Term paper time :)

Some people expressed an interest in reading this paper. Here it is:

The Variegated Career of Exodus 13:16, being a summary of the antics real and perceived of a biblical verse from antiquity until the rabbinic period

Bear in mind that it’s a term paper, not a polished publication or anything, ok? But some of the content is pretty interesting, regardless.

Remind me not to do interviews, someone

I’m not going to link to the latest one, it’s just embarrassing. But.

I am the only soferet in Canada at the moment, yes, as far as I know. But only because the other Canadian sofrot are expatriate or dead. I am not proud of being the only soferet in Canada, okay? And I told him that and asked him very explicitly to mention the other Canadian sofrot. Zip.

Also, re understanding the text, yes I do understand it, as well as most Jews do. I should have said something gnomic like “No-one can fully understand the holy Torah,” but I was trying to explain that while most of the language is fairly straightforward, there are some words whose meaning is notoriously obscure and I wouldn’t claim to understand those.

And the bit about Torah-writing not being a religiously intense experience, what I said was that you can’t sustain a spiritual high for an entire year. There’s a difference. It’s not like Torah-writing is on the same level as stuffing envelopes.

Finally, baby-faced? Thumb-sucking? Thanks. I’m chubby and sometimes I bite my thumb if I’m thinking hard, yes, but apparently I’m coming over as infantile. Good to know.

I quit doing TV interviews a while back. I think I’m going to quit doing print interviews as well now.


Rachel 1 wants a soferet to do some repair on a Torah in Boston. So Rachel 1 asks her friend Rachel 2 to ask her soferet friend Rachel 3, in LA, whether she knows anyone in Boston. Rachel 3 asks me. I introduce Rachel 3 to Rachel 4, soferet in Boston. Rachel 4 writes to Rachels 1, 2, and 3, copying me in on the conversation. “Hi, Rachel, Rachel, and Rachel…”

I try to think of a way to bring Rachel 5, the Third Soferet Rachel, into the loop, but can’t quite swing it. And there is Rachel 6, the Fourth Soferet Rachel, but she is in Brazil, which is a long way from Boston.

This is officially Getting Silly. We have three Soferet Lindas, four Soferet Rachels…


This will be no surprise to anyone ever, but Montreal in winter is COLD. I went outside after a shower the other day, and my hair FROZE. With actual ice in it.

Unrelatedly, here is a picture of a mezuzah I wrote today:

Available here.

Call forwarding across borders!

Hooray! I’ve just sorted out call forwarding. If you’re in the USA, you can call my US number, 718 664 4296, and it will forward straight to me in Canada, at no extra cost to you.

If you’re in Canada, you can call 514-884-0199.

Pics of tefillin

Been taking some photos of tefillin for a piece about how tefillin are made, creatively entitled How Tefillin Are Made. Can’t figure out how to get this image into the text, but I like it, so I’m sharing it here. Tefillin shel rosh, four-headed shin side, gazing monumentally into distance

Or possibly like this.

A few questions (and answers)

Questions from an artist who writes blessings and creates art around them.

Q:“Am I allowed to draw over the letters, including Hashem’s name if you can see them underneath?”

A:How you treat Hashem’s name is a metaphor for how you treat Hashem. How literally Jews take metaphors roughly depends on where they fall on the denominational spectrum. Thus some (most) Jews would say that painting transparent watercolour over a Divine Name is fine if it contributes to making it beautiful, but a few would think it inappropriate. Without knowing you personally I cannot say how you should feel about all that.

Q: “If I make a mistake and the writing is not legible anymore, do I need to bury it?”

A:If a text is damaged but contains legible Divine Names it is proper to bury it because it is improper to dispose of Divine Names in any other way. If you made the Name itself illegible by making the mistake, such as spilling opaque paint onto it, opinions vary since the Name has already been destroyed, but you should probably go to the extra effort of burying it, to teach you to be more careful next time.

Q:“I use canvas, is that ok?”

A:Okay, look, there is an opinion that says you aren’t allowed to write verses from Tanakh on anything except kosher parchment, with anything except kosher ink, in anything less than book-length amounts. There is also an opinion that says someone who writes down blessings is like someone who burns the Torah (כותבי ברכות כשורפי תורהת Shabbat 115b). The vast, vast majority of Jews do not abide by these opinions.* I assume you are among them since you create blessing art on printed material. In that case, obviously it is fine to use canvas; canvas is a respectable art material. I wouldn’t suggest you go all “Piss Christ” because ugh, and I personally think it would be weird to write blessings on parchment made from pigskin, for instance, but basically there are no rules about this beyond “Don’t do it.”

* Even very frum ones. They too use prayerbooks, for instance. I might talk about that at some later time.

DRBR 29: In which Proper Decorum is Maintained

Floating around in one of the drawers, I came across a printed leaflet. Can’t remember exactly the purpose of the leaflet–they’re usually solicitations for money–but it featured many pictures of rabbinical trips to Palestine, some of such magnificence that the text was at once forgotten.

Here is how one should visit the Western Wall. Nonchalence and a properly shiny topper are in order.
Proper headgear should also be worn by all concerned when a brit milah is performed.

This, needless to say, is not a photograph of a rabbinical trip to Palestine. It’s an illumination on a thing listing “Baalei Berit,” members of the covenant; the content is somewhat less interesting than the costume details. Note also extremely long flowy but narrow tallitot with blue stripes, the piping on the trousers, and the high heels.

The thing in the middle that looks like a parasol, however, is just where the paint has flaked off. This may disappoint some of you, but you should not feel in any way dissuaded from having parasols at your own brit milah ceremonies.

Proper headgear for a baby is a sort of swaddling turban. Someone waving a knife at your nethers is no excuse for slacking off on standards.
Handlebar moustaches are encouraged.
When visiting the Pyramids, the morning-coat and top hat may be dispensed with. A suit and hat fit for the desert should be worn, provided a properly rabbinical demeanour is maintained. Also, make sure to have your photograph taken with a native* holding your camel, as this will make you look kingly and powerful.

* Satirical language

DRBR 28: How to behave in Shul

What we have today is a lithograph, Das Innere einer Sinagoge in Rom, or Interior of a Synagogue in Rome; click the image at right to see a larger version. It’s by the Swiss artist Hieronymus Hess, and it’s one of a pair, the Rare Book Room doesn’t have the other half of the pair, but Sothebys had some notes about it. The first half of the pair “portrays a Catholic practice of requiring Jews to listen to conversionist sermons which persisted until well into the 19th century” and they’re all staring into the distance as a preacher harangues them. But in our print they’re on home turf and enjoying themselves.

Hess is famous for social caricature and satire. This piece is certainly that. Open question whether you also want to label it antisemitica, Hess not being Jewish (but he hung out with Nazarenes, so he probably had Ideas about Who Is Doing Religion Right, and it isn’t the Jews, so he’s probably disapproving at the least). Christians quite often get on our case for being insufficiently decorous in shul.

So, we have a synagogue interior, that of the Tempio Italiano in Rome. I thought it very odd indeed that the frieze around the top of the shul has the text of “An eye for an eye;” Vivian Mann says many of the interior details are accurate, but she doesn’t mention this specifically, and it seems more likely to be an anti-semitic comment. We don’t usually put bloodthirsty, vengeful verses on our holy spaces.
It appears to be Torah-reading time; there’s what looks like a scroll on the bima, one of those very tall scrolls, and another scroll up at the front by the aron with a crown on.

Bear in mind that particular details of such a picture as this are a heavy mix of artist’s impression and fantasy. There’s no guarantee that the Italian Jews read with three persons on the bima. That said, I’m guessing the guy with the top hat gazing off into the distance is the person honoured with the aliyah, because he isn’t paying attention to the reading. The guy whose tallit covers his eyes is the one doing the reading, because it’s practically a rule that the reader has to be so muffled as to be inaudible. And the one with the tricorn hat is the gabbai, who’s actually the one paying attention.

I think this chap is taking snuff.
I do not know why this chap is climbing on the column, tallit flying, but possibly he wants to leap down and deliver retribution on that guy with the flowing white headgear. It doesn’t seem that his problem is being unable to see the activity on the bima.
These guys I am all too familiar with. They’re saying “Can’t they shut up with the damn leyning? We’re trying to learn Torah here!”
It’s unclear whether this child is responding to the din in the synagogue, or whether he’s an allegorical Jew, equally uninterested in his own religion as the one the kind Christians are trying to give him. Obviously all the Jews here are pretty uninterested in their own religion, but they don’t actually have their fingers in their actual ears. The other two kids in the foreground are a) sleeping b) climbing over the pew back to get away.
Here we have a very pious chap; you can tell he’s pious because he has mighty moustachios, whereas most of the people in the shul have no beards. And right behind him, juxtaposed, is a big fat guy (Jews are greedy) making a hand-signal which I read as “money” but I might be wrong. Perhaps the book he’s holding is an account book; perhaps it’s the Bible and it’s showing how Jews just twist the Holy Law to get money out of it.
The Tablets of the Law above the ark are divided the Christian way, four and six, not the Jewish way of five and five, the way they actually were in that shul (Evelyn Cohen, Vivian Mann, Gardens and Ghettos, p. 255). This points to the picture being a Christian allegory, and our guy here would be an allusion to the moneychangers in the Temple.

Which I could go on about at some length, but this post is long enough already. Suffice it to say that with the amount of administration the Temple was doing, there’s nothing wrong with having moneychangers there, and it’s only a big deal if you correlate piety with poverty. Which some Jews do and some Christians do, and some Jews don’t and some Christians certainly don’t (see various church schisms throughout the history of the church). But it’s used to show that Jews are venial and given to profaning the holy with their everlasting grubbing for money, which is not nice.

I shall leave you with the impressions of another Christian, Samuel Pepys the diarist, upon visiting the synagogue, not witting that it was Simchat Torah:

But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.

Next time, we shall see some examples of Proper Decorum, also featuring a camel.

From Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s has gigantic Judaica auctions every so often, and they often put the items on public display right before the auction. If you time your visit right, it’s almost as good as a museum (except that unlike a museum, it’s only open for three days, and then it’s over). Last time I was there, I saw these tops for Torah rollers.

(You get how these work, yes? They go on top of things like broom handles, to which are attached the Torah.)