My Journey to Become a Sofer – Part 3 – Simple Beginnings

School Black Board
School Black Board

[Please become a member of our site and gain access to my story of becoming a Sofer. Your support will assist me to complete my studies. Thank you.]

I hope that my posts about my story to becoming a Sofer will also be of aid to those who may be wishing to learn the art of Sofrut. In fact, the journey is not an easy one. If one doesn’t know where to start, then there’s not much of a beginning! One finds oneself wondering what to even do! My own journey started out with a lack of knowledge of knowing what to do. It then developed into a “better idea of things.” Thereafter it seemed like things could still improve, but I’d find out later that I had chosen the wrong path!

WHAT IT TAKES TO BECOME A SOFER

For those wondering what one needs to learn to become a Sofer, here is a brief overview. This is what I was told by others who I had asked – and who had clearly pointed me in the wrong path! Due to Sofrut being such a difficult profession requiring hundreds – and in fact thousands of hours of learning and practise, there is a special organisation set up in Israel to oversee the qualifications of those embarking upon the path to become a Sofer. The organisation is known as the Vaad Mishmeret Stam. They set the syllabus, do the testing, and make sure those certified under them are fulfilling what they are supposed to do.

THE MAIN EXAMINATION

In order to pass the main examination, one must study the most important laws. One can find these laws in the Shulchan Aruch itself – Chapter 32 – Seifim 1-36 and Chapter 36 (where all the letters are described in great deal) together with the Mishnah Berurah. I once recall asking some “in the know” “Talmidei Chachamim” (Torah scholars) how to go about studying to become a Sofer – and was told clearly that one did not need a teacher. One could simply study the few paragraphs of text – and voila! What more could there be to learn? I recall the one fellow looking at me a little strange, wondering why I could not have worked it out for myself!

BASICS

Here is a picture of the Mishnat Sofrim with the outstanding Pe’er Halachah commentary – showing the Halachah step by step with diagrams. This is the golden book to own and learn absolutely thoroughly!

Mishnat Sofrim with Pe'er Halachah
Mishnat Sofrim with Pe’er Halachah

This is the same book – including all the laws needed to study for the main examination – from the side view:

Mishnat Sofrim Side View
Mishnat Sofrim Side View

Clearly – the book looks rather thin! Surely one who can read Hebrew can study this subject in a very short time. What is quite frightening – is to begin working through the material. As one does so, one realises just how intricate each law is – covering thousands upon thousands of angles! It can take tens of hours to work through the book a first time. Further, it requires revision a few times before one can actually get to understand these laws properly!

Well – let’s be clear… It may sound like just 36 paragraphs of text and then learning the shapes of just 27 letters – but becoming a Sofer is far more complicated than that! I would definitely go so far as saying that it’s much like obtaining a PhD! In fact, while the Vaad Mishmeret Stam require this “simple” learning – the actual laws encompass far more than only that. I wonder if it is even possible to be a Sofer without studying the other absolutely necessary works. We’ll speak about this in future posts hopefully!

Mishnah Berurah - Laws of Tefillin
Mishnah Berurah – Laws of Tefillin

In the above picture one can see two pages of the Mishnah Berurah dealing with the laws of Tefillin. Here, he is speaking about the laws related to what happens to a letter that becomes disjoined (or broke off completely) at a certain point and whether the letter may still be considered kosher! Of course if this happens and the letter is pasul (not kosher), one’s entire Tefillin/Mezuzah becomes pasul…

Basically, when coming to write the examination – one must know every page (as seen in this picture) off by heart! Being a Sofer means knowing every single one of these laws like one knows the back of one’s hand! The slightest mistake (and forgetting one of these vital laws) will invalidate the Tefillin, Mezuzot or Sifrei Torah written! One can clearly see just how much there is to learn – even on the most basic of levels. I hope we’ll get to discuss more about the Mishnah Berurah and the other commentaries that appear on the pages above in future posts.

The Aleph
The Aleph

In the picture above, one get a glimpse of the complexity of each letter. Each line (number) indicates another vital point necessary when writing a particular letter. In the picture above – the first letter “Aleph” is shown. It appears in two different pictures due to the variety of customs available. We will speak more about this later. On the right is the writing according to the custom of the Beis Yosef. On the left a minor change shows the Aleph according to the custom of the kabbalist – the Arizal – Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-1572). Interestingly, it was not him who in fact came up with this!)

In addition to fulfilling these requirements every single time the letter is written, one must also master the art of moving the kulmus (the quill) easily so that one’s mind and hand work together in getting the ink to flow out in the way one’s mind wants the letter to appear! Without mastering this art, it doesn’t matter how well one knows the formation of the letter. One will be unable to actually write it!

Back to my story… I took a look at the Halachot (laws) and realised that in fact there was a lot more to learn than what I had imagined (in any case)! The Chofetz Chaim – Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan (the author of the Mishnah Berurah) himself says that when it comes to learning how to write the letters, one must only do so from an accomplished Sofer already (See Mishnah Berurah 36:1 quoting the Tur). This person has already been shown the shapes of the letters and the accepted customs. One cannot hope to learn how to write by just looking at a picture. Should anyone attempt to become a Sofer this way – I would tell those in touch with them to stay clear from their writing! When it comes to the actual laws of the letters and writings – likewise, one can only do so from someone who clearly understands the ins and outs of writing already.

In retrospect I often consider the comments of these “Talmidei Chachamim” (who could certainly not have been Sofrim!) and laugh as I consider the pure innocence of their simple way of thinking. In fact, when it comes to all areas of Torah – one definitely needs a teacher who is already an accomplished scholar in that particular area of expertise!

Torah is something that is transmitted from teacher to pupil. All Torah is done this way. Moshe (Moses) was the only person to receive Torah (from Mt Sinai – Pirkei Avot 1:1). Thereafter the Torah is transmitted from teacher (Moshe) to pupil (Yeshoshua) etc. Interestingly, when one merits to delve into the mystical part of Torah, one works along the path to become a Mekubal (a kabbalist). The root of this word is “KiBeiL” meaning to receive. In order to learn the secrets of the Torah, one must become a suitable vessel and therefore, one must receive the tradition as it is passed (transmitted) from teacher to pupil. But I digress!

Though this is the start of the learning, it is not where I actually started. In fact, when I had encountered the Talmidei Chachamim who I had asked to assist me at the time – I had no idea what path I would be taking yet. I did not know of any of the main books the purchase. All I knew is that I would have to master a very small amount of material. Apparently!

The journey was really – just beginning…

For more about my journey – make sure to see my previous posts as well as my page which I have set up for those who would still be able to assist me to complete my learning.

I’m hoping to share a lot more about the books necessary to study (for those wanting to learn themselves) as well as my own path of failures and successes in the hope of making it easier for others who want to learn, to be able to take a path that will be straight and “easy!”

Thanks for following me!

Eliyahu

 

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