Thursday, April 30, 2009

Celebrate the Long Chain of Tradition for Women Torah Scribes, Don't Hide It!


Someone is out there consistently claiming in article after article to be the first female Torah scribe in history, when she knows she isn't.

She knows me, Shoshana Gugenheim, R' Linda Motzkin, Nava Levine-Coren - all women who learned sofrut before her. And yet she makes this claim.

And it's not only that I'm annoyed with my life's work being obscured by an untruth, it's also that I wasn't the first soferet either - it's those women from hundreds of years ago who deserve the credit! Not me and not her. Jewish women should be grateful that there is a long chain of tradition for our acting as klei qodesh - holy vessels - serving as scribes for our communities.

"Service" being the operative word here.

So I wrote a letter to the Editor of The Jewish Week about today's article, the original Jewish Week article can be read here:

Shalom to you, Mr Rosenblatt -

I'd like to comment on April 30th's "36 under 36" article.

Jen Taylor Friedman is not "the first woman in history to adopt the title of soferet, female Torah scribe", as Randi Sherman writes. Aside from myself earning Orthodox certification as a female Torah scribe in 2003
click here,
something Friedman cannot claim, there have been many women who preceeded me in sofrut history as well
click here

R' Ya'aqov Ha-Levi Sapir, in his 1864 book "Even Sapir", mentions a Torah scroll written by a Yemenite soferet named Miriam Benayahu, from the famous Benayah family of scribes. A fragment of this scroll now rests in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Yehudah Asher Rotah's writing, Devarim She-bichtav, speaks of a specific case of a woman who wrote a Sefer Torah generations ago.

There is even a woman called Ha-soferet who appears in the books of Ezra and Nechemiyah - that woman, or one of my predecessors, deserves the credit which Friedman is claiming.

I understand that not being "first" doesn't make much news, as I had little success in correcting the media when they also named me the first soferet in history. However, the truth must stand.

As Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 1:9 states: "...there is nothing new under the sun." So it is also for female Torah scribes. We should be happy that a long tradition exists for us.

Kol tuv,
Soferet Avielah Barclay

Copyright © A. Barclay
Cross-posted on Facebook

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Parshat Qedoshim: Intimate Love


This week's Parsha begins with G@d urging us to be holy in Sefer Va-yiqra/Leviticus 19:1-2:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם--קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ: כִּי קָדוֹשׁ, אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

Va-y’dabeyr Y_H_V_H el-Moshe Leymor: Dabeyr el-kol-adat b’nai-Yisra’el v’amarta aleyhem qedoshim tih’yu ki qadosh ani Ad@nai Eloqeykhem.

Which roughly translates (in my world) as: "And Y_H_V_H spoke to Moshe, saying: Speak to the entire community of the Children of Israel, & say to them: “Holy are you to be, for holy am I, Y_H_V_H, your G@d!”

You'll notice it's in the imperative...

Do you know the gematria of the word Qedoshim?
(ק) Quf = 100
(ד) Dalet = 4
(ש) Shin = 300
(י) Yud = 10
(מ) Mem = 40
equals a total of 454*

454 is the same gematria as “chotam” (feminine is Chotemet - חוֹתָם, חוֹתֶמֶת), meaning seal, signet, stamp, mark, imprint.

In Shir HaShirim/Song of Songs 8:6, where the voice of the woman insists to her lover:

...שִׂימֵנִי כַחוֹתָם עַל-לִבֶּךָ

Simeni kachotam al libekha…

"Stamp me like a seal in your heart …”

(siman = sign, mark, indication, also: to take shape, to be denoted, to stand out = סִימָן)

What do we call the wedding ceremony in Hebrew?

What does the Chatan, the groom, say to his Kallah, his bride, under the chupah, to make them married?
Harey et mequdeshet li, b’taba’at zo…

He says with this ring, you are consecrated to me – you are imprinted on me – you are holy to me!

The ring is the siman, the sign of the marriage and you know what? The word “siman” begins with the letter Samekh (ס)…which is shaped like a ring!

And the word “to me/mine”, li, is so powerful! In Sefer Sh'mot parshat Yitro/Exodus 19:5 it says -

וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי--וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.

Ve-atah im-shamo'a tish'mu b'qoli ush'martem et-b'riti vih'yitem li segulah mikal-ha'amim ki-li kal-ha'aretz.

"So now, if you will hearken, yes, hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a special-treasure from among all peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine:"

The place in the Torah where G@D says to us, "...vih'yitem li segulah..." - " shall be to Me a special-treasure..." - the Lamed and the Yud of "li" - "to Me", "for Me", "Mine" are occasionally written joined. This is extremely rare, as the scribes disagree on this practice.

Our tradition tells us that these two letters in this word are joined at this point in the Torah to show the closeness and intimacy that G@D wishes to share with us. Because if ANY other letters have negiyah (are touching) in a Sefer Torah, that entire Torah is pasul - unfit for use. But here?

You know what else the shoresh/root of Ch-T-M, chotam, means? To COMPLETE! This is the definition of holiness.

How close, intimate and exclusive these lovers must be to truly become one, to authentically experience marriage on every possible level. Just as the lover in the Shir passionately invites, “dedicate your Self to me”, so does G@d passionately invite us, “Dedicate your SELF to me.”

Same as the closeness we can achieve with G@d, only through love, and surrender of the ego. This is the only way to fully cleave our souls into one. Uniting with G@d through uniting with your spouse.
Becoming One with The ONE.

Just as spouses have a unique opportunity to unify with each other, so do we have the unique opportunity to unify with G@d.

Shabbat Shalom.

* Of the several methods traditionally used to calculate gematria, I chose Mispar Hechrachi, the normative or absolute numerical value of the twenty-two Sacred letters for the purposes of this article.

Based on article originally published May 2005 at Netivat Sofrut: Diary of a Soferet
Subsequently published on Facebook
Copyright A. Barclay

Friday, April 24, 2009

Parshat Tazri'a-Metzora: the Enlarged Letter Gimel


In this week's Torah portion, Tazri'a, Va-yiqra/Leviticus 12:1-15:33, we find an enlarged letter. The word "ve-hitgalach" (וְהִתְגַּלָּח), "and he'll shave himself", sports a letter Gimel double the size of its neighbours:

Va-yiqra/Leviticus 13:33
וְהִתְגַּלָּח--וְאֶת-הַנֶּתֶק, לֹא יְגַלֵּחַ; וְהִסְגִּיר הַכֹּהֵן אֶת-הַנֶּתֶק שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, שֵׁנִית.

Ve-hitgalach ve-et ha-neteq, lo yegaley'ach; ve-his'gir ha-koheyn et ha-neteq shiv'at yamim, sheynit.

"Then he shall be shaved, but he won't shave the scall; and the priest shall seclude the scall-bearer seven days more."

So why is this Gimel enlarged? And why in the word "shave"? Various scribal opinions claim it reminds us that this shaving ritual is different in three - Gimel has the numeric value of 3 - ways from other kinds of shavings.

1) This ritual shaving can be done by anyone, not just a kohen, even though a kohen must examine the patient and decide the judgement of the affliction and how to proceed.

2) The shaving can be done not just with a razor, but other devices as is usual.

3) In this case, even a Nazir (who is forbidden to shave) must do so.

A little Midrash: the letter Gimel spans the gap between two individual entities or forces and blends them into one. The word "gamla", found in Talmud tractate Mo'ed Qatan 6b, means a "bridge which unites two areas" and has the same root as Gimel.

According to Kabbalistic writings, Gimal comes to us in the shape of a letter Vav connected to a letter Yud. The Vav, whose name means "hook", makes a bridge or "gamla", between the Divine and the humble Yud, whose name means "hand". So the flow of blessing and wisdom in this ritual comes through the chute into the waiting hand of the receiver.

Kabbalah also teaches us that the number three/letter Gimel symbolizes the world of tiqun (perfection, repair, correction, improvement, rehabilitation, refinement). A base of two legs is not stable, but a third leg provides a firmer foundation.

"Gamal" (גָּמַל), means to detoxify or to ripen. It also means "to wean", and "gamol", from the same root, means "to nourish until completely ripe/mature". It is from here we get the Upshernish, a Yiddish name for the first hair cut a Jewish boy receives, after he turns three years old. The age of three is a time of transition in spiritual consciousness, hence we begin educating our children at this tie, leave the boys' hair uncut until then, we encourage girls to light Shabbat and Yom Tov candles from this age, and we do not harvest the produce of young trees until that time, and only then to bring the produce to G@d at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem (and may it be so again bimheyra beyameinu - speedily in our days!).

Shabbat sh'leymut.

Cross-posted on Facebook
Copyright A. Barclay
Many thanks to my dear husband, Marc, who contributed informally to this article :)

Monday, April 06, 2009

Parshat Sh'mini - Enlarged Letters Lamed and Vav


This week's parshat Sh'mini may contain two enlarged letters, depending on whether or not you are using a Chasidic Sefer Torah.

The first can be found in Va-yiqra/Leviticus 11:30 – the enlarged letter Lamed in ve-ha-Leta'ah, "lizard":

וְהָאֲנָקָה וְהַכֹּחַ, וְהַלְּטָאָה; וְהַחֹמֶט, וְהַתִּנְשָׁמֶת

Ve-ha-awnaqah, ve-ha-ko'ach, ve-ha-leta'ah; ve-ha-chomet, ve-ha-tin'shamet.

…and the gecko, and the land-crocodile, and the lizard, and the sand-lizard, and the chameleon.

This large Lamed was not approved by "Midrash Rabbah Aqim" (a 3rd century CE text of standardized accepted scribal oddities), but was added after by some Kabbalist rabbis. More on this later...


One of my fave odd letters in the Sefer Torah:

Parshat Sh'mini/Sefer Va-yiqra (Leviticus) 11:42 – large Vav in the word gachOn, belly.

כֹּל הוֹלֵךְ עַל-גָּחוֹן וְכֹל הוֹלֵךְ עַל-אַרְבַּע, עַד כָּל-מַרְבֵּה רַגְלַיִם, לְכָל-הַשֶּׁרֶץ, הַשֹּׁרֵץ עַל-הָאָרֶץ--לֹא תֹאכְלוּם, כִּי-שֶׁקֶץ הֵם.

Kol holeykh al-gachon ve-khol holeykh al-arba ad kal-marbeyh rag'layim l'khal-ha-sheretz ha-shoreytz al-ha-aretz lo tokh'lum ki-sheqetz heym:

"Anything going about on its belly, anything going about on all fours, up to anything with many legs, among all swarming-creatures that swarm upon the earth: you are not to eat them, for they are detestable-things!:"

Masekhet Sof'rim 9:2 refers to this letter Vav as being "zaquf" (זָקוּף) - erect, straight, vertical, steep or upright. Bi'urey Sofrim interprets this to mean it's an enlarged Vav, but not so much that it could be mistaken for a Nun Sofit. The practice my sofirm taught me when writing this special letter was in keeping with Or Torah, to make the rosh, head, of the Vav entirely above the sirtut (scored guideline – שָׂרַט sawrat means "to scratch"), so the reader will be able to chant this verse with ease.

There is a Midrashic idea that this Vav is written large because it's the middle letter of the Torah, and therefore it has been written large like this since after the 3rd century, CE.
Vav, the hook. The uniter. The letter which, according to TaNa"KH Yeho'ash occurs in the Torah 30,509 times.

Vav has the numerical value of 6. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew ben Betzalel, teaches us that the number six indicates physical completion: The first letter Vav in the Torah begins the sixth word: ve-et / ואת. So Creation, with our world as we know it built to exist for six millenia, is connected to the number six as our world was finished in six days and as each individual object has six sides: above, below, right, left, front and back.

Vav is a conjunction, a link. A device through which our souls can connect with the Divine, and the Divine can connect to us. He comes to us in the shape of a hook, which is the function he fulfills and what his name means ("Waw" in Aramaic). The presence of Vav at the beginning of a verse in the Torah indicates continuity with the previous text ("Ve-eyleh sh'mot b'nai Yisra'el..." - "And these are the names of the children of Israel..."). Vav's absence means we are beginning a new subject. Vav has the power to unite anything.

R' Menachem Mendel Kasher says that according to Ha-Rav Yitzchok Yosef Zilber, if you count all of the miniscules & majuscules in a standard Torah scroll, you'd get 16 of them (not counting the two backwards Nunim in Sefer Be-midbar/Numbers 10:35-36). Of these, the middle one is this Vav of gachOn. Even when you count all the odd letters in a Kabbalist Sefer Torah, which has additional letter oddities according to R' Yosef Tov Elem, there are a total of 32 letters & and the 16th is this same Vav.

So this letter Vav in "gachon" has the very special job of uniting the two halves of the Torah. The first half AND the second half.

Interesting to note that the first half of the word "gachon" is "gach", גָּח, which means to burst out. This Vav is stopping that explosion.

We carried G@d with us in the Mishkan as we wandered through the desert. "Mishkan" – מִשְׁכָּן – comes from the same root as שְׁכִינָה – "Shekhinah", a.k.a G@d's intimate, sheltering, Feminine Presence. The Divine Spirit. That Interior Being.

The silver hooks from which the Mishkan's enclosing curtains, or - יְרִיעָה - yiri'ot, hung from in Sh'mot/Exodus 27:10 were called Vavs. The Vavs connected the yiri'ot to their posts, or amudim - עַמּוּד.

וְעַמֻּדָיו עֶשְׂרִים, וְאַדְנֵיהֶם עֶשְׂרִים נְחֹשֶׁת; וָוֵי הָעַמֻּדִים וַחֲשֻׁקֵיהֶם, כָּסֶף

Ve-amudav esrim, ve-ad'neyhem esrim nechoshet; vavei ha-amudim va-chashuqeyhem kasef

And there shall be twenty posts, and their sockets twenty of brass/bronze; the hooks of the posts and their fastenings, silver.

Even today, in sofrut the sheets of q'laf (parchment) of a Sefer Torah are known as yiri'ot, the columns of text as amudim. Since the mid-1800's a tradition has arisen to write Sifrei Torah "Vavei Ha-Amudim", beginning each amud with a Vav, "hooking" each of these veils of Torah over their supports so we can continue to carry G@d with us. Our Torahs offering a Place for the Presence.

As we walk our journeys as individuals & as a People, may we all learn from this holy letter how to hook ourselves to the most deeply intimate inside of G@d.

Based on article originally published as "So Close" April 2006 at Radical Torah
Also based on article originally published as "A Still, Small Voice...From MySpace" September 2006 at Netivat Sofrut
Cross-posted on Facebook
Copyright A. Barclay

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Shabbat Ha-Gadol - The Small Letter Mem in Parshat Tzav


Parshat Tzav Sefer Va-Yiqra/Leviticus 6:2 reads:

צַו אֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה: הִוא הָעֹלָה עַל מוֹקְדָה עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה, עַד-הַבֹּקֶר, וְאֵשׁ הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, תּוּקַד בּוֹ.

Tzav et-Aharon v’et-banav leymod zot Torah ha’olah hi ha’olah al moqdah al-hamizbey’ach kal-halailah ad-haboqer v’eysh hamizbey’ach tuqad bo:

“Command Aharon and his sons, saying: This is the instruction for the offering-up - that is what rises up on the firewood on the altar all night, until daybreak, while the fire of the altar is kept blazing on it:”

In this pasuq/verse, the Torah tells us the sacrifice should remain on the altar all night. The word for firewood (or furnace), moqdah (מוֹקְדָה), is written in the Torah beginning with a small letter Mem.

This Mem teaches us that the fervor we must cultivate is not the open, flaming kind, but the white heat of the centre of the brand. The centre of the Earth.

Chasidut begs the question: “When does a person’s Torah study rise (olah- עֹלָה - to ascend or be offered up), to Heaven?
Answer: When it “burns upon the fire” - when the Torah is studied with a fiery enthusiasm.

However, the Mem of the word moqdah, is written smaller than the other letters. This teaches that the main part of the “flame” should remain within, and not draw attention to itself. ((Otzar Chayim))

Some people like to show off – they make sure they act very pious in front of others, to get attention, respect…whatever they are seeking from the public. This is false zeal, which isn’t about G@d, it’s about the ego – which means there is no service at all, these acts being completely hollow.

The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), said,

“Do mitzvot in private & aveyras (sins) in public. Why? It‘s easy for a person to exhibit religious observance in public. Most people hide when sinning, because of shame. Solution? Sin in front of friends - it will reduce the number of sins. Serve G@d sincerely, and to insure sincerity, just to do it between yourself and G-d.”

He also said that emulating the small Mem teaches us to behave with intensely religious enthusiasm while fulfilling a Divine command. The kohanim (priests) ensuring the fire on the altar remained burning all night teaches us that concerted, firey focus on the One will see us through the darkest of times. and concealing it within us modestly so that the full extent of our love for the Creator is known only to us and the Holy One.

Just as a married couple does not display their whole relationship for all to see, so the most genuinely passionate firey service of Ha-Shem must be a focused effort. The Mem is small because it has been concentrated, like a diamond. Like the heart.

There also may be a hint that this Mem is written small because it burned upon the small, gold altar in the Temple. That altar represents the human heart.
Don’t forget that under the charcoal and under the ash there is always a coal - and that coal burns hotter but more quietly that a bonfire. Sometimes it’s appropriate to serve G@d like a bonfire, but most often like a coal. This small Mem is the coal.

Another interpretation of this small Mem is a warning to Ba’alei Teshuvah: Jews who return to Judaism often do so to an extreme, embracing the most stringent practices and limited views of Torah extrapolation. If you do your Jewishness like the small, constant coal rather than like a consuming, blazing fury, your personal altar will never be left bare, your offerings to G@d having been quickly burned up. Spent. Done.

The Kotzker Rebbe also teaches us that the midah (מִדָּה - character trait) of temimut (תְּמִימוּת - serving G@d in honest simplicity) must be total. At the same time, the midah of hisla’havut (שַׁלְהֶבֶות - zealotry to which the burning fire hints) must be contained. You may spiritually burn only inside, keeping it between you and G@d.

Further to this, the Gemara in Shabbat 30b, which tells us how Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rebbe Elazar, after emerging from the cave where they had hidden themselves from the Roman occupiers for twelve years, instantly incinerated everything they laid eyes on, judging the people too harshly. The Gemara goes on to say how G@d instructed them to go back to their cave until they had learned how to restrain their hisla’havut and keep it to themselves.

Oznayim la-Torah by Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin says this letter Mem is written small because the greater one is, the more one must humble oneself. ((Rashi’s Berachot 34b sv “Kohen Gadol”))

As my true friend Michal Mivasair says, “The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”
Shabbat Ha-Gadol Shalom :)

Photo to follow...
Further reading:
R’ Chayim David HaLevy, Asei Lecha Rav (responsa)
R’ Yitzchak Ginsburg...anything
RaMaK, Sefer Pardes Rimonim

Based on article originally published April 2006 as "Better Late Than Never?" at HREF="">Radical Torah
Cross-posted on HREF="
Copyright A. Barclay