Things were progressing “nicely” if one could say that. I had now studied the laws in the Shulchan Aruch together with the Mishnah Berurah. We had gone through the questions related to the learning. I had made a find – the Keset HaSofer! It was time to start learning how to actually write!
This was of course going to become the most exciting part of my journey – after all, one cannot really be a Sofer in the fullest sense of the word, if one isn’t actually writing. I guess one can consider oneself a driver of a car if one has a license, but if one doesn’t drive practically, it’s not so easy to say one is a driver – though of course one is!
How does one learn how to write? Let’s be clear, though Sofrut is a type of a calligraphy – if we can call it that, it is not just getting the letter to kind-of look like a letter – give or take various unnecessary or lacking strokes! No! Once one knows the laws for the theoretical part of Sofrut, one must now learn the laws for writing the letters. Yes! Before learning to put pen to paper – or kulmus to klaf – one must know the laws of how to actually write the letters!
Let’s give an example: If the letter “zayin” (ז) is written and looks really nice, but it is too short – it may be passul (not fit). Actually written too short, it will look like a “yud” (י) Well – such a letter missing just a couple of millimetres (maybe even just one!) can disqualify a mezuzah completely! What about if a “beit” (ב) looks really nice – but on second examination it really looks like a “nun” (נ) – because it was written slightly shorter than it should be? Of course equally – what if the “nun” turns out to be written too large and looks like a “beit”?! What about if one was writing a “chaf” (כ) – and really, it looks very much like a “chaf”, but after examination, one sees a tiny angle at the bottom of the letter? This would turn it into a “beit” (ב)(which has the angle) and passul the mezuzah yet again! Of course, if one wrote a “beit”, but made it slightly too round at the bottom (and of course at the top too – but this is for another discussion), one would be turning the beit into a chaf! Here one would be invalidating a mezuzah with just a small extra (or lacking) dot that could make all the difference!
Of course – in calligraphy, one does not need to be concerned if the letter does not come out perfectly. When one writes STa”M however, each and every letter must come out perfect – at least according to the letter of the law (pun not intended…) There’s a lot to learn and as exciting as it is, the technique to writing takes much practise. In fact – hundreds of hours and writing thousands upon thousands of letters!
Much later I was to learn that writing the letters was still not good enough! In order to really get things right, I would have to learn how to space each word so that by the end of the line, each last letter would be directly underneath the previous last letters of the previous lines. These skills take hundreds of hours practise! Does the layperson think that magically every line is perfectly the same space as every other line?!
Meanwhile I wasn’t there yet and actually with all due respect to my young Sofer teacher, he did not inform me regarding the importance of the exact sizing of the letters and when or even if it would be permitted to stretch or constrict letters in order to get each line to line up with the previous one.
However, we did make a start! We began with baby steps. There was no klaf. No kulmus… All we had was the Mishnat Sofrim (the section of halachah dealing with the laws of the shapes of the letters), a pencil (actually two!) and a piece of paper!
We read through the laws for each letter, after which I was to try and write the letter as I understood it and as I could copy from a previous copy. Indeed, when one writes, one must copy from a previous text and one may not simply write from one’s memory. Here’s the thing… Anyone who tries to write a letter with its full thickness using just a pencil, will not succeed. Give it a try and you’ll understand what I mean! Take a pencil and simulate writing the letter “beit” (ב) as you see it in a Sefer Torah (mezuzah or tefillin etc.) You’ll see that your letter – while looking nice – just doesn’t look like the letter in the Torah. It’s far too thin! How do they get that beautiful thickness?!
When one writes with a kulmus (quill), the thickness of the ink as it exits the quill creates the beauty of the letter. Each letter has a fullness to it that one cannot obtain with a pencil or pen. Due to this, one has to learn how to write with a kulmus – because it is a completely different way of writing – than with a pen!
When one is learning, there is an easy way to simulate the way one writes with a kulmus. One takes two pencils, puts them together, one above the other (with one slightly higher than the other in order to get the exact appearance of the kulmus) and then binds them together this way with an elastic band! Now, what one has in one’s hands is a large kulmus without ink – but it works exactly the same.
One positions the two pencils in such a way as one would hold the kulmus, and one then begins to write the letters. Ahhh… not so easy any more! Now, one must battle with two flows of lead instead of one, while maintaining the shape of the letter as one turns the corners of the letter or creates the angles!
Indeed, this is the way to begin learning how to write, and this is the approach I was taught. One can also simulate this way of writing by using a colourful marker pen (which has a thickness and angle to it) used for highlighting important points in books. Because of its thickness, it also simulates the manner of the kulmus. I did not learn this way, though it works well too!
Thanks for tuning in to my latest update! Actually I am way ahead of these posts in my writing, but I really want to share with others my own path to becoming a Sofer, what I learned and how I did it and what I went through. I hope it will give others who want to become Sofrim the encouragement they need and also the knowledge beforehand of what they’ll be in for. I hope the tips I share along the way will help those wanting to pursue their lives as Sofrim in the future!
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