Shekalim 13

What is a scribe?

Today’s daf explores the many meanings of the word sofer. It shares a root with the word sefer (book) as in sefer Torah. In contemporary Jewish parlance, it is the word for a scribe, a person who inks Torah scrolls and other sacred texts.

Rabbi Abbahu said: It is written: “And the families of scribes that dwelt at Jabez …” (I Chronicles 2:55). What is the meaning when the verse states the word “scribes”? Rather, it means that they crafted the halakhot of the Torah into numbered groups.

For the rabbis, the word sofer has a variety of meanings: one who counts, one who copies texts (scribe), scholar. The Talmud plays on all these different meanings in the following list of halakhot counted up by the scribes: 

Five categories of people may not separate terumah; five types of grain require the separation of challah; fifteen categories of women exempt their co-wives from levirate marriage and halitzah; thirty-six transgressions in the Torah carry karet as punishment; thirteen matters are stated relating to the carcass of a kosher bird; there are four primary categories of damages; and the number of primary categories of labor prohibited on Shabbat is forty-less-one

These examples are taken directly from mishnahs from different tractates and, in fact, except for the first two, each mishnah comes from a different seder (one of the six large orders of the Mishnah). Together, they represent the gamut of the Mishnah.

The rabbis next bring a different biblical verse to help illuminate the meaning of the word “scribe”:

Rabbi Eliezer said: It is written: “Now this is the copy of the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest and scribe, a scribe of the words of the mitzvot of the Lord, and of his statutes to Israel” (Ezra 7:11). Why does the verse state the word “scribe” twice? (The verse is not redundant) rather, it means that just as Ezra was a scholar in matters of Torah (the written law), so was he a scholar in matters of the sages (the oral law).

According to Rabbi Eliezer, Ezra — described twice in one verse as a scribe — was an expert both in Torah (“the written law”) and in rabbinic law, also known as “oral law” because it was originally passed down orally.

These two meanings of the word sofer — counter and scholar — seem to embody an inherent tension: counting is an apparently superficial act, while scholarship requires a deeper, more thorough understanding.

But maybe not. The depths of the Jewish people’s relationship with Torah is unquantifiable. In some sense, it is beyond words. Yet, as humans, our understanding of the world is mediated through words, including those we use to explain and even quantify the unquantifiable.

Revelation, the experience of Divine Presence, was recorded in words, because human limitation precludes any other way of recording such a profound event. Famously, the words of the Torah try to capture something of that transcendent experience with strange, synesthetic statements like “the people saw the thunder … and the blast of the shofar (Exodus 20:15). Such descriptions push the limit of what words can communicate.

One way we can comprehend the vastness of Torah is by making lists, categorizing, summarizing. Yet, we hope that this potentially superficial understanding can lead to something deeper, more profound — just as the sofrim of Chronicles who made numerical lists are connected to the sofer, Ezra, who was a scholar of all of Torah. 

All of this connects to another list found on today’s page as well: a listing of exemplary rabbis. This list culminates in the quintessential Torah scholar, the one who was able to derive meaning from every tiny letter and even the decorative crowns of the letters in the Torah: Rabbi Akiva. For him, such tiny details were far from superficial, but the source of extraordinary creativity and deeper understanding. 

This tension between quantity and quality, summary and detail, breadth and depth, always exists in our Torah learning. This is especially true for those studying Daf Yomi. The trick is to balance, to utilize the superficial to get to something greater, something more meaningful. To be a sofer, in every sense of the word.

Read all of Shekalim 13 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 3rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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