Torah Scroll

Scribal arts and sacred texts.

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Writing a Torah

Writing a Torah scroll is a holy task. In preparation, the scribe immerses in a mikvah (ritual bath). Before beginning a new scroll, he recites a formula declaring his intent to write the scroll for a holy purpose.To make sure all his tools are fit for the task, he tests the quill and ink by writing the word "Amalek" on a piece of parchment. He then crosses it out with a number of strokes in order to fulfill the commandment of blotting out the name of Amalek, a biblical enemy of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

The scribe cannot write a Torah scroll from memory, and must refer to a written book called a tikkun (correction guide). Memorization is permitted for the writing of other ritual items. Whenever he writes the name of God, the scribe focuses on the task by declaring out loud his intention to honor God by writing the holy name.

One other ritual item written by a scribe is the megillah (scroll of Esther). However, in addition to ritual items, scribes also write legal documents such as a get (bill of divorce) or ketubah (marriage contract). The writing of all these items requires strict adherence to traditionally established form. The only place where the scribe has artistic license is in doing calligraphy for and decorating the ketubah. In this instance, creativity fulfills the precept of hiddur mitzvah, enhancing the joyous commandment by beautifying the item associated with fulfilling it.

Who Can Be a Scribe?

The Talmud (Gittin 45b) states that scrolls written by certain groups of people, such as women or minors, cannot be used. The argument is based on an interpretation of Deuteronomy 6:8-9, where instructions are given regarding God's teachings that you shall bind them on your hand and write them. The traditional understanding of this passage is that only those obligated to bind the teachings on their hand--that is, to wear tefillin--may write a Torah. In other words, being a sofer is restricted to adult Jewish males.

Later commentators relate the obligation to study Torah with the writing of one. This raises the question: since women are not traditionally obligated to study, does this fully prohibit them from writing a Torah, or merely exempt them from it? Today, there is recognition that women do study Torah and so there are those who argue that this permits women to write a Torah scroll. In addition, supporters of this position argue that numerous commentators in the past never put women on the list of those prohibited from fulfilling this sacred task.

The majority of scribes today are Orthodox men, though there are a few female (I actually meant a few scribes -male or female- in the liberal denominations. In fact, I am not aware of any liberal Jewish female scribes) scribes in the liberal denominations. It is only in the past few years that a traditionalist woman, Aviel Barclay, has become a scribe, and has been commissioned to write a Torah scroll. This is not without controversy as indicated perhaps by the fact that her teacher chooses to remain anonymous.

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Michal Shekel

Rabbi Michal Shekel is the executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis and has served as a congregational rabbi in the United States and Canada. She is also one of the original editors of the holiday section of MyJewishLearning.com.