I was ready for my second lesson! The schedule seemed straightforward – and it really was. In fact, as far as I am concerned, there’s not much more to write about regarding anything out of the ordinary concerning the lessons I had with the young Sofer. Let me share a little though:
I would catch the bus to him, inevitably be early (not being able to predict the timing of the bus, there was no choice but to arrive early and sit outside and wait). Returning home was the same – waiting for a bus and returning home. Fortunately, I didn’t live too far away. Really – this was one of the main reasons for me being prepared to learn with him. I had heard of another opportunity to learn in Jerusalem, but not living there at the time meant a one and a half journey in (two busses) and one and half hours out. Lessons were at 7:30pm until 10pm once a week in a group. Cost-wise with the additional travel costs and time-wise made it difficult for me. Having a Sofer close by prepared to teach me seemed like the best option.
For aspiring Sofrim – let’s make things clear, the learning I did do with my first teacher was – I guess, the standard one might get from any regular teacher. It’s what one would have to learn to pass the main test with the Vaad Mishmeret Stam.
So what exactly does that comprise? One must study the Shulchan Aruch – Orach Chaim together with the Mishnah Berurah Chapter 32, laws 1-36 and thereafter the Mishnat Sofrim. The book (seen in the picture) below is the golden book to own! (There is another one – but we’ll talk about it another time!) In it, you will find all the laws necessary to learn – all laid out neatly. In addition, the author has taken the trouble to actually write the letters and show one in picture form what the Mishnah Berurah is saying. As always – with Halachah – I caution any new student never to rely upon a point made or a diagram drawn! That is the reason for hiring a competent teacher – to actually show one how things should be done for real. But for reference and a terrific start I cannot come to recommend a more worthwhile book! Take a look at how thin it is… but I can tell you, it can take a good few tens of hours to get through properly… In addition, it is a work you will need to re-read and re-read again and again. In fact, for the rest of your Sofrut career, you will need to constantly revise this work.
The picture (left above) shows the various complexities in writing the “Aleph” and on the right – one can see the material as is required to be studied. One must master every part of the page. For those with limited Hebrew or none at all, it will be imperative to study with a teacher (number 1) and secondly to start working on learning Hebrew. If one is to be a Sofer, one should also make sure one is a Talmid Chacham (a serious student of Torah). How can one write if one cannot read?! Even if one can read (the most basic level) still, one should also have an understanding (and appreciation) of what one is writing, as well as being able to easily access the necessary books if one needs to look things up. And indeed – one will need to look things up regularly!
Back to our learning of the two parts of the Mishnah Berurah: The first section takes one through the basic laws of writing Tefillin – and by default Mezuzot and Sifrei Torah, except for the parts that are genuinely different. More on this later!
One studies the laws regarding what is actually written, who can write, how one should write, points concerning the type of parchment used and how to make it and the making of the ink for writing. In addition, one will learn the laws related to writing in the correct order (Kesidran), not fashioning a letter through engraving (Chak Tochut), and making sure each letter is surrounded by parchment (Mukaf Gvil). These three laws (containing hundreds – and in fact thousands (and more!) – of laws) are the groundwork of what Sofrut is all about. Letters may not touch and so too may the crowns of the letters not touch each other either!
One comes to learn the laws regarding having holes in the parchment and when this is forbidden and when (in fact) it can help! One learns the laws of how to erase letters if one needs to and when it may be done. One learns the laws of what to do with additional letters added by mistake, and what to do if letters are missing (usually nothing (once it’s too late!)- and the entire Tefillin or Mezuzah is unfit and must be placed in Genizah!) One learns the laws of having to pronounce each word before writing it and from writing through copying from another text. One learns the laws of open and closed Parshiyot.
Then of course are a variety of other laws not mentioned in this post – as in any case, I hope to be able to translate some of the sections or perhaps all of them for the interested reader who does not have a command of the Hebrew language – to be able to learn themselves! This does not exempt anyone from learning Hebrew so as to be able to learn the material in the original. It is an easy cop-out, and one should stay far far away from such an approach.
Back to our lessons… We were learning for an hour at a time, where we would cover roughly a page of the Mishnah Berurah in full. This means learning the text of the Shulchan Aruch, the Mishnah Berurah and the Biur Halachah (as can be seen in the diagram earlier in the post).
At the end of each Halachah – we would work through the relevant questions needed to be prepared for the final test. There is a book available with just under 1000 questions that must be mastered completely. If one cannot answer the questions successfully, one need not waste one’s time writing the test. In fact, it can take a few hours to work through the questions alone. We would spend some 10-20 minutes each lesson working through the questions related to the paragraph we had just studied.
In short, the actual text based learning went quite nicely. We managed to work through the first section of the Mishnah Berurah within a few months. It didn’t take a tremendously long time to work through – but it was quite a surprise to see that within such a small amount of text, there was in fact so much to get to know… I’d like to note here that as I continue to learn, I become more and more overwhelmed by the real amount of learning that is necessary. I have seen a new world of the mysteries of the letters that has made me appreciate just how beautiful each letter is. While everyone sees the same letters I do – and all the Sofrim who write – it is an amazing experience to find yourself in front of a few new books that open your eyes up as you realise what you thought was a simple Aleph – was something so completely different. The depth of the letters can of course keep one involved in learning for one’s entire life… Yes – just the Aleph Beit… I am grateful to have met a Sofer who – so different to the first (in this post)- has been able to show me a world of Sofrut I imagine many have no idea exists….
We weren’t finished with our lessons. We still had to work through the second section of the Mishnah Berurah -the Mishnat Sofrim. I’ll be sharing more about these lessons in the next post, and will then begin to share a little more about how little we had actually progressed! In fact – after all that – as I was to learn later – we had not yet scratched the surface! What was problematic – is that my teacher did not seem to understand how much there was to still learn… I had ended up left on an island somewhere wondering how to get back to ordinary land… but more about that in another post!
I’m writing my story to share it with anyone who wants to enjoy the process of learning how to become a Sofer Stam, how to prepare, what to look out for, how to choose a teacher etc.. I am also hoping that as I go along, I will be able to assist those wanting to know how to get a start and just what to learn and what to do – to be able to do so just from my own story and the tips I’m sharing along the way…
For those wishing to help me progress in my journey – see my main page Sponsor a Sofer. While I am qualified as a Sofer – I am still learning – and I believe, still have a good journey still ahead of me!
Thanks for tuning in! Feel free to be in touch!