was talking about making your Torah study lead to being a better person. How learning Torah ought to be allied with becoming a better, kinder, more present person. About how all of Torah is fundamentally a set of pointers towards getting more chesed - loving-kindness - into the world. How chesed is and can be all-pervading and enough.

Mix that in with the image of the sofer's articulated words settling onto the parchment. This afternoon I think all that chesed in the air must have settled onto the parchment as well, how could it not have? Layers and layers of chesed, and then the breathed words, and then the written words.

I thought it was a nice image.***

* Keset ha-Sofer 4:6
** Except richer and better, but I was only listening with a quarter of an ear, so I can't give more details, sorry; go hear R' Held if you get the chance
*** I was writing the bit about the Sin of the Golden Calf at the time. You tell me how that plays out!

Friday, October 9, 2009

God said...

With the book of Exodus start God's communications with Moses.

The phrase ויאמר ה' אל משה comes up 67 times in Torah - and my goodness it feels like more than that - 42 in Exodus, 2 in Leviticus, 21 in Numbers, and 2 in Deuteronomy.

וידבר ה' אל משה comes up 91 times - 14 in Exodus, 33 in Leviticus, 43 in Numbers, but only once in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy has its own phrasing idiosyncracies. We'll hear more about them when we get there.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

ears and mouths

The other week, in Exodus 13, I wrote the verse

והיה לך לאות על ידך ולזכרון בין עיניך למען תהיה תורת יקוק בפיך
It shall be a sign upon your hand and a remembrance between your eyes, in order that God's Torah shall be in your mouth...

This is the verse whence we derive that the Torah is to be written only with materials from kosher species (more about that here).

A few chapters later, in Exodus 17, God says to Moses:

ויאמר יקוק אל משה כתב זאת זכרון בספר ושים באזני יהושע
...Write this for a remembrance in a book, and put it in the ears of Joshua...

and one wonders what the Torah would look like had we chosen to take this verse literally as well.