JOFA conference – on writing. Part 2

Session blurb: If one writes a sefer Torah, say the Sages, it is as if he had himself received it on Mount Sinai. How can the simple act of writing take someone to such heights? By transcribing small amounts of text, we will explore how writing Torah can be experientially very different from reading or learning or leyning; how the pace of transcription can give one fascinatingly different perspectives on the text, and how the act of transcription can cause one to process it differently.

I started with a bit of me-background – what I do, how I learned to do it, where I’m holding professionally, that sort of thing. Why, in an orthodox framework, what I do is a problem. The session blurb said “This session will not include halakhic discussion,” because that wasn’t what I was interested in talking about. There’s only so much time you can spend on sources that basically say “No…uh, no” and I’m not into spending time that way, at present.

So I asked the group (fifteen or so people, counting one who left halfway because she’d got the Quills workshop mixed up with the Quilting workshop) who’d read Torah the previous day. Sure enough, someone had, so I passed over a tikkun sheet and had her read a few verses, to make the point: this is what these verses sound like when we read them in shul.

Then I asked if anyone had heard a dvar Torah this week, with the idea of getting people to focus on another way of interacting with the text, that of using it as a starting-point for an idea or a halakha.

I talked a bit about how the Sages mandate writing, rather than inheriting or buying, a sefer Torah, and about how they say of one who writes an entire Torah that it is as if he’d himself received it at Sinai. I asked people to think about how writing a text is different than reading or, say, printing – handwritten envelopes and thank-you cards featured, and I brought up writing as a learning technique also, in its role as a way of getting information into your brain.

Then we did a spot of practical calligraphy. I most particularly didn’t want this to be a calligraphy workshop; I wanted people to experience writing at the Torah-scribe pace of three or four words per minute and to focus themselves within that. So I gave a quick demonstration of how one might write words in ordinary handwriting and then adorn them with colour, or alternatively how one can trace letters from a tracing sheet. Both of these don’t require much in the way of calligraphic expertise, but they entail about as much engaging with the letters and words as more practiced calligraphy does. I thought this would be the best way of simulating the experience I was after.

I gave out tikkun sheets from the parsha the Jews had read the previous day – most people there, if they hadn’t heard it the previous day, had heard it or read it at some time or another, I figured, and I wanted the contrast fresh in people’s minds as far as possible. Then I just had everyone write what was in front of them for a good twenty minutes.

This is the bit where you can tell if it’s working or not. If people are engaged, you can tell, and if they’re bored, that infects the others and everything falls apart. Happily, people seemed engaged, and got into it.

I picked everyone up, when I judged we’d had time enough, and asked people to compare their experiences of writing to their experiences of reading or otherwise engaging with the text. Which they did, most satisfactorily – it was very interesting.

I could do another post on what people said, but this’d be more interesting if you went away and did it yourselves, and came back and commented. Don’t you think?


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