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.

In BT Menahoth 30 a-b we see that it is entirely permissable to “hang” part of a word in the margin space, as long as the intrusion is small and anchored by the majority of its letters inside the column. The writer, if unable to to fit even a majority of a word inside the column, is advised to simply write the whole word on the next line:

מנחות ל ע"א-ב

נזדמנה לו תיבה בת חמש אותיות לא יכתוב שתים בתוך הדף ושלש חוץ לדף אלא שלש בתוך הדף ושתים חוץ לדף נזדמנה לו תיבה בת שתי אותיות לא יזרקנה לבין הדפין אלא חוזר וכותב בתחילת השיטה

This excerpt is representative of its entire section in that it shows clear and easy comfort with a jagged left margin. Its grammar and instructional tone indicate that this is a לכתחילה description of the normal way of doing things, rather than a בדיעבד sanctioning of something less than ideal. In modern formatting terms, what it is prescribing is much closer to right-justified alignment than it is to complete justification.
Ramba”m clarifies further that right-justification is not merely normal but desirable. Here we see an explicit statement of comfort with empty space at the edge of a margin:

רמב"ם הלכות ספר תורה פרק ז' הלכה ה'

נזדמנה לו תיבה בת חמש אותייות--לא יכתוב שניים בתוך הדף ושלוש חוץ לדף, אלא כותב שלוש בתוך הדף ושתיים חוץ לדף; לא נשאר מן השיטה כדי לכתוב שלוש אותייות--מניח המקום פנוי, ומתחיל מתחילת השיטה.

This halakhah is brought down as well in the Shulhan Arukh, who stresses the forbiddeness of stretching letters. Note here as well the definition of “stretching” as becoming problematic when some letters are lengthened out of proportion to the rest of their line:

שולחן ערוך יורה דאה רעג (הלכות ס"ת) ג'

ואם לא אין מקום כדי לכתוב ג' בתוך הדף יניח המקום חלק ולא ימשוך האותיות לעשותן גדולות מחבירתן כדי למלאות עד סוף הדף

In other words, the undesirability of stretching letters is not merely something with which people interested in meqori2 halakhah should be concerned, but all sofrim. Indeed, even in the modern Ashkenazi world, sofrim such as R. Menahem Davidowitz stress the importance of organising the lines of a column such that one does not stretch the letters.3

As clear as the halakhah seems to be with regards to sifrei torah, it is even more strict with regards to mezuzoth. ‎There, we see that lines of randomised length are fine, as long as they remain random and do not form a specific shape (triangles and circles are listed as examples):

מנחות לא ע"ב

אמר ר' זעירי אמר רב חננאל אמר רב מזוזה שכתבה שתים שתים כשרה איבעיא להו שתים ושלש ואחת מהו אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק כל שכן שעשאה כשירה מיתיבי עשאה כשירה או שירה כמותה פסולה כי תניא ההיא בס"ת אתמר נמי אמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן ואמרי לה אמר רב אחא בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן מזוזה שעשאה שתים ושלש ואחת כשרה ובלבד שלא יעשנה כקובה ובלבד שלא יעשנה כזנב

Besides Ramba”m4, the much later Keset HaSofer restates permission for very jagged edges in mezuzoth5, again taking this into the realm of halakhic concern for modern Ashkenazim. In light of this, it is even harder to permit stretched letters in the case of a mezuzah, which has very lax line length specifications, than it is for a sefer torah, which has an ideally consistant but nevertheless fluid left margin.

Thus a scribe who finds that words assigned to a line will not fit with perfect ease has two options: either to leave a space at the end of one line and continue untroubled on the next, or to plan ahead carefully and spread the stretching out so that no one letter or small group of letters is out of proportion to the rest.

1Author's personal experience in inspection/repair of sifrei torah in the Gothenburg Jewish community, supplemented with commentaries on the same sifrei torah by Machon Ot of Jerusalem
2i.e., based in ספרות חז"ל and relying on other authorities insofar as they offer valuable insight into those sources
3תקון תורה לסופרים ולקוראים תצלום כתיבת יד הרה"ח ר' מנחם דוידוביץ שליט"א נדפס בני-ברק תשל"א

4 הלכות מזוזה פרק ה הלכה א

5 Keset HaSofer 27:6

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for putting this together, I just had a query about it and it was jolly useful to pull the references off here instead of chasing them all up.