Friday, August 30, 2013

מעולם לא ראיתי את הארץ ההיא

Just finished this little request, from an atheist who nonetheless likes the look of sofruth, for a translation and writing of this excerpt of an Edward Thomas poem. The last line actually comes out almost better in Hebrew, very onomatopoeic. It is on gewil.

I Never Saw That Land Before

I should use, as the trees and birds did,
A language not to be betrayed;
And what was hid should still be hid
Excepting from those like me made
Who answer when such whispers bid.

Friday, July 26, 2013

מזוזה קטנה

This mezuzah was on qelaf smaller than I normally use. Not every lamedh is as long as I would like and the edges could be neater. On the other hand, the quality of the writing is better in terms of form and legibility than I see on most mezuzoth of comparable size. This is because many are written by beginners who are cranking out as many as they possibly can, and because since mezuzah writing is not usually visible, those writing sometimes try to get away with aesthetic murder. The result is often halakhically unfortunate.

Here is mine, for scale against Torah writing and my hand.

Larger picture of the writing here.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

שירת הים

I recently got to the point of Shirath Hayam. The formatting according to Ramba"m is quite different from how Ashkenazim normally write it. There are some differences in line break, and the three columns are right-, centre-, and left-justified rather than being all full-justified. You can read Ramba"m's description here.

This is how mine looks:

A very large yet very poor-quality photograph is here. And here, for comparison, is the Ashkenazi format, much more regimented, and of course with many more stretched letters.

Shirath Hayam also has a relatively high density of אותיות שונות, letters which have different forms than normal. The most common אות שונה is a pei containing a swirl rather than a block:

ׁvs. a pei of normal appearance, such as this one:

I've heard many people ask about the "meaning" of these different letters. When people ask this, often they want information which will help them formulate a rule, or generalise about their use in the Torah. If there is a great story to go along with it, for example a narrative about the letter in the style of the Zohar, so much the better. My answer that they differ because a very long tradition has them differ seems not to be satisfactory. Some juicier, hopefully more mystical reason must be there.

But I don't think such a meaning exists to be found -- rather, it's something much more unmediated, more like performance art than like a code which can be cracked. The reader sees the different letter and reacts. That reaction is the whole of the meaning, and history is the whole of the reason.

I understand the desire to unlock some sort of message embedded in these surprises, but it might be better, and more traditional (from a meqori/Darda'i point of view) to approch the surprising with what Keats called negative capability: the ability to sit with a lack of specific knowing. A family member wrote to me about this and I like his phrasing:

Perhaps I might venture on the idea of getting lost. A writer I admire, Rebecca Solnit, mentions somewhere that "lost" comes from the Old Norse "los" -- the disbanding of an army, the falling out of formation, a going home, a truce with the world. She says, I think, that never to get lost is not to live, and that not knowing how to get lost brings you to destruction, and that in the place called lost strange things are found. This may be another version of negative capability and the sublimation of a sense of identity that is an intransigent self. Or maybe not.

Friday, June 7, 2013

kethubah art

Here are some pictures from a kethubah I wrote and illustrated this week for an old friend of mine.

Above the text:

(Larger shot here)

Below it:

Distant picture of the whole kethubah with text here.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

ְשיר השירים

Here are some pictures of Shir HaShirim which I wrote for Pesah. Note there are no שלשה זיינים, in accordance with the Maimonidean/Temani interpretation of Rava's meimra that שלשה זיינים were not originally intended for ספרי תורה or מגילות.

Here I forgot a word and had to "hang" it in the margin, according to the suggestion of the Gemara -- erasure is much more difficult to get to look decent on gewil and the Gemara in Menahoth, which seems to prefer that you add things in than that you erase a few words to make space for a forgotten element, reflects that.

Scan of a larger portion.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

מספר שמות

Close-up here (as previously disclaimed, letters in the photo appear to touch; they do not on the actual qelaf).

Sunday, May 19, 2013

On Stretching Letters

Looking at modern sofruth, one could easily come to the conclusion that כתבי קודש require perfectly straight margins both on the right and the left, and that to meet this requirement, it is not only permitted but appropriate to stretch letters to fill the line. An investigation of older sifrei torah in Ashkenaz (c. 100 years ago and prior) reveals that the left margin was previously considered much more fluid; even brief inspection will show regular intrusions into the margin space of one or two letters. This is true also, and continues to be so, in many Mizrahi sifrei torah.1 The question then arises of what is the halakhah.

Monday, May 13, 2013

מזוזה לפי הרמב"ם / mezuzah according to Ramba"m

The margins of this mezuzah turned out particularly well in that there is no stretching of letters, and I didn't have to compromise the straightness of the left margin in order to ensure proportionality. While according to halakhah it is generally much more preferable to have uneven line lengths in a mezuzah than it is to stretch any letter out proportion (I hope to cover this in a later post), people are not used to seeing less than 100% margin justification, and so for professional reasons it's best if the mezuzah turns out to have both proportional letters and justification.

Other points as regards this mezuzah, and others I write:

In BT Menahoth 29b, Rava makes a statement in the context of mezuzoth that they require שלושה זיינין on particular letters: 

אמר רבא שבעה אותיות צריכות שלשה זיונין ואלו הן שעטנ"ז ג"ץ

Many are used to seeing שלושה זיינין as built-in features of these letters, rather than as decorations meant for the special occasion of a mezuzah, but Ramba"m (and, consequently, nusah Teiman) takes Rava's words as indicating specific letters and specifically for a mezuzah (הלכות תפילין ומזוזה וספר תורה פ' ה הלכה ג). On this point, R. Qapah writes that this means that early sifrei torah would not have had any at all.

Note that שלושה זיינין are not to be confused with תגין, little upticks to the horizontal stroke of many letters (such as ה), which are indeed intrinsic to the letter in question rather than an occasional addition.

Image of the whole mezuzah (note there are no נגיעות in the actual mezuzah; the bend in the qelaf creates this illusion in places).