Thursday, May 6, 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

la vie soferet

New York woke me up in the middle of the night with some truly impressive rain. Really, it must take a lot of effort to drop that much water out of the sky.

I was going to try and take a picture for you, but by the time it was light and I'd showered (why did I bother doing that? I could have just sat on the fire escape for a bit) and stuff, the rain had slacked off.

When it started raining (in the middle of the night, of course) I got out of bed and closed the windows, because I have bits of a Torah on my various tables, all too close to the windows for irresponsible sleeping through rainstorms. Okay, they're all at least a metre away from the windows and it would take some REALLY determined rain to get that far in, but you try sleeping through a rainstorm with open windows and bits of a Torah on your tables, and I bet you wouldn't make much of it either.

Oh, re: tables - that'd be one writing-desk, and one dining-table, which is temporarily serving as a Torah Corrections Zone (that sounds a lot more borstalian than it actually is), so meals are eaten on the balcony fire escape during fine weather and on the couch otherwise. Lest you should think that la vie soferet involves sumptuous drawing-rooms, or something.

Anyway, I'm working at Yeshivat Hadar today. Back later. Cheerio.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

What counts as Done?

So when all the writing is finished, there's still a good deal of this and that to be done, to a sefer Torah.

Proofreading, obviously. I've been more or less proofreading as I go along, but one still has to send it to the external checker, and wait for that.

Seams - I've been sewing it as I go along, as well, but there's a bit of tinkering around one does with the seams.

Cleaning - one needs to remove miscellaneous pencil marks from various places.

And similar. So, I can write 100% in the little box at the side, because when I'm done with the writing the rest is pocket change - but there's still what to be doing, and I'm doing it.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Shatnez gatz

One of the few places in Torah where all the letters with crowns - שעטנז גץ - are within a few millimetres of each other. Pretty, isn't it?

This one's in Devarim, 22:11-12:לא תלבש שעטנז צמר ופשתים יחדו: גדלים תעשה לך על ארבע כנפות כסותך אשר תכסה בה.

Monday, April 19, 2010

yom hazikaron

I wrote this bit today. Very appropriate. I don't plan it this way, you know.

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the LORD your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you. When you are about to go into battle, the priest shall come forward and address the army. He shall say: "Hear, O Israel, today you are going into battle against your enemies. Do not be fainthearted or afraid; do not be terrified or give way to panic before them. For the LORD your God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Overdue update!

All pretty quiet on the home front here, as we slip into the last few weeks of Torah writing. I've spent today at one end of a huge table, correcting Torah sheets I wrote a while ago.

At the other end of the table was Sofer Boyfriend, correcting a Scroll of Kohelet he wrote a while ago.

Sunshine, lovely spring breezes, birdsong, and the scratchings of scalpels and occasional "What do you think about this?"-type conversation snatches all add up to a very congenial atmosphere from which to produce Torah.

Logistically speaking, writing has been suspended while the present sheets are being proofread. This is called planning ahead - the computer-checking people are Very Very Busy right before Shavuot, so the sensible thing to do is get practically all of your sefer to the checkers well in advance. By Monday, the checkers will have 88% of the sefer, and we'll be able to do the last bits in a decently leisurely sort of fashion.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Getting along

Life in the soferet household has been enlivened of late by a succession of computer mishaps. One computer can't talk to the internet, another can't talk to the camera. One can't type letter A, one can't type Hebrew. A quill, by comparison, is just a dream of simplicity.

Anyway, computer sanity has been restored more or less, thanks to a screwdriver and eBay, and we're now into Sefer Devarim.

Here's a picture of my progress chart. Big project like this, you have to have a progress chart, or you get all scared. The different books are different colours because it's cheerful that way.

You can see how I've crossed off all the columns in the first four books. Only one book left!

And here's the gap between the end of Sefer Bemidbar and the beginning of Sefer Devarim. That's the last between-book gap...

Phonecall yesterday, also, to say that the first half of the sefer has been duly scanned and is ready to be collected from the Lower East Side. More about that when it happens!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

visit to the Lower East Side

I've proofread the sefer as far as Vayikra, and yesterday I took that half down to the Lower East Side, on the first stage of its journey to computer-checking.

This particular shop is an interesting sort of place to visit. It's piled to the ceiling with dusty merchandise - as you go in, tallit bags and talleisim tower precariously above you, you almost fall over a giant box containing giant rams' horns, on your right an extraordinary jumble of hanukiot, kiddush cups, dust, books, toys, dust, cardboard boxes, and mezuzah cases.

You go a little further into the shop so as to close the door. There isn't room for two people to pass each other, so you hope there's no-one else in there. If there is, you have to shuffle back out onto the street to let them out when they're done, then you can have your turn. You don't turn round, for fear your backpack will cause an avalanche.

A little further into the shop, you can see that this is really a Torah shop. A stack of broken Torah rollers lies to one side, for spare parts. A stack of shiny new rollers lurks near the ceiling, on top of a cabinet of dusty silverware, behind plastic-wrapped Torah crowns, a Sephardic Torah case, and other Torah adornments.

All other horizontal surfaces are covered with sifrei Torah in various states of repair or disrepair. Here a tiny, fading sefer that's on its way to Israel for some restoration work. Here a new sefer, fresh from the proofreader. Here a stack of writing samples. Here a nondescript sefer a hundred or so years old, in for repair.

Looking up from these, you see sifrei Torah - no mantles, no rollers, just the rolls of parchment - stacked up in the back, reaching in the dusty gloom to the ceiling. Are they en route anywhere? Or are they just waiting until someone wants a used sefer in a hurry? How long since they were used? How long will they lie there?

The half-sefer we have brought will go from here to Brooklyn, where the man with the scan resides. It won't go just yet; the month before Purim is a busy time for soferim, and likewise for proofreaders. But it'll get to them just after Purim. Yes, the siyum isn't until May, but scanning takes time, and it's good to work ahead of schedule.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


First cup of tea of the day at Hadar: did usual foolish trick of attempting to remove teabag with fingers. Ouch. Drop teabag hastily. Tea splashes onto white shirt.

Declare emergency state of National Do Your Laundry Whilst Wearing Your Clothes Day, in (vain) hope of not being the only person walking around in a wet shirt.

Shirt still dampish by work-time. Turns out that dry ink crumbs brush off clothes just fine, but only when the clothes aren't dampish. Shirt now has attractive speckles of ink across the front.

Decide that Bleach Your Shirt Whilst Wearing It Day has no hope whatsoever of catching on, and leave that task for later.

This is why traditional scribes wear black and white, you know. If it's black, it doesn't show the inkstains, and if it's white, you can bleach them out.

In other news, the Torah's coming along nicely. We're in parashat Pinchas.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Proofreading, part 30

The very observant will note that this series has talked a lot about letters, but really not about layout at all. The reason for this is that while letter forms are relatively inflexible and easy to get wrong, layout is relatively very flexible and (these days) pretty hard to screw up, so it's not part of the proofreading process.

If you were making a chair, you wouldn't need to check that it had four legs; you'd know darn well if it didn't have four legs. These days, layout errors for scribes like me are of that order of magnitude.

It was not always so. More about that some other time.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Proofreading, part 29

I summarised my attitude towards women writing Torahs by saying that the full citizen, the adult male in good standing, may participate in the transmission of the community's symbolic centre, and the adjunct classes of women, children, and slaves, may not; today, it is a matter of principle that women not be an adjunct class and therefore may participate on the same basis as men.

This is not how the language of halakha expresses itself, naturally. Halakhically, the issue is framed in terms of the mitzvah of tefillin – those who are Biblically-commanded and socially-accepted as tefillin-wearers may write the sacred scrolls; others may not. Women are not Biblically commanded to wear tefillin, therefore they may not write the scrolls.

It seems simplistic to say that in communities where halakhic validity and gender equality are equally indispensable, women do wear tefillin, and that said wearing is held by said communities to be equivalent to men's. Simplistic, but when an immutable principle meets an overwhelming imperative, on some level the answer is simple. The community says in its actions “this is what we do, this is what we expect of people, this is how it's going to stay” - and once that sentiment is in the heart of a community, we don't wrench it out, so the halakha must perforce adjust to accept it.

You can't run a religion like that, changing the rules of the society every time you sniff hurt feelings. This is a halakhic sledgehammer, and swinging it too freely will destroy the halakhic structure. But societies where gender equality is well-grounded and gaining demonstrate that gender equality does not render a society inherently unstable (on a century of evidence; give it another five centuries and we'll be better placed to tell), and thus one may say with a fair amount of certainty that applying the halakhic sledgehammer to the principle of gender equality will not render the halakhic structure inherently unstable either.

We've got off the topic of proofreading rather, but there again, proofreading is the process that ensures the stability of the Torah text, which itself is symbolically the stability of the Jewish people, so it's vaguely associated. Anyway, that's about all I've got to say concerning proofreading at the moment.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Proofreading, part 28

Most readers here, I imagine, live in countries where rights and responsibilities in the social plane are officially not apportioned with reference to gender. Broadly, this is because it is a matter of principle that women and men function as equal members of society. How well this actually plays out in practice is another matter, but in principle, that's how it is.

It is then implausible to expect the religious plane to stand orthogonal to the social plane. To function as a full citizen in one plane and an adjunct citizen in another plane requires either a superhuman suspension of disbelief or an impaired existence in one or both planes.

This isn't good for religion's chances – if you're used to functioning fully in a social plane, you're not going to take kindly to being told you have lesser status in a religious plane. But further, it encourages the idea that the religious and social planes are and must be distinct. As someone who sees religion as an enhancement to, not a removal from, the social plane, this doesn't work for me.

Like it or not, social climate filters into Jewish life, and in social climates which foster egalitarianism, there will exist egalitarian Jewish life, in which the idea of women as an adjunct class is in principle both redundant and repugnant. Given such a change in the makeup of society, it is not implausible for its women to write Torahs. Naturally there are communities in which women are, and are content with being, adjuncts, and certainly these communities shouldn't have women writing their Torahs, but these are not communities I choose to live in.

The halakhic aspect to follow.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Proofreading, part 27

Of course, people say “um, no actually” to me, being female. It wasn't the handless guy's fault he had no hands, it's not my fault I'm female. He just didn't have the physical makeup to write a valid Torah and that was too bad; I don't have the physical makeup to write a valid Torah and that's too bad also.

Really, I do know a lot of decent people who have to say “um, no actually” to me, and they do act like yesterday's posited rabbi - feeling really sorry that he's got to say “um, no actually” to this person who's put in so much effort and so badly wants to be part of the community and it isn't their fault they can't participate through this activity.

So why's it different? why am I expecting the handless guy and the Braille-writer to suck it up, while I go right ahead and write Torahs?

You could say I'm just a hypocrite, a case of “one rule for us, one rule for them.” Some people do say that. I see where they're coming from.

Way I see it, women doing men's things isn't exactly a physical makeup thing, it's about how gender affects one's communal status. Women are barred from Torah writing in the context of societal strata; some classes of people may participate, some may not. In particular, the full citizen, the adult male in good standing, may participate in the transmission of the community's symbolic centre, and the adjunct classes of women, children, and slaves, may not.

This is perfectly sensible as far as it goes, except that in our days it is a matter of principle that women not be an adjunct class.

Such a statement requires some unpacking. More on that tomorrow.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Proofreading, part 26

Backtracking a bit to the experience of writing.

I talked about producing letters as not necessarily being writing. Specifically, embossing (the process of creating a shape by pressing up from the other side) isn't really writing.

We might say: ah, but Braille is created by embossing, and today there are lots of people for whom writing in Braille is experientially the same as writing. So why couldn't you emboss letters and make a Torah for the blind? At any rate, a Braille Torah?

Leaving the technical difficulties aside (rolling an embossed document into a scroll is asking for trouble), it's an interesting proposal.

There's a case recorded - I forget the reference, I'll look it up if anyone cares deeply – where a guy with no hands wrote a Torah with the pen held in his teeth, and the Torah was ruled invalid, because holding the pen in one's teeth is not what most people perceive experientially as writing.

The guy had written a whole Torah, remember. That's a hell of a lot of work - I mean, it takes me a whole year, and I've got two perfectly good hands. He's written a whole Torah with the pen in his teeth, and he's got no hands - I would speculate that the rabbi who ruled his Torah invalid felt like a real heel. You couldn't be any kind of decent person and feel really sorry that you've got to say “um, no actually” to this person who's put in so much effort and so badly wants to be part of the community and it isn't their fault they can't participate through this activity.

But you've got to, and I think that's also the case for Braille Torahs. Holding the pen in one's teeth, or writing Braille, is definitely some people's experience of writing, but that doesn't mean it's the cultural experience of writing, and it seems that that's what matters here.

Ramifications of this attitude tomorrow.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Proofreading, part 25

I also have to deal with a certain amount of, let's say, cognitive dissonance. In my travels, I've given scrolls (usually megillot) I've written to various traditional-Orthodox types, and the response is, quite often, “Goodness me, this is very nice, very nice indeed..." until they discover that I wrote it. Then their opinion abruptly changes; suddenly it is not aesthetically pleasing, the writing is not nice, and so forth. This is a) obvious and b) tiresome.

A story by way of example. One of my proofreading go-betweens also sells Torahs, and once I collected a scroll from him – it'd been written in Israel and I was to take it to its new home after sewing on some rollers and other details.

Well, some colleagues and I opened up that scroll and we were horrified. The writing was appalling. By no stretch of the imagination could it have been described as kosher.

So back it went to Mr Go-Between, who insisted that it was completely fine. No problems at all, he said. 100% kosher, he said. He sent it back to us. We sent it back to him. Repeat a couple of times; he was adamant that this scroll was absolutely kosher with no problems at all.

Eventually he was persuaded to examine it in daylight, and he conceded that there were more than one hundred critical errors per column. Completely fine, hm? 100% kosher? No problems at all? Right.

Subsequent investigation revealed that the sofer had taken the commission despite his failing sight. He had written the scroll practically blind, and while that's quite an achievement, it doesn't make for a kosher scroll.

But we digress. This was Mr Go-Between insisting that a really dreadful Torah was totally fine. Later, I took him my scroll for scanning, and he insisted that the writing was deeply deeply problematic in assorted ways.

Clearly I'm not unbiased, but at least mine didn't have a hundred critical errors per column.

I certainly have scope for improvement, but that seemed like some pretty intense cognitive dissonance to me. I just have to bite down and count myself lucky that he'll deal with me at all. Oh, and watch out for my own biases making me behave similarly in other areas of my life – nasty experience, good lesson, anyway.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Proofreading, part 24

Talking of inaccessible. This part of the proofreading process is hard for me to access. I don't own the fancy software, not many people do since it's so expensive (multiple thousands of dollars, I understand). Most people send their scrolls away to have someone else do the scanning part.

Well, that's hard for me, because the people who have the software are all people who don't hold with women writing Torahs. If I take my Torah to one of them and ask them to scan it, they refuse, saying they can't have anything to do with it, it's bad for their reputations, etc. Which I understand, but it doesn't exactly make me leap for joy. So I send my work to someone who sends it to someone who sends it to someone and eventually it's anonymised enough that it can go to the scanner without anyone directly violating anyone else's principles or reputation.

Sigh; not the way I'd choose to work, given the choice, but until there are enough liberal scribes to make buying the software a sensible investment, it's going to stay as it is.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Proofreading, part 23

The misplaced expectation that a computer can infallibly check a Torah also touches on a deeper concept, that of the experience of writing.

What does it mean to write? is a question that has always been part of the Torah-writing rules. Could you, for instance, embroider the Torah? Is that writing? What about carving letters into plaster-covered monoliths? Embossing them onto metal headbands? What about printing? Jewish communal narrative recognises these processes as producing letters, more or less, but also recognises that this is not how people normally write: you wouldn't embroider your account book, and if you were embroidering accounts you wouldn't say you were writing. Experientially, producing letters is not necessarily the same as writing.

By axiom, the Written Torah has to be written, and if it's going to be a proper written document, it needs to be properly written. It's got to be produced by someone having the experience of writing, not someone simply having the experience of doing embroidery or whatever.

But for your average North American Jew,* the experience of writing involves a keyboard. It makes absolute intuitive sense that computers would feature in any act of writing, not excluding that of writing a Torah. Computers are how we write things. Handwritten material is positively extraordinary; the skill of penmanship is practically unknown. No-one would expect to see an embroidered book; similarly, people frequently assume Torah scrolls are printed – no-one expects to see a handwritten book. Intuitively, it makes a twisted sort of sense that the Torah should be typed.

Fortunately, we don't take it that far; even though typing is the more common writing experience these days, pen-and-ink is still, culturally, the more authentic writing experience. Pen-and-ink is associated with real writing in a way that typing is not.**

Indeed, way way back in the days of the first Torahs when literacy was limited to an elite few, a Torah scroll - a written document - probably had an air of mystique about it simply because so few people could write, so few people could conceive of producing one. Nowadays also, a Torah has mystique by virtue of being written, because again so few people can write in this way.

An interesting example of history coming full circle, there. Writing the Torah starts as a skill limited to a small group of people; as literacy spreads but before printing is invented, writing sifrei Torah becomes less remote, such that some authorities even equate sifrei Torah with printed books containing Torah material. Then, once printing is ubiquitous, writing again becomes a rare skill and Torahs are elevated back into the inaccessible.

* By way of example, not by way of exclusion

** Which is one reason I'm not keen on silk-screening Torahs. Halakhically it's justifiable – ink in the forms of letters is, technically, laid down onto the klaf by hand – but intuitively it isn't right, because any fool knows that silk-screening isn't really writing.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Proofreading, part 22

Proofreading a Torah is a tremendous task, requiring much memory and data processing and demanding infallible accuracy. Computers, of course, have much memory and data processing ability, and are notoriously accurate. Having established that computer checking can be part of proofreading, one frequently hears the question “Why can't the computer do it all?"

I think we've mostly answered that, under the heads of human error and technological limitations, but I find the question itself interesting. Why would anyone think the computer could do it all?

A child of my generation, it came as something of a surprise to me to realise that some people genuinely do think of computers as infinitely clever, infinitely powerful (Which kind of makes sense - when “the system" is down, utter helplessness ensues, so one might unconsciously infer that non-helpless states are only possible when the system is up). And if you see a computer as a magical mystery box that can do all sorts of things you couldn't possibly do, I suppose it makes sense that you would think a computer could do a much better job of checking a Torah than you could, just like it can do a spellcheck better than you can.

Except that of course the computer's spellchecking ability only goes so far, and you yourself still have to check for anomalies the spellcheck isn't clever enough to spot – and computer checking of Torahs is just the same.

The computer is a good tool which gets most things right most of the time; it makes life a lot easier, can't live life for you, and that applies just as much to checking Torahs as it does to anything else we do.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Proofreading, part 21

Even this process, though, isn't completely foolproof. Humans run the software, and as soon as humans come on the scene, there's potential for human error.

If the various software operations aren't applied properly - like forgetting to run the spellcheck on a document - the software won't flag up problems because it won't have looked for them. Perhaps the “is it there?" process on each letter of a column was run but the “is it kosher?" process accidentally wasn't.

The computer needs human help to learn the writing, and perhaps the human isn't paying attention. Perhaps the computer says “hey, human, what's this?" and the human is half-asleep and says “vav" when he means “yud," and a spelling mistake consequently goes unspotted.

Sometimes the software just can't pick up on things. Very fine lines - the scanner might not pick them up; sometimes the presence or absence of a very fine line can be the difference between kosher and pasul. But we can't (at present) scan to so high a resolution as to pick up on all these; the processing time would be prohibitive.

Finally, the letters are very slightly three-dimensional; a human, with stereo vision, can tell the difference between ink and shadow, and a scanner can't always. Sometimes it'll interpret a shadow as a crucial fine line, and report a letter kosher when it really isn't.

So a scan is an excellent tool - I think it's one of the finer syntheses of technological development and ancient ritual - but it does not replace all the other proofreading tools we use, and it is not a substitute for hard work and knowing your stuff. Few things are, really.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Proofreading, part 20

The other form of computer checking involves much more sophisticated software, and further reduces the chance of human error. In the process we've just been talking about, the letters were fed to me automatically, but I still had to use my brain to identify them and see that they were kosher. In this process, there's barely any brain involved at all.

In this process, the operator uses a hand-held scanner to get the columns of text into the computer. Then it is run through OCR software - very clever software, which not only recognises letter glyphs but can also be taught to handle variations in glyphs caused by its being hand-written. Because it is a computer, it can also be taught some of the laws of whether a letter is kosher or not, so it can apply those mechanically to each glyph and flag up any doubtful cases.

Finally, the OCR output is compared to a Torah text, and any discrepancies are flagged up along with the doubtfully-kosher ones. A report with all problems is generated and given back with the scroll to the sofer, who then goes through the list and fixes everything on it.

Scan report
Scan report

Like this. Column 003, says the first entry on this report, which starts “Vayomer Adonai Elohim” - one comment. Line 21 (Bereshit 3:5), problem, thus: extra letter vav in the word “mimenu,” where it should say “...yodea Elohim ki b'yom akhalkhem mimenu v'nifkedu eineikhem...” and then in the picture you can see it's got “v'mimenu,” for some reason or other.

I think I probably started writing the mem, got distracted mid-stroke, forgot I'd already started it, and started it over, but I don't remember now.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Proofreading, part 19

Erm, hem, Part 19 seems to have been exactly the same as Part 18, bit of overenthusiastic copying & pasting there. Normal service will resume tomorrow.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Proofreading, part 18

Another rather pleasing thing about this sort of aural proofreading has to do with the shapes the letters make.

When writing, some letters make very pleasing shapes on the page – the taggin, or how they fit in with the other letters around them, that sort of thing:


It's just nice.

And sometimes pleasing three-dimensional shapes as well, although I usually tone those down a bit for the sake of good artisanship:

Bumpy ayinBumpy mem

Checking letters by listening, you aren't so much aware of the letters' aesthetic value relative to surrounding letters, only their kashrut status, but you do become aware of the shapes they make in sound relative to surrounding letters. I had never thought of the phrase ויבא אביו as having a pleasing shape, for instance, but when the scribomatic read it to me, vav-yud-bet-aleph-beep-aleph-bet-yud-vav, the symmetry there made me very happy. (The scribomatic beeps at spaces.)

Or: alef-tav-beep, hey-alef-tav-tav. Rhythm!

Or יוכבד דדתו לו לאשה – dalet-beep-dalet-dalet, nice, and then vav-beep-lamed, vav-beep-lamed.

Torah writing frequently surprises me with experiences I would never have thought to anticipate, and this was another of them.

Yes, I was proofreading Shemot when I was writing this post.

Not simultaneously, silly.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Proofreading, part 17

A funny thing about checking the letters like this is that you completely lose track of where you are in the Torah.

When you're writing, you say the words out loud as you're going along. You're going very slowly, so you might forget what was happening a few paragraphs before, but you know what's happening in the part you're writing.

When you hear the letters coming at you, one after the other, and you're focusing on them as individual letters and not as words, as a string and not as a text, you don't have that awareness. At least, I don't. Try it with a friend and a lump of English sometime, see what you make of it. It's very interesting, I think – yet another perspective on the Torah text that I wouldn't have suspected was there.