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.

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