A Look at What a Sofer Is and Is Not

14 Shevat 5771
January 19, 2011

sofer-writingThere is a misunderstanding among most people as to what a sofer (scribe) is, what he does, what he must learn — and if he requires certification. Most assume that all sofrim are equally trained, and are knowledgeable in all aspects and disciplines within STaM (Sifrei Torah & Mezuzot).

Rule Number 1 – Never Make Assumptions
The sofer is a specialist in a functional area of practical halacha. His sequels would be the shochet or the mohel.

The mohel is trained in a particular medical procedure and the related halachot, which is rather limited in scope and volume.

The shochet is trained in a technical procedure and a single area of halacha, while the area is much greater in volume than the mohel it still is a centrally located and a isolated area of halacha.

The sofer’s world involves many more components.  The halachos are spread over Shulchan Aruch. The technical knowledge is as diversified as the halachos.  There are many highly technical skills which he must learn to master. Today being a sofer is not a just being a specialist but it has become divided into sub-specialties. Today the responsibilities if a sofer have been divided into many areas. The generic sofer of today is actually the writer; in addition there is the “magahei” (the examiner), who checks the scrolls only. There is the multi-talented ‘batim macher’ (tefillin boxes)/ sewer/ painter, who wraps the parchments and sews them as well as refinishing, painting and repairing them where necessary.

The sofer should be the person that can check the kashrut of the batim. There are also the non-sofer support staff which include:  the klaf (parchment) manufacturer, the batim maker who makes new batim, the painter of only new batim, the gid (thread used to sew batim closed – sinew) manufacturer and the people who make the reztuos or tefillin straps. Each is a specialist in his own right. Each area having its special area of halacha.

 Today’s sofer is trained to write while the batim macher wrap address a number of other tasks as mentioned above.   A magahei is trained to check the kashrut, which involves a more comprehensive knowledge base then the sofer as he must clearly understand all the deviations in all the various customs of the various type of ksav (script).

Each will deal with an entirely different set of halachic issues.

The analogy of the sofer who writes and the examiner is that of a medical doctor and a cardiologist. The cardiologist is a medical doctor who after his first becomes a doctor and then goes on to the next level certification which requires further studies in order to becomes a specialist.

The writer, examiner and the batim person all train and are certified for their expertise only. Each does his work and one does not need to study the other areas to be certified in his discipline  

The common sofer (scribe) of today generally attends a course or a series of classes and learns the halacha.  Unfortunately, there are many “self taught” sofrim who either learn to write from another sofer or a book. They will study try to learn all the thousands of halachos on their own. A person attempting to teach himself in reality is the blind man leading himself through a mine field.  Imagine a self taught mohel or a self taught shochet — would you use such a person to perform the brit milah on your child? Would you eat the meat of such a shochet? Why would you let such a sofer write parchments for your tefillin or mezuzot?

Sofrim training can range from highly profession courses run by “STaM” organizations such as Mishmeres STaM, to private operated courses intended to train sofrim and give the “instructor” a parnasa (livelihood). Recently there have been courses which are sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Labor and universities and various educational institutions that feature a “Safrut STaM: scribal writing” course. The STaM: scribal writing advertisement was located next to the Journalism for beginner’s courses which they offer (taken from advert of Lander Institute). 

Needless to say the expertise of the instructors and those taking these courses vary greatly. We even have seen signs for “complete courses to train as a sofer during the “ben hazamim” yeshiva vacation period – in plain words learn to be a sofer in 2 – 3 weeks.    It is clear that today there is no “standard training” and the result is disastrous.

In the ideal course for a writing involves first learning the halachos of the letters before even starting to teach how a kumus (the sofer’s pen), which is cut from a feather, and write a letter or use the pen. The course will include all the laws concerning the forming of the letter as well as all the laws how they have to be written, how to sanctify what he is writing, the basic variant forms of letters as well as the common “writers” questions in halacha which can and do occur throughout the career of a sofer.

The general halachos of klaf and ink are also taught. Such a course normally spans over 6 – 9 months meeting once to twice a week for an hour to hour and a half session each time. In addition they will meet once a week to learn to write. Both, the halacha and the practical training, will require home preparation in order to properly prepare for the lessons. Those attending are trained in the practical knowledge of being a writer and the theoretical halachic base in order to become certified as a sofer who is competent to write. These better courses may include a quick review of batim and straps and have a show and tell session of how the parchments are inserted into the batim but they are not trained to do it.

Many, sofrim, or rather those who think they are sofrim, do not know what is truly involved and begin to write as so as they learn to form the letters. Many start before learning all the halachic knowledge required as a sofer. Some will seek to be certified others will not. Many, if not most soon-to-be sofrim will drop out after a megilah or a writing a few mezuzot. Some seeing that they are unable to make a parnasa by writing will then start to check mezuzot and tefillin or repair torah scrolls a career which they were never trained to do.

 I once had a physical therapist who told me while studying to become certified as a therapist he worked for a STaM supplier repairing Torah scrolls. I asked him if he had learned to be a sofer — he said he started to write but never finished nor did he complete the halachos but he needed the job.  “The boss watched what I did —- I was only blackening letters and filling in the cracks”. 

The Kaf HaChaim writes that a sofer must go to the Gedolei HaRabbonim and be certified by them. This is the same requirement which a shochet and mohel both have. Historically being a sofer, was a Jewish trade occupations which was passed on father to son. Since the devastation of with second world war where an entire generation of sofrim where lost and population upheaval the area of STaM was hardest hit. Thousands of sofrim were lost.

We know that were problems with the training and quality of sofrim for generations. The Rishonim talk about unqualified sofrim, The sefer “Keset HaSofer” by the baal Kitzur Shulchan Aruch and the Kol Yaakov by the baal Kaf HaChaim were written to help sofrim by codifying the complicated laws over a hundred years ago.

Organizations such as Mishmeres STaM founded in Poland over a hundred years ago and more recently Mishmeres STaM formed in the USA and Israel only some 35 years ago were created to help improve the situation of STaM. Today’s Mishmeres STaM works on multiple levels which include general public information, Sofer training programs. They serve as sofer certifying agents, and working under the direction of Gedolei Yisrael, they have developed a computer program which examines articles of STaM for human errors of missing, extra or misplaced letters and words.  (Computer examination does not replace the requirement that each article be examined by a certified examiner). Unfortunately, this is not enough to correct the situation!

Warnings have been released by the major rabbinical organizations and our leading rabbonim to only purchase scrolls which were written by certified sofrim. We have been cautioned to have articles checked by certified examiners, batim work done by only certified people. One needs to make sure every component such as klaf, giddin, batim, ink and retzuos have a proper hechsher. Until the consumer demands that STaM articles are certified —- it will not happen!

Just as a person seeks out the correct doctor for his medical issues and just as an individual looks for a proper hechsher on the food he eats. We need to look at sofrim and stores that sell STaM as we look for certified kosher food establishments.

Would you buy meat from a store which was not certified? Would you go a doctor who was self-trained?  Would you eat in a restaurant without certification even if it had lovely pictures of Gedolei Yisrael onver the walls or a letter of how great the owner of the business is?

What do we do when “G~d forbid” are suffering or someone is ill – we run to check our tefillin and mezuzot. Perhaps had we thought in advance we could have prevented our problems?  Many little points which an expert sofer will know are taught to us in halacha and kabala which a properly trained certified sofer should know.

An example is the importance of the tagim or crowns on the letter lamed. The right tag we know represents chessed the left tag represents din – the right side is to be higher than the left in order that the chessed of Hashem should be forthcoming in greater measure than the din we deserve.

Who would want din over the chessed of Hashem?  While this example of the backward tagim on the letter lamed would not invalidate the parchment, it still is not written in the way it should have been. 

We are all not only morally obligated to protect our mitzvos and seek out and purchase from only certified sources but we are halachically obligated to do so!

Understanding this, I encourage you to stand firm and enforce your rights as a consumer, to seek out only certified sofrim and establishments, and by doing so compelling a change for the better regarding the ‘standard’ of a the sofer.

To contact Rabbi Moshe Flumenbaum directly, one may email moshe@hasofer.com

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